The compassionate radicalism of Howe Peter Browne


PLANTATION The sugar works at Kelly’s estate, Jamaica – one of two plantations in Jamaica that Howe Peter inherited from his grandmother, Elizabeth Kelly. (National Gallery of Jamaica).  Pic: Kent Reid

Áine Ryan

IN these seismic times, when Black Lives Matter protests sweep across the US and the world, it is important to remember that they don’t just symbolise a contemporary movement or a communal conviction putting a lens on the continued racial inequalities in societies claiming to be the democratic leaders of the world. These protests, these inequalities, are born of hundreds of years of shameful, widespread racism and devastating oppression.  
The fight has been a long one too. Long before Rosa Parks refused to move from her bus seat or Martin Luther King shook the smug status quo with his ‘Dream Speech’, abolitionists of the 17th and 18th centuries preached freedom for slaves.
And at one point in that long and difficult history stands a Westport landlord, a member of the ruling classes who took radical steps to abolish slavery in the sugar plantations of the British Colony of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands.
The 2nd Marquess of Sligo, Howe Peter Browne’s time as governor in that far off land is in many ways a culmination of his radicalism as an Irish landlord.
This tale of progressiveness in the face of opprobrium from his own privileged class may well have been lost in the mists of time but for the vibrant and forensic biography, ‘The Great Leviathan: The Life of Howe Peter Browne, 2nd Marquess of Sligo 1788-1845’, by Anne Chambers, the renowned biographer of pirate queen Granuaile. Explaining his legacy to The Mayo News, she suggests that while ‘statues of those implicated in slavery are today being pulled down down from their plinths, perhaps one should be erected to a man who helped to dismantle it’.
Not that his early life as a rapscallion brat who indulged in a life of profligacy in the salons of Europe with such celebrities as the poet Lord Byron gave any indication of his sensitivity and convictions about equality and benevolence. There are clear signs, however, that his marriage to Lady Catherine Hester Browne in 1816 (See The Mayo News, Unsung Heroes, June 2) may have influenced his development as a man of courage, integrity and a deep humanity. Indeed, on one occasion she accompanied him on the long voyage to Jamaica, while six months pregnant with one of the 14 children they had together.

Peerages and privilege
AN only child, Howe Peter had inherited five peerage titles, a 200,000-acre estate in the west, and valuable sugar plantations in Jamaica by the age of 21.
Stories abound of the wildness of his early years – on one occasion he was jailed at the height of the Napoleonic War in 1810 after he chartered a ship in Malta to go treasure-hunting in Greece and en route kidnapped some navy seamen from a British warship.
But as he matured, Howe Peter began to embrace his more responsible side and long before he ever set sail for the Caribbean archipelago, he was involved in ‘the development of kelp harvesting and fishing and the revitalising mining development in the area’.
Anne Chambers explains: “He promoted trade and manufacturing in the town and port of Westport and in 1825 influenced the establishment of the first bank there.”
As dependence on the monoculture of the potato increased, and the population of the west exploded from the 1830s, Chambers says, 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’. Indeed, his efforts were noted by 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 lazer house.”

Savagery of slavery
AFTER his appointment as Governor General of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands in 1834, Howe Peter’s ‘liberal and improving endeavours 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,” continues Chambers.
The Emancipation Act had limitations though and stipulated that slaves became ‘apprenticed’ to their masters for six further years. The Jamaican plantocracy along with powerful British interests resisted even this limited form of liberation and expected their new governor to support them.
Howe Peter was the owner of two plantations inherited from his grandmother, Elizabeth Kelly, a daughter of Denis Kelly from Galway and a former Chief Justice of Jamaica.
On his arrival in 1834 he told them to establish a system ‘absolved forever from the reproach of Slavery’. This order would set him on a bitter collision course with the other plantation owners.
Ms Chambers’ research for her book revealed how ‘Sligo found the savagery of the slavery system he encountered on the island personally abhorrent’.
“From the flogging of field workers with cart whips, branding with hot iron, to the whipping of female slaves ‘the cruelties are past all idea,’ he told the Jamaican Assembly. ‘I call on you to put an end to conduct so repugnant to humanity.’”

Keeping a close eye on the powerful Special Magistrates, Lord Sligo showed his true radicalism when – against opposition from the Jamaican parliament – he advocated the education of the black population, supported the building of two schools, pioneered a wage system for them and, once emancipation was instituted, divided his lands into small farms leased by the former slaves. In another far-sighted move he helped to establish Agricultural Societies which provided tuition on improving and expanding husbandry practices.
Dubbed ‘The Great Leviathan of Black Humanity’ his many powerful detractors withdrew his salary and commenced a campaign of vilification against him in the Jamaican and British press.
“With the connivance of powerful commercial vested interests in Britain (and in Ireland) whose fortunes depended on slavery – from owners, merchants, ship owners, provisioners, manufacturers, importers, agents etc – it resulted in his removal from office in 1836,” says Anne Chambers.
His heroism in standing against the Ascendancy establishment meant that not only he, but his descendants, were honoured in the Caribbean island where a town, Sligoville, the first free slave village in the world, was named after him and still celebrates his legacy as a ‘Champion of the Slaves’.

‘The Great Leviathan – The Life of Howe Peter Browne 2nd Marquess of Sligo, 1788-1845’, by Anne Chambers is published by New Island Books.