The only child and heir of John Denis, 1 st Marquess of Sligo, Westport House estate, Co Mayo and his wife Louisa, daughter and co-heiress of Admiral
The only child and heir of John Denis, 1 st Marquess of Sligo, Westport House estate, Co Mayo and his wife Louisa, daughter and co-heiress of Admiral Richard Howe, British naval hero, victor of the ‘Glorious First of June’ and counsellor to King George III, Howe Peter Browne was reared in a climate of wealth and privilege.
Early Years: A Thrill Seeker With an Ambition for More
At 21 he inherited five titles in the peerage, a 200,000-acre estate in the West of Ireland and valuable plantations in Jamaica. Educated at Eton and Cambridge, his early years conformed to the popular image of a ‘regency buck’ in the notorious world of the Prince Regent at Holland House, Brighton and Newmarket, the gambling houses, bawd houses and theatres of London, to the fashionable salons of Paris, in the company of such profligates as Thomas de Quincey, Lord Byron, John Cam Hobhouse and Scrope Davies. A patron of pugilists, dancers, courtesans, artists and jockeys, Sligo later became a successful horse breeder and was a founder member and steward of the Irish Turf Club.
In 1810, at the height of the Napoleonic War , joining the radical Lady Hester Stanhope and her lover, Michael (Lavallette) Bruce, in Gibraltar, Sligo set out on the mandatory ‘grand tour’. Chartering a ship in Malta to go ‘treasure-seeking’ in Greece, en route he kidnapped some navy seamen from a British warship. Linking up with Byron the two friends shared many escapades in Greece and journeyed together from Athens to Corinth. Sligo excavated at the Acropolis and at Mycenae where he located the famous columns to the Treasury of Atreus (now on view in the British Museum) before moving on to Turkey.
The famous entrance to the Treasury of Atreus. ( Iraklis Milas / Adobe stock)
Despite his grandfather’s status as a national maritime hero, on his return to London, Sligo was indicted by the British Admiralty. In a ‘celebrity’ trial in December 1812 at the Old Bailey, he was found guilty of “unlawfully receiving on board his ship at Malta…seamen in the King’s service,” fined and imprisoned for four months in Newgate prison. On his release, in true Gilbert and Sullivan mode, he found that his trial judge had, as Byron recorded, “passed sentence of matrimony” on his mother, the widowed Marchioness of Sligo.
Following a tour of the German states and to the battlefield at Leipzig, scene of one of the greatest slaughters of the Napoleonic Wars, Sligo journeyed to the island of Elba. There, courtesy of Fanny Dillon, whose family originated from County Mayo and who was married to Henri-Gatien Bertrand, Napoleon’s loyal marshal and confidante, he was accorded a private audience with the former emperor. His letters home from Italy “giving a long account of Napoleon” were intercepted by the British authorities, however, and never reached their destination.
Depiction of the Battle of Leipzig. (Alexander Sauerweid / Public domain )
A Royal Sleuth
From Elba, Sligo travelled to Florence where he became involved in the long-going domestic controversy between his friend the Prince Regent and his estranged wife, Princess Caroline. By 1814 the royal marriage had descended into farce; both equally scandalous partners to the union providing every gossipmonger and caricaturist in Britain with an unending vein of salacious speculation.
Determined to find evidence of his wife’s adultery and initiate divorce proceedings against her, the Prince accepted Sligo’s offer to act as sleuth on the princess’s amorous perambulations around Italy. “When I have something secret to say to you…I will write in lemon juice…” Sligo advised his royal friend.
From Rome to Naples, Sligo followed in the princess’s wake to Naples. Then ruled by Napoleon’s sister Queen Caroline and her husband, Joachim Murat, the Kingdom of Naples became Sligo’s favorite location. His cheerful, considerate and easy-going manner endeared him to the royal couple and their children. During his year-long stay in Naples he became the favored guest at the palace “being always placed at the queen’s side” at official engagements, while King Murat made Sligo a gift of an exquisite ivory and gold-enameled snuff box, inlaid with diamonds, which is now part of the Napoleon Collection in Paris.
