Turtle Bunbury

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Above: Howe Browne, 2nd Marquess of Sligo,
Plunderer of Ancient Greece,
Liberator of Jamaica.

Picture courtesy of Westport House, County Mayo.


Southern Greece, August 1812
. The Marquess of Sligo, laird of Westport House, Co. Mayo, rocked back on his heels and whistled appreciatively.

   Like all members of his class, he had enjoyed a classical education and was familiar with the wonders of ancient Greece.
   And now here he stood by the legendary burial chamber of Agamemnon, King of Mycenae, who commanded men such as Achilles and Ulysses during their epic war against the Trojans 3,500 years earlier. The pillars that commanded the entrance to Agamemnon’s tomb were spectacular works, giant columns of green marble decorated with zig-zag motifs. Such pillars, the Marquess mused, would look absolutely swell upon his stately pile back in Westport.
   Peter Howe Brown, 2nd Marquess of Sligo, was to pack an extraordinary amount into his 57 years on Earth. Born in 1788, some of his formative memories took place in the late summer of 1798 when French forces seized Westport House from his father and made it their base during the ill-fated rebellion of the United Irishman. That said, Howe Brown was not in Mayo in 1798. As heir to the largest estate in Connaught, comprising 200,000 'bad acres', his family had not been inclined to put him in the path of the French head- choppers.
   He subsequently went from Eton to Cambridge where he befriended the poet Lord Byron. In January 1809, he succeeded to his father’s titles and immense fortunes, including over 130,000 acres of County Mayo. He also inherited two plantations in Jamaica from his Kelly grandmother. [i] Like many a Regency buck, the young Marquess turned to gambling with a passion. He transpired to be rather good at it and stunned the racing world when his Arabian steed, Waxy, thundered home to win the 1809 Epsom Derby.

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Above: The Marquess's stately home at Westport House,
County Mayo, on the west coast of Ireland.

   In the spring of 1810, the dashing 21-year-old went to visit Byron in Greece, which was then ruled by the Turkish government of the Ottoman Empire. He also united with Michael Bruce - Lady Hester Stanhope's lover at the time - with whom he travelled from Athens to Corinth and visited the Oracle at Delphi, for which the Marquess gave Delphi valley in Co. Mayo its name. [ii]
   Before Sligos’ arrival, Byron had visited Morea, as the Peloponnese peninsula in southern Greece was then called, and befriended Veli Pasha, the regions’ cultured but corrupt Governor. Veli had ‘honoured’ Byron with ‘a number of squeezes and speeches’, and gifted him a ‘pretty stallion’, but wisely did not invite the handsome poet to mingle with his harem of sixty women.

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Above: Lord Byrone, who was at Cambridge with Lord Sligo, and who
would later maintain that his adventures with the Marquess were
‘the most delightful acquaintance which I formed in Greece.’

