The Irish champion of slaves
A decade before Solomon Northup, the subject of Oscar-winning film '12 Years a Slave', was tricked into servitude, an Irish aristocrat was freeing slaves in Jamaica. Clodagh Finn reports
Published 06/03/2014 | 02:30
The second Marquess of Sligo, Howe Peter Browne, was an unlikely hero. He spent his early years in the coffee houses of Regency London. He rubbed shoulders with royalty in Naples, frequented the salons of Paris and, with friend and accomplice Lord Byron, went treasure-hunting in ancient Greece where he loaded up a pair of priceless marble columns and brought them back home to Westport.
Yet, in 1834, aged 46, Browne had a new objective. He stood on the grand steps of the governor's residence in Spanish Town, Jamaica, and told the assembled crowd that he intended to abolish slavery on the island for ever.
His old schoolfriend, British prime minister Robert Peel, had appointed him governor and his first, difficult task was to implement the recent Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 on the Caribbean island.
Within four years, and in the face of much opposition, he had done just that. The first free slave village in the world was built and named Sligoville in his honour.
The man who started his life at Westport House in Co Mayo would go down in Jamaican history as a champion of slaves.
He is still celebrated there today and now, due to the Oscar-winning film 12 Years a Slave, there is renewed Irish interest in the aristocrat who went against type to fight the "abominable conduct... repugnant to humanity" he witnessed on the island's plantations.
At Westport House, his descendant Sheelyn Browne and historian Anne Chambers have charted his experiences in a permanent exhibition that tells the unsettling story of slavery from an Irish perspective.
"The film 12 Years a Slave has put a focus back on slavery and there is a lot of interest in Howe Peter and his time in Jamaica," says guide supervisor at Westport House Muriel Barry.
There is a fascination, too, with the uncomfortable reality that many of the plantation owners – and by implication slavers – in Jamaica at the time were Irish.
The Irish, along with the English and Scottish, owned the majority of Jamaica's 600 sugar plantations – and, of course, the estimated 200 slaves of African origin on each one. Howe Peter would later write that the cruelties reported to him were "past all idea". He was horrified to find that "mothers had been refused time to suckle their children".
There had been an unbridled sense of celebration when Howe Peter first arrived in Jamaica. When his frigate HMS Blonde drew into port, cannons boomed out in salute and the new governor and his family had been escorted to the capital with great ceremony and pomp.
And whatever about his expectations, you'd have to wonder what went through his wife Hester's mind. She was already six months pregnant when she prepared her three sons and five daughters, who were all under 13, for the 4,000-mile voyage into the unknown.
It was not long before Howe Peter Browne was pilloried by the press and ostracised by the planter society who expected him to become one of their own.
When he introduced an apprenticeship system for slaves, paving the way for full emancipation, the attacks got more personal and racist.
The Jamaica Herald ran a series of stories that would rival the most vicious of any of today's red tops. It poked fun at his Irish blood and the pratie-growers back home with their buttermilk.
And it taunted him with the scandals of his past: "We are fully aware of his Lordship's nautical excursions and frolics before he came to Jamaica."
There were others, though, who championed his "unwearying efforts in the cause of humanity" and, undeterred by the opposition, Governor Browne went about reforming the legal system, setting up schools for the black population (he personally financed two of them) and improving the roads and postal system.
However, the final stage of the abolition law was an act too far for the Jamaican Assembly and it blocked Howe Peter's attempts to introduce it in February 1836. Plotting and intrigue followed and eventually the Mayo man was forced to resign when his confidential correspondence to the British government was leaked.
The pro-slavery press rejoiced to see the end of his 'misrule' and wished him time to repent when he returned to Mayo. Others proclaimed him the truest champion of liberty and deliverer of the human race.
But his fight to free the slaves in Jamaica was not over. He continued to lobby the British government and royal family to end slavery and presented them with reports from missionaries of the abuse that was still taking place.
In August 1838, the government finally announced the total and immediate emancipation of all slaves in the British empire.
'CHAMPION OF THE SLAVES' IS A PERMANENT EXHIBITION AT WESTPORT HOUSE, CO MAYO. WWW.WESTPORTHOUSE.IE