‘CHAMPION OF THE SLAVES’

Published in Issue 4 (July/August 2021), Letters, Volume 29

Sir,—It is said that ‘appearances can be deceiving’, and with the full-page picture of the Marquess of Sligo opposite an article entitled ‘Ireland and the “£20 Million Swindle”’ (HI 29.3, May/June 2021) such appears to be the case.

On the passing of the Abolition of Slavery Act in August 1833, as the owner of two plantations (inherited from his Kelly grandmother) Sligo was compensated by the British government. Of the £6 million paid to Jamaican planters, he received the sum of £5,526.

As governor of Jamaica (1834–6), however, Sligo’s personal experience of the brutalities of the slavery system, which he found ‘repugnant to humanity’, turned him from a supporter of the new Apprenticeship System he was instructed to implement into, as he wrote, ‘the warmest advocate for full and immediate emancipation’.

During his term as governor, despite concerted opposition from the planters, who derisorily referred to him as ‘the Great Leviathan of Black Humanity’, he advocated the education of the black population, working with the Baptist missionary James Philippo and establishing two schools on his own properties. He was the first plantation-owner to initiate a wage system for black workers, and after full emancipation in 1836 much of his land was divided and leased to former slaves. His efforts to improve the island’s infrastructure, land reclamation and husbandry practices, as well as steering the economy away from its dependence on sugar, led to the establishment of Agricultural Societies of which he became patron. He was also the first governor on record to employ ‘people of colour’ in his administration. To the black population in Jamaica, Sligo was, as is recorded, one of their ‘truest champions of liberty’.

His efforts to end the slavery system continued after his dismissal from office and he became active in the anti-slavery movement in the UK and also in America. One of his published pamphlets, Jamaica under the Apprenticeship System, influenced the ‘Great Debate’ on emancipation in the British parliament in February 1838. Impatient with the slow progress of the debate and, 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 property on 1 August 1838, thus leaving the government with no alternative but to implement immediate emancipation.

Sligo earned an honoured place in the history of Jamaica, where he is known as ‘Champion of the Slaves’ and where Sligoville, the first free slave village in the world, is named in his honour. In 1838, with Wilberforce and Buxton, his name was commemorated in an Emancipation memorial medal.—Yours etc.,

ANNE CHAMBERS

As the governor of Jamaica who implemented the abolition of slavery (receiving compensation himself in the process), who initially supported the Apprentice System but who later opposed it in favour of complete emancipation (and which is acknowledged in the article), I can think of no one who better personifies the complexities of this issue than the Marquess of Sligo, fully justifying my editorial decision (in consultation with the author, Sylvie Kleinman) to reproduce his image at full page. I fail to see where the deception lies.—Ed.

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