Portraits of King Joaquim Murat (right) (François Gérard / Public domain ) and Queen Caroline and her daughter (left), who spent time with the 2 nd Marquess of Sligo. (Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun / Public domain )
Following Napoleon’s escape from Elba in February 1815 and the resumption of the war, Sligo left Naples for home, carrying letters from Queen Caroline to her sister, Elisa, Grand Duchess of Tuscany and to Napoleon’s mother, Madame Mere, evidence of the tantalizing but dangerous role he played in the murky political machinations of the time that swirled around Napoleon’s escape from Elba and his return to France.
On his marriage in 1816 to Catherine de Burgh, daughter of the Earl of Clanricarde by whom he had fourteen children, Sligo eventually settled down to the responsibilities of his estate in the west of Ireland. A passionate advocate of Catholic Emancipation, multi-denominational education (and resisted by both Catholic and Protestant authorities) as well as reform of the nefarious legal system then pertaining, he tried his best to alleviate the desperate circumstances of his numerous tenants, aggravated by a rapidly rising population, the ‘curse’ of subdivision and the absence of any outlets of alternative employment.
Westport House estate in County Mayo, which was once owned by Howe Peter Browne, 2 nd Marquess of Sligo. (David Stanley / CC BY 2.0 )
With his grandfather’s traditional linen industry by then devastated by British imposed tariffs, he established a cotton and corduroy factory in Westport in order, as he wrote, “to benefit this country by introducing such manufactures into it as will give employment to the people…unless I do it to show the way nobody will follow.” His cotton sample book is on view today in Westport House. He encouraged the development of kelp harvesting and fishing and revitalized mining development in the area. He promoted trade and manufacturing in the town and port of Westport and in 1825 influenced the establishment of the first bank there.
As famine engulfed the west of Ireland in 1831, at his own expense, he imported cargos of grain and potatoes, built a hospital and dispensary to care for the sick and raised money in London for relief and additional public works. His efforts elicited the praise of Daniel O’Connell in the House of Commons: “I do not think, Sir, the landlords of Ireland ever did their duty towards their tenants. If they did what Lord Sligo is doing now, the country would not be reduced into a vast lazar house.”
An Irish peasant family discovering the blight of their store during the Great Potato Famine. (Daniel MacDonald / Public domain )
Jamaica: A Governor That Went Against the Status Quo
On his appointment as Governor General of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands in 1834, Sligo’s liberal and improving endeavors were transferred across the Atlantic to take on the brutal system of slavery. While the importation of slaves from Africa was abolished in 1807, slavery the cornerstone of sugar production and profit in the British West Indies, continued. Missionaries conveyed the horrors of the slavery system to the British public and in 1833, the government finally passed an Emancipation Act.
The Act, however, did not give immediate freedom to the slaves, who merely became ‘apprenticed’ to their masters for a further 4 years. Described as “slavery under another name” by abolitionists, the controversial ‘apprenticeship system’, which Sligo was appointed to implement was misunderstood by the slaves and resisted both by the Jamaican plantocracy and by powerful commercial vested interests in Britain.
The 2 nd Marquess of Sligo went against the status quo when it came to Slavery in Jamaica. Pictured: a depiction of slavery in what could be Jamaica. (David Livingstone / Public domain )
As owner of two plantations on the island, which he inherited from his grandmother, Elizabeth Kelly, heiress of Denis Kelly from county Galway, former Chief Justice of Jamaica, the planters expected Sligo to be on their side. His objective, however, as he informed them on his arrival, to establish “a social system absolved forever from the reproach of Slavery,” set them on a bitter collision course.
Sligo found the savagery of slavery personally abhorrent. From the flogging of field workers with cart whips, branding with hot iron, to whipping of female slaves, the mantra “a strip on the shoulder makes a furrow in the land” governed every aspect of the slave’s life. “The cruelties are past all idea,” Sligo told the Jamaican Assembly. “I call on you to put an end to conduct so repugnant to humanity.”
To counteract the worst excesses, he maintained personal contact and control over the 60 Special Magistrates appointed to oversee the implementation of the new apprenticeship system in 900 plantations throughout the island. Much to the derision and indignation of their masters, and unprecedented in the colonies, Sligo “gave a patient hearing to the poorest Negro which might carry his grievance to Government House” and advocated the building of schools for the black population, that they might extract maximum benefit from their future freedom, 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 on his estates and later, after emancipation, to divide his lands into numerous farms to lease to the former slaves.
