On this episode of the Irish History Show we were joined by Anne Chambers to discuss her book, The Great Leviathan, The life of Howe Peter Browne, 2nd Marquess of Sligo, 1788 – 1845.
His story moves from Westport House in county Mayo to Eton, into the staid family world of King George III at Windsor Castle; through wild student days at Cambridge, on to Regency London and the scandalous world of celebrity, gambling clubs, bawd houses and theatres, to the sophisticated salons of Paris. Horse racing at Newmarket and the Curragh (he was a founder member of the Irish Turf Club) treasure-seeking with his college friend Lord Byron in Greece and Turkey, some of his ‘finds’ are on view in the British museum. A sensational trial at the Old Bailey in 1812 led to his imprisonment in Newgate goal. There is a hint of double-espionage about his time at the court of Joachim Murat, King of Naples and with Napoleon Bonaparte on the island of Elba, while his sleuthing in Italy on behalf of the ‘prince of pleasure’ George IV, (godfather to his eldest son) on the King’s equally debauched consort, Caroline, is in the realm of high comedy.
A passionate advocate of Catholic Emancipation, multi-denominational education
and reform of the nefarious legal system, he did his best to alleviate the desperate circumstances of his numerous tenants, aggravated by a rapid rise in population and by the ‘curse of sub-division’. He established manufacturing outlets in Westport as an alternative to the over dependence on land and encouraged trade, mining, fishing
and kelp harvesting. As famine engulfed the west in 1831 he imported food, built a hospital and raised money for relief and public works.
In 1834 Sligo was appointed Governor General of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands. As owner of two plantations, Kelly’s and Cocoa Walk, which he inherited from his grandmother, Elizabeth Kelly, daughter of Galway-born Denis Kelly, former Chief Justice of Jamaica, the planters expected the new governor to be on their side.
Sligo’s stated objective on his arrival on the island ‘to establish a social system absolved forever from the reproach of slavery’ however, set them on a bitter collision course.
Sligo found slavery personally abhorrent. From the flogging of field workers with the dreaded cart-whip, branding with hot iron, to the whipping of female slaves, ‘I call on you to put an end to conduct so repugnant to humanity’ he ordered the Jamaican House of Assembly.
To restrain the worse excesses he personally monitored the activities of the sixty special magistrates appointed to investigate charges of brutality in the 900 plantations throughout the island. Much to the derision of their masters ‘he [Sligo] gave a patient hearing to the poorest Negro who might carry his grievance to Government House’.
He advocated the building of schools for the black population, two of which he built at his own cost on his property. He was the first plantation owner to initiate a wage system for black workers and later, after emancipation in 1838, to divide his lands into farms leased to the former slaves.
The Planter-dominated Assembly accused Sligo of ‘interpreting the law in favour of the negro’ and, as he wrote, ‘set out to make Jamaica too hot to hold me.’ They withdrew his salary and started a campaign of vilification against him in the Jamaican and British press which, backed by powerful vested commercial interests, resulted in his removal from office in September 1836.