From Westport House to the West Indies


Author ANNE CHAMBERS writes about 2nd Marquess of Sligo and his fight against slavery in the West Indies.

‘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 those classes is above public
opinion and the other below it; neither one therefore is
under its influence.’
Lord Sligo, Governor General of Jamaica.

The above observation, in view of the present struggle for racial equality worldwide, seems as relevant today as when first written in 1836.

Lord Sligo, from Westport House, Co. Mayo, was appointed Governor General of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands in April 1834. While the importation of slaves from Africa had been abolished in 1807 slavery, the cornerstone of sugar production and profit, continued. Evangelical missionaries conveyed the horrors of slavery to the British public and in 1833 the British Government passed an Emancipation Act which Sligo was entrusted to implement in Jamaica.

The Emancipation Act, however, did not give immediate freedom to the slaves, who merely became ‘apprenticed’ to their masters for a further six years, with the plantation owners (including Sligo) being compensated for the changes by the British Government. Described as ‘slavery under another name’ the controversial ‘Apprenticeship System’ was nonetheless resisted by the Jamaican Plantocracy and by powerful commercial and political vested interests in Britain.

As the owner of two plantations (Kelly’s and Cocoa Walk) operated like the other seven hundred and sixty on the island through the slavery system, and which he had inherited from his grandmother, Elizabeth Kelly, daughter of Denis Kelly from Co. Galway, former Chief Justice of Jamaica, the Jamaican planters expected Sligo to be on their side. His objective, however, as he told them on his arrival as Governor General in April 1834, to establish a social system ‘absolved forever from the reproach of Slavery’ set them on a bitter collision course.

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.’

To counteract the worst excesses he maintained personal contact and control over the sixty Special Magistrates appointed to oversee the implementation of the new Apprenticeship System in the nine hundred plantations throughout the island. As he wrote to a friend

“It is treason in Jamaica to talk of a Negro as a free man
or to speak to him or to give him any knowledge of the
extent to which the law protects him…”

Much to the derision and indignation of their masters, and unprecedented in the colonies, to alleviate such inequality he personally ‘gave a patient hearing to the poorest Negro which might carry his grievance to Government House…’

Against opposition from the Jamaican parliament he advocated the education of the black population so they might extract maximum benefit from their future freedom. He supported the building of the first schools on the island, two of which he established on his own property. He was the first plantation owner to initiate a wage system for black workers on his own plantations and later, after emancipation, to divide his lands into small farms which were leased to the former slaves. His efforts to improve Jamaica’s infrastructure, land reclamation and better husbandry practices, as well as to steer the economy away from its dependence on sugar, lead to the establishment of Agricultural Societies of which he became patron.

His efforts on behalf of the majority black population were bitterly opposed by the planter-dominated Jamaican Assembly who accused him ‘of interpreting the laws ‘in favour of the negro’ and who, as Sligo noted, set out ‘to make Jamaica too hot to hold me’. Derisorily referring to him as ‘The Great Leviathan of Black Humanity’ they 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 also in Ireland) whose fortunes depended on slavery – from plantation owners, merchants, ship owners, provisioners, manufacturers, importers, agents etc – it resulted in his removal from office in 1836.

To the Jamaican black population, however, Sligo was their champion and protector as the pro-emancipation press on the island recorded:

‘The shout of fiendish triumph that sends Lord Sligo from
the shores of the colony is the prelude to the acclamations
that will hail him a DELIVERER of the human race, as a
friend of suffering humanity, as one of the truest champions
of liberty…’

In an unprecedented gesture the black population presented him with a magnificent silver candelabra inscribed:

‘in grateful remembrance they entertain of his
unremitting efforts to alleviate their suffering and
to redress their wrongs during his just and enlightened
administration of the Government of the Island…’

Lord Sligo’s personal experience in Jamaica turned him from being a supporter of the Apprenticeship System into, as he wrote, ‘the warmest advocate for full and immediate emancipation’. On his return he became active in the anti-slavery movement in Britain.

One of his published pamphlets ‘Jamaica Under the Apprenticeship System’ which outlines in vivid detail the atrocities and inequalities of slavery as he experienced them first-hand, influenced the ‘Great Debate’ on Emancipation held in the British parliament in February 1838. The pamphlet was also presented to Queen Victoria by the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne.

On 22 March 1838, being as he wrote, ‘well aware that it would put an end to the [slavery] system’ Sligo announced in the House of Lords, that regardless of the outcome of the government’s deliberations, he would free all Apprentices on his own plantations 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 and immediate emancipation on the same date.

Sligo’s efforts in Jamaica also influenced the struggle for emancipation in America. In September 1836 in New York and Philadelphia he met with members of the newly-formed American Anti-Slavery Society, as well as with individual clergymen at the forefront of the emancipation struggle and, as was recorded, ‘all who met him formed an exalted opinion of his integrity and friendship for the poor.’

The ending of slavery brought with it financial ruin for most plantation owners, especially in Jamaica which in the early 1840s experienced a severe and lengthy drought as well as a reluctance of the former slaves to work on the plantations, albeit now for a wage and which made sugar production on the island uneconomic. Sligo’s own plantations fell into ruin. ‘Thus the partial fulfilment of Sligo’s ambitions for the Apprentices was won at the cost of the dismemberance of his Jamaican inheritance.’

Lord Sligo earned an honoured and respected place in the history of Jamaica, where he is acknowledged as ‘Champion of the Slaves’ and where Sligoville, the first free slave village in the world, is named in his honour. In 1838 his name, together with Wilberforce and Buxton, leading figures in the anti-slavery movement in Britain, was commemorated in an emancipation memorial medal.

That many of the racially-motivated inequalities and injustices that Sligo sought to eradicate during his lifetime still exist one hundred and seventy-five years after his death he could undoubtedly not have envisaged.

As the statues of those implicated in the slavery system in the past are today being pulled from their plinths…perhaps one should be erected to this man from Westport who helped to dismantle it.



– Anne Chambers is an Irish biographer, novelist and screenplay writer who lives and works in Dublin, best known for her biography of the 16th-century Irish Pirate Queen, Gráinne O’Malley.Chambers’ most recent books are T.K. Whitaker: Portrait of a Patriot (2014), ELEANOR COUNTESS OF DESMOND (2011), Finding Tom Cruise (2007) and Shadow Lord (2007), her biography of Tibbott Bourke, Lord Mayo, Gráinne O’Malley’s youngest son.

‘The Great Leviathan: Howe Peter Browne, 2nd Marquess of Sligo, 1788-1845’ by Anne Chambers (New Island Books) available from bookshops as well as in Westport House.

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