   On Byron’s recommendation, Sligo went to meet Veli. The British adventurer Lady Hester Stanhope meeting the Irish aristocrat and his 11-strong entourage during this time, noting that it comprised of ‘a Tartar, two Albanians (presented to him by Veli Pasha) superbly dressed in the costume of their country, with silver stocked pistols and silver hilted yatagans, a dragoman or interpreter, a Turkish cook, an artist to paint views and costumes, besides three English servants in livery and one out of livery.’
   Following a picnic with Veli, Lord Sligo visited the magnificent beehive tomb known as the Treasure of Atreus where Agamemnon reputedly lay buried. The initial excavation work here had been carried out by Lord Elgin, another old Harrovian, whose name would forever be associated with the amazing marbles that he had controversially removed from the Parthenon in Athens a decade earlier.
   Anne Chambers, author of ‘The Great Leviathan’ about Lord Sligo, advised me: "The tomb had been already raided by Elgin and others and the two columns were no longer in situ but lay in pieces around the entrance. Sligo, in effect, did no excavations at the tomb, merely accepting the Turkish Governor, Veli Pasha's offer (who initially mistook Sligo for the son of the King of England!) to take what remained. Veli Pasha also presented him with 'six columns of verde antique and some other trifles' and entertained him highly. There is no indication from Sligo's own correspondence from Tripollizza that he, in effect, realised the significance of the three fragments (part of which is in the museum in Athens) which were destined to lie forgotten in the basement of Westport House for 90 years."
   There is an argument that Sligo, like Elgin, was simply preserving the monument from further vandalism. The pillars were already missing their capitals and bases, while one section had been hewn down and converted into a lintel for a nearby mosque.[iii]
   In any event, Lord Sligo now took ownership of the columns and arranged for them to be carried to his ship, the Pylades, upon which he had amassed a large quantity of vases and some 1,000 archaeological specimens from Morea and the Greek Islands.[iv]
   The next challenge was to get this priceless cargo home. Lord Byron wasn’t optimistic. For starters, the crew on board ‘Lord Sligo's unmanageable brig’ were ‘sadly addicted to liquor’. The Marquess was saddled with ‘60 men who won't work, 12 guns that refuse to go off, and sails that have cut every wind except a contrary one, and then they are as willing as may be.’[v]
   Nor did Byron reckon Sligo had the stomach for this adventure. ‘I think he will be sick of it, poor soul,’ he wrote to a friend. ‘He has all the indecision of your humble servant, without the relish for the ridiculous which makes my life supportable.’[vi]
   By June 1811, Sligo was in Malta, trying to find a suitable crew to negotiate the stormy seas. [vii] His solution was to cost him dear. As the Napoleonic Wars were in full flow, a British warship had docked in Malta. Sligo despatched his servants to meet with some of the warship’s crew and get them so drunk they passed out. They were then instructed to bring their comatosed bodies on board Pylades. When they came to, the Marquess offered them a new career on his ship, along with a wage that beat that of the Royal Navy, and false identity papers in case any trouble should arise.

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Above: The entrance to the Treasury of Atreus where
the columns once stood.

   By this press-ganging tactic, he acquired at least two and possibly as many as eight of His Majesty’s able seamen. And so he and his battered ship set sail.[viii]
   At length, rumours that the Pylades was manned by deserters from the Royal Navy began to be flashed all over the Mediterranean. A determined frigate captain gave chase to the ship and boarded. Sligo just had time to hide his deserters below deck. The Marquess gave his word of honour that he had seen no deserters and the frigate captain relented.
   However, fearing that his stolen crew was too hot to handle, Sligo sent the men onshore at Patmos, a small Greek island in the Aegean Sea, and then sailed off, without warning, leaving them to their fate. The first man who made it back to safety spilled the beans and, for Sligo, the game was up.
   He was arrested in Malta and brought back to London to stand trial on a charge of enticing British Seamen to desert. He was still free to travel at this point and actually won 1000 guineas in a bet when he galloped his coach from London to Holyhead in an incredible 35 hours.
   He was tried at the Old Bailey in December 1812. Sir William Scott, the judge, gave an impressive speech before finding him guilty. He sentenced his lordship to four months imprisonment in Newagte and a £5,000 fine. Lord Sligo had brought shame on the venerable nautical name of Howe. He ‘bowed, and was conducted by the keepers through the private door to the jail.’[ix] Amazingly, Lord Sligo's widowed mother would marry Judge Scott the day he was released (although the marriage did not, I believe, survive)
   Byron was dismayed when he heard the news. ‘The Marquis Sligo is in a great scrape about his kidnapping the seamen; I, who know him, do not think him so culpable as the Navy are determined to make him. He is a good man.’[x]
   For his part, Sligo was already planning his next adventure in which Byron was to play a central role. In March 1813, the poet wrote of Sligo’s ‘Persian plan’ — ‘he wants me to wait till September, set off and winter at Athens (our old headquarters) and then in the Spring to Constantinople (as of old), and Bagdad, and Tahiran [Tehran]. This has its charms, too, and recalls one's predilections for gadding.’

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Above: The interior of Westport House as it probably looked
at the time of the 2nd Marquess's death in 1845.