The White River in modern day St Ann, Jamaica. ( LBSimms Photography / Adobe stock)
Reform of the Legal System and Removal From Office
As he had done in Ireland Sligo set out to reform the Jamaican legal system. In truth, he wrote,
“there is no justice in the general local institutions of
Jamaica because there is no public opinion to which an appeal
can be made. Slavery has divided society into two classes: to
the one it has given power but to the other it has not extended
protection. One of the classes is above opinion and the other is
below it; neither are therefore under its influence.”
His efforts on behalf of the black population were bitterly opposed by the planter-dominated assembly, who accused him of “interpreting the laws in favor of the negro” and who, as Sligo noted “set out to make Jamaica too hot to hold me.” They withdrew his salary and commenced a campaign of vilification against him in the Jamaican and British press which resulted in his eventual removal from office in September 1836.
To the Negro population in Jamaica, however, Sligo was their champion and protector. In an unprecedented gesture they presented him with a magnificent silver candelabrum inscribed:
“In grateful remembrance they entertain of his unremitting efforts
to relieve their suffering and to redress their wrongs during his
just and enlightened administration of the Government of
An Honored Emancipator of Slaves
On his return, Sligo became a determined and outspoken campaigner for full and immediate emancipation.
“It is treason in Jamaica to talk of a Negro as a freeman.
The black and colored population are viewed by the white
inhabitants as little more than semi-human, for the most part a
kind of intermediate race, possessing indeed the form of man, but
none of his finer attributes.”
One of his anti-slavery pamphlets, Jamaica Under the Apprenticeship System, was debated in the British parliament and influenced the ‘Great Debate’ on emancipation in February 1838. On 22 March 1838 being, as he noted, “well aware that it would put an end to the [slavery] system,” Sligo publicly announced in the House of Lords that, regardless of the outcome of the British government’s deliberations, he would free all apprentices on his own estates in Jamaica on 1 August 1838.
“I am confident that no person who is acquainted with the state
of the West Indian colonies and at the same time uninfected with
colonial prejudices will deny that the time is now come when it is
important to effect a final arrangement of this question.”
His public pronouncement left the British government with no alternative but to implement full emancipation for all on the same date.
Lord Sligo earned an honored place in the history of Jamaica, where he is acknowledged as ‘Champion of the Slaves’ and where the town of Sligoville, the first free slave village in the world, still bears his name. Together with Wilberforce and Buxton, leaders of the anti-slavery movement, his name was honored on an emancipation memorial medal in 1838.
His efforts to end the slavery system in the West Indies also influenced the struggle against slavery in North America which he visited on his return from Jamaica in 1836 and conferred with leading abolitionists there.
Death and True Legacy
Lord Sligo died in January 1845 at the age of fifty-six years. In accordance with his expressed wish “to be buried wherever I may die…and that my funeral may be conducted in the plainest manner and with as much privacy as possible” he was buried in Kensal Green cemetery in London.
The grave of the 2 nd Marquess of Sligo, Kensal Green Cemetery. (Stephencdickson / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
From a youth of privilege and indulgence to liberal landlord, legislator and emancipator Lord Sligo made a significant, if forgotten, contribution to his time. In the past Irish aristocrats were usually depicted as rapacious land-grabbers, tools of an evil empire. Because of their political, cultural and for some, religious, differences a gulf, more pronounced in Ireland than the social divide existing between commoner and aristocrat in other countries, contributed to their virtual dismissal from Irish historiography.
Enshrined in the history of Jamaica as ‘emancipator of the slaves’ and in Ireland as ‘the poor man’s friend’ the legacy of Howe Peter Browne, 2 nd Marquess of Sligo, in the most difficult and abject of times, deserves due recognition.
Top image: Painting of Howe Browne (1788 – 1845), 2nd Marquess of Sligo, the Irish Aristocrat. Source: Unknown author / Public domain
This article is an extract from © THE GREAT LEVIATHAN – THE LIFE OF HOWE PETER BROWNE, 2 nd MARQUESS OF SLIGO, 1788-1845 by ANNE CHAMBERS (New Island)