Lord Sligo's plunder of ancient Greece
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Southern Greece, August 1812. The Marquis 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 stood by the legendary burial chamber of Agamemnon, the King of the Greeks who had commanded the likes of 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. The Marquis turned to the man beside him and ordered him to proceed.
With that, a group of men armed with pikes, shovels, saws and pickaxes began to wrench the priceless pillars from the place where they had rested for over a hundred generations.
If the Marquis felt any guilt at this act of wanton vandalism, it was presumably diminished by his conviction that these same pillars 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.
He subsequently went to school at Harrow in England where he befriended the poet Lord Byron and future Prime Minister Robert Peel.
In January 1809, he succeeded to his father’s titles and immense fortunes, including over 130,000 acres of County Mayo and numerous sugar and coffee plantations in Jamaica. Like many a Regency buck, the young Marquis 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.
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. The two men travelled together from Athens to Corinth and visited the Oracle at Delphi, for which the Marquis gave Delphi valley in Co. Mayo its name.
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.
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 and, one presumes, the early 19th century equivalent of a thick brown envelope, Veli gave Sligo the go-ahead to excavate 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.
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
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. 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 Marquis 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. 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.’
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 Marquis 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.
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.
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 Marquis 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 ‘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.
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.’ 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.’
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, introducing the linen industry 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]
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 his old school friend Bobby 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 1906, the 6th Marquess identified the origin of the two great columns and gifted them to the British Museum, turning down an offer of £10,000 from the Berlin Museum.
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.
This post was written by Historian Turtle Bunbury
"Visit Turtle Bunbury's website for more information or check his Wistorical Facebook page for his daily histories of an extraordinary cast of heroes, villains and eccentrics. Turtle's latest book, Vanishing Ireland (Volume IV) will launch in October 2013.