   As it happens, their further adventures did not happen. As he matured, Sligo appears to have settled down to his duties as a landlord in Co. Mayo, developing the linen industry his father had previously introduced to Westport. He was Lord Lieutenant of the county from 1842 until his death in 1845, and sat in the British Parliament where, by 1838, he was regarded as ‘one of the most corpulent man’ in the House of Lords. The jury is still out on how culpable he must be for the atrocious loss of life in Mayo which took place during the Great Famine, shortly after his own death.[xi] In 1831 he penned a particularly angry letter to Lord Grey warning against famine and urging that nobody should die of want.
   He was also a busy father by his marriage in 1816 to Lady Hester de Burgh, eldest daughter of the 13th Earl of Clanricarde, with whom he had six sons and eight daughters.
   Lord Sligo’s greatest achievement was as Governor of the British colony of Jamaica to which office the ex-con was appointed by Prime Minister Robert Peel in December 1833. Slavery had just been abolished throughout the British Empire and Sligo's foremost task was to ensure that the plantation owners behaved accordingly. He was well placed for this because his family owned a number of plantations on the island. His policy to liberate the slaves initially went down like a lead coconut with his fellow plantocracy who could not conceive how anyone could even think of paying black people to work. Nonetheless, the Mayo man pressed on with his reform programme, establishing the free town of Sligoville. By the time he left the island in 1836, the Jamaican people were hailing him as the "Emancipator of Slavery".
   As for the columns of Agamemnon’s tomb, they remarkably made it to the west coast of Ireland where they lay in the basement of Westport House, their origin forgotten. In 1904, the 6th Marquess, an amateur archaeologist, journeyed to Mycenae and identified the origin of the two great columns. He subsequently gifted them to the British Museum, turning down an offer of £10,000 from the Berlin Museum. [xii]
   The grateful museum acknowledged the gift as ‘the most complete, as well as the most highly decorated examples known of the Mycenaean column - the immediate ancestor of the developed Greek order’. As of June 2012, the pillars were still flanking the entrance to the museum's Gallery No. 11.

On Friday, 27th October 2017, local brothers, Cathal, Harry and Owen Hughes of The Hughes Group successfully completed the acquisition of the Westport House and estate from the Browne family.


[i] Born in 1788, he was the only son of the 1st Marquess whom he succeeded on 2nd January 1809, a few months before he came of age. He descended from John Brown, who was a colonel in the army of King James II, and one of the parties to the Treaty of Limerick, which he is credited with having drafted. His descendants were successively invested with the Barony of Monteagle, the Viscount of Westport, and the Earldom of Altamont, receiving the Marquisate of Sligo as the price of their support of the union between England and Ireland at the beginning of the last century.

[ii] In April 1810, Byron noted in a letter to Hobhouse that ‘I returned to Athens by Argos, where I found Lord Sligo with a painter, who has got a fever with sketching at midday, and a dragoman who has actually lied himself into a lockjaw.’ His adventures with Sligo were, wrote Byron, ‘the most delightful acquaintance which I formed in Greece.’ Sligo later branched off to visit the capital of the Morea. Byron had lately ‘girated the Morea’ and befriended Veli Pasha, the cultured but corrupt Vizier, or Governor, of the Morea.

[iii] Recollections of a classical tour through various parts of Greece, Turkey, and Italy: made in the years 1818 & 1819 , Peter Edmund Laurent, G. and W. B. Whittaker, 1821. On page 145, Laurent states:

'During the stay of Lord Sligo in the Morea, excavations were made in this building under his direction and that of Veli, the pasha of Tripolitza.We were informed that the result of these researches was the discovery of the shafts of two columns, without either capitals or bases; these were immediately presented to his Lordship, who carefully transported the treasure to England.'

The Treasury of Atreus was said to have been the burial chamber of Atreus, son of Pelops, and his son Agamemnon, the King of the Greeks in Homer’s Odyssey. The uppermost part of the right-hand shaft was taken away and converted into the lintel of a mosque in Argos; a large portion of its outer surface was hewn away in order it to it’s new purpose. This was later gifted to the museum in Athens where it now stands. However, Veli Pasha evidently gifted Sligo the greater part of the left and the upper part of the right shafts of the columns as a souvenir of his time at Mycenae.

[iv] In April 1810, Byron noted in a letter to Hobhouse that ‘Lord Sligo's unmanageable brig’ was being remanded to Malta, with a large quantity of vases’ worth 150 piastres.

