The Great Leviathan review: from rake to slave-freeing radical
Anne Chambers has written a vivid and picturesque study of a friend of Byron
Anne Chambers: Howe Peter Browne’s “experience at Eton was a prequel to years of excess and debauchery”.
The Great Leviathan
Anne Chambers wrote the biography, Granuaile: Grace O’Malley, Ireland’s Pirate Queen, and other books. Now, after eight years of composition based on diligent, international research, she has published the definitive work on the life and times of Granuaile’s most distinguished descendant, Howe Peter Browne, 2nd Marquess of Sligo (1788-1845).
Chambers travelled from Ireland to England, France, Austria, Greece, Turkey, Italy, America and Jamaica to consult more than 15,000 manuscripts in private and public archives. The Sligo family’s genealogy and entitlements take up 4½ pages in Burke’s Peerage & Baronetage. The Sligo motto, Suivez le raison, is translated there as “Follow the right.” The word leviathan on its own, according to the OED, has meant consecutively “a sea monster,” “a ship of huge size” and “a man of vast power and wealth”, but apparently did not seem quite big enough to accommodate Chambers’s concept of this wonderfully comprehensive and picturesque biography, so she calls it The Great Leviathan.
Howe Peter Browne was born Lord Westport in London in 1788. His Irish antecedents, having switched their allegiance from Catholic to Protestant without any theological difficulty, and having married prudently, had secured extensive estates in Co Mayo, Co Galway and Jamaica, and had acquired a useful collection of noble titles with the approval of the English establishment. Furthermore, the young Irish Protestant aristocrat was blessed with an amiable disposition, his father’s adoration and the elegant comforts of Westport House. The marquessate eventually fitted like a glove.
Obesity and gout
“Westport’s life-long addiction to travel,” Chambers writes, “started early. By autumn 1790, aged two, he had undertaken that first sea voyage with his parents to Lisbon, where the mild climate relieved his father’s rheumatoid arthritis, the ailment that abbreviated the son’s life. The text is enlightened by two excellent maps of Lord Sligo’s travels, from Dublin to Istanbul with many of the principal European cities in between and remoter destinations in Sweden, Gibraltar and Jamaica. As long as he was able before illness, obesity and gout handicapped him, he was an enthusiastic sightseer, with a “penchant for adventure”.
“The virtue of self-restraint, preached and practised by his sober father,” Chambers observes, “found little resonance in his son. For Westport, as for many of his fellow students to whom he remained close in adult life . . . experience at Eton was a prequel to years of excess and debauchery.” In a chapter called “Men Behaving Badly”, Chambers tells how Westport’s delinquency was intensified in his time at Jesus College, Cambridge. As a contemporary undergraduate remarked, “College improves everything but learning. Nobody here seems to look into an author, ancient or modern, if they can avoid it.” Close friends, Sligo and Byron later travelled together to Greece; however, they parted company when Byron entered a monastery beside the Acropolis and found scope with the monks’ young acolytes for his “lascivious excess”.
Hedonism of royalty
In his youth, the 2nd Marquess was attracted to the hedonism of royalty and aristocracy. There were said to be 50,000 prostitutes on the streets of London, but for affluent clients, Chambers relates, there were “luxury brothels”; and, of course, in high society there were plenty of amateurs. In Brighton, Sligo enjoyed the hedonistic hospitality of the Prince Regent, a family friend. Temperamentally and financially, Sligo seemed well-qualified for the fun and games to carry on for ever. They didn’t.
In Malta, he chartered a decommissioned Royal Navy sloop for the rest of the journey eastwards across the Mediterranean and inadvertently took some Navy deserters in his crew. Even though he was related to Admiral Howe, an 18th-century naval hero, the admiralty indicted Sligo for abduction. At the end of the Old Bailey trial, the notoriously strict Sir William Scott sentenced Sligo to a fine of £5,000 and four months in Newgate Prison. Until then, Sligo had always been pleasantly easy-going. The disaster stiffened his attitude, which was altered even further when he learned that while he was imprisoned his widowed mother had had an affair with Sir William and married him. Afterwards, paradoxically, Sligo became increasingly liberal. As Chambers vividly demonstrates, truth is sometimes much more astonishing than fiction.
The rest of Sligo’s hectic story is literarily less amusing than the beginning, but historically more important. A devoted husband and a prolific father, in an era of economic and political stress, as an Irish landlord during the Great Famine and in Jamaica during his two years and a bit of service as the governor general, he did all he could to alleviate the suffering of his thousands of tenants at home and bring to fulfilment the emancipation of the black slaves on Jamaican plantations. For his acts of humanity, although they brought about the impoverishment of his properties, he earned the demonstrative gratitude of the underprivileged in both countries. His courageous efforts to “follow the right” to reduce the enormous gap between the rich and the poor make Anne Chambers’ generous, engrossing book relevant today.