[v] The Works of Lord Byron, Vol. 8, Baron George Gordon Byron (J. Murray, 1898). Byron wasn’t optimistic about the vessel’s chances of getting back to Ireland. ‘Lord Sligo's crew are sadly addicted to liquor’, he wrote. In another letter from July 1810, Byron added that he had been greeted upon his arrival in Athens ‘by my Lord Sligo’ who ‘has a brig with 60 men who won't work, 12 guns that refuse to go off, and sails that have cut every wind except a contrary one, and then they are as willing as may be. He is sick of the concern, but an engagement of six months prevents him from parting with this precious ark … He has ''en suite " a painter, a captain, a gentleman misinterpreter (who boxes with the painter), besides sundry idle English valets.’

[vi] As for Sligo, ‘he himself is now at Argos with his hospital, but intends to winter in Athens. I think he will be sick of it, poor soul, he has all the indecision of your humble servant, without the relish for the ridiculous which makes my life supportable.’

[vii] He may have gone to Malta in order to be invested with the Order of St Patrick which had been sent out to him by King George III . However, his lordship was now, according to Byron, ‘in some apprehension of a scrape with the Navy concerning certain mariners of the King's ships’. ‘Travels of Lady Hester Stanhope: forming the completion of her memoirs’, Volume 1, by Lady Hester Lucy Stanhope, p. 72.
On 2nd October 1810, Byron wrote from Patras: ‘I have seen a good deal of Lord Sligo ; by the bye, there is a silly report all over the Morea, that he and I quarrelled, fought, and were wounded at Argos, there is not a word of truth in it from beginning to end.’

[viii] His ship was called the Pylades and had been rented from Captain Sprainger, who had also lent him various riggers, carpenters and gunners from his own crew for the voyage. However, when two of Sprainger’s seamen went missing, the captain became suspicious. Sligo expressed great shock that his protestations of innocence were not listened to and Sprainger let it go. However, a further six of Sligo’s crew had apparently been intoxicated by Sligo’s servants in Malta, dragged onto a ship in a drunken coma and effectively press-ganged into service for the Marquess. The men were given false names and promised a handsome payment on journey’s end. This was very reckless behaviour given that the Napoleonic Wars were in full swing and the British navy was already very low on experienced seamen.

[ix] He was specifically charged with 'unlawfully receiving on board his ship William Elden, a seaman in the King's service, and detaining, concealing and secreting him. The second count charged him with enticing and persuading the said seaman to desert; the third count, with receiving the said Elden, knowing him to have deserted.' For details of the trial, see http://www.exclassics.com/newgate/ng559.htm ) Everything about the Marquess was racy right down to the counsellors whom he sat beside in court - Messrs Dauncey, Dampier and Scarlett.

[x] In November 1811, Byron wrote that Sligo’s ‘Arnaouts are going back to Rumelia, Government would not allow them to go to Ireland, — Why ? nor further than ten miles from London — Wherefore ?’

I am not sure what an Arnaout means – is that a reference to the columns?

On February 17th 1813, Byron’s friend Hobhouse dined with the imprisoned Lord Sligo, in the “dirty rooms” in Newgate which he himself is to occupy later in the decade. They have “dinner like a bawdy house banquet … talk about the Persians … They say a man who does not admire boys more than girls is not fit to live.”

Yale University holds ‘The Marquess of Sligo letters, 1810 Aug-Dec’ (http://beta.worldcat.org/archivegrid/record.php?id=702165061&contributor=426&archivename=Yale+University+-+Sterling+Memorial+Library). The collection contains nineteen letters written by the Marquess of Sligo during his travels in Greece and Asia Minor. Subjects include his planned itineraries; travel expenses; his elaborate entertainment by Veli Pasha; impressions of and experiences with Lord Byron and Lady Hester Stanhope; his shipment of "vases and other treasures" home to Ireland from digs in Greece; and his dislike of Constantinople. Other comments concern remittances from home and his thoughts on better estate management.

See ‘A little souvenir: the Marquess and the Mycenaean columns’, Christine Finn (Oxford Journal of Archaeology, Volume 21, Issue 1, pages 1–12, February 2002 - http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1468-0092.00146/abstract).

Lord Byron's correspondence chiefly with Lady Melbourne, Mr. Hobhouse, the Hon, Douglas Kinnaird, and P. B. Shelley. With portraits" http://www.archive.org/stream/lordbyronscorres01byrorich/lordbyronscorres01byrorich_djvu.txt

[xi] He died aged 57 at Tunbridge Wells in 1845. Three of his sons were the 3rd, 4th and 5th Marquess respectively. He was Senior Warden of the Irish Grand Lode of Freemasons.

[xii] http://madeinatlant.powweb.com/athens/mycenae.htm A contemporary of the 6th Marquess noted that ‘a complete restoration of the doorway that once contained them has been set up at the end of the Archaic Room among the Greek marbles. It gives an idea of regal opulence, with which the interior of the tomb is in keeping - the burial-place of a great king.’

Here is an excellent insight into Lord Sligo’s mental and physical character from circa 1838, taken from ‘ Random recollections of the Lords and Commons: Second series, Volume 1’ by James Grant. ‘The Marquis of Sligo is better known as the late Governor of Jamaica than as a member of the House of Lords. In the latter place he has never done anything to distinguish himself. There he rarely speaks at all and never, at any length, I have no recollection of having seen him occupy the attention of his fellow peers for more than three or four minutes at one time. He is diffident of his own powers as a speaker and he has not, nor ever had, the notion that nature intended him to shine in the senate. It were well if some other noble lords, who could be named, entertained an equally modest opinion of their own capabilities for public speaking. It would spare themselves the unpleasantness of having to labour hard before they can utter two consecutive sentences in tolerable taste. It would save them many a ‘hem’ and forced cough, which – so, at least, one would suppose - must be the reverse of agreeable to their own feelings to say nothing of the infliction which such speakers must prove to the house. The noble marquis carries his diffidence to excess. I do not say that he possesses any of the leading attributes of an effective public speaker; but if he had more confidence in himself he might, on ordinary occasions, and on ordinary subjects, acquit himself in a very creditable manner in addressing their Lordships. As it is he speaks with some difficulty; his matter has nothing attractive in it beyond its common sense. His style has nothing approaching to elegance: it is as homely as the greatest lovers of that quality could wish. And his manner is in keeping with it. It is plain and unassuming to a fault. The noble marquis however is a highly intelligent man. He is especially conversant with those subjects to which circumstances have rendered it necessary that he should particularly apply his mind. He also possesses a sound judgment. And last, though assuredly not least, he is an upright and conscientious man in all the public as well as private relations of life. Integrity is a quality which is peculiarly deserving the respect of mankind, when embodied in the conduct of men who are placed in situations where temptations to a different course are numerous and powerful. The fact that the Marquis of Sligo should have come home from the West Indies one of the most zealous vindicators of the rights of the slave, considering the inducements which must have been presented to him to feel and act differently, is of itself a conclusive fact in favour of his conscientiousness as a public man. If anything could have afforded me a gratification equal to that with which I heard the almost superhuman speech of Lord Brougham, in February last, on behalf of the negroes - a speech which for brilliancy, eloquence and power has perhaps never been exceeded in either house of parliament; if anything could have equalled the gratification with which I listened to that splendid speech, it would have been the cordial cheers with which the noble marquis greeted the more important parts of it. Those cheers, considering the place and the circumstances in which they were given must have been melody in the ears of every humane man who heard them. To my mind they were proof taking all things into account, not only of a kindly nature, but of the strictest honesty of character. In March last the noble marquis published a pamphlet on the subject of Negro Slavery in the West Indies, which is pervaded throughout by a spirit of the most enlightened humanity. The pamphlet is entitled ‘Jamaica under the Apprenticeship System’. It is a production of great interest, whether the source whence it proceeds, or the subject, or the manner in which the subject is treated, be considered.
The noble marquis is one of the most corpulent men in the house: perhaps he is exceeded in this particular by none of the peers except the Duke of Sussex and the Duke of Buckingham. I am not sure indeed whether, in proportion to their height, he is not in point of breadth equal to them. I should take the noble marquis to be about five feet eight inches in height. His head has a very massive appearance and has a large quantity of dark hair, considering that he is now in his fiftieth year. He has a round flat face, a broad nose, and large marked eye lashes. His forehead is broad and straight and his dark eyes are rather deeply set in their sockets. His complexion is very dark and has what is called a weather beaten appearance. He makes a point of attending in the house on all important occasions, and is often, indeed, to seen in his place when nothing of particular interest is expected.