Monday, August 1, 2011

Lorna Goodison

In 2008, I introduced Lorna Goodison at The Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts.  I suspect I was chosen because her book, From Harvey River, was a memoir of her Jamaican ancestors, and I tend to be neck deep in curiosity about ancestry and such. Since I had already read glowing reviews of her book, but hadn’t yet read it myself, I was delighted to volunteer.
Goodison's books in my library - so far.

I found much of what I expected to find: polished writing that glistened with grace and clarity. I also savoured sentences that contained so much juice, that they may as well have dribbled down my chin. She made me laugh. She made me cry. The New York Times reviewer, Lorna Fugard would agree with me. So would an extensive biography/review published at the University of Minnesota site. 

It didn’t totally surprise me that Goodison had an Irish connection. One of her great-grandfathers, George O’Brian Wilson, married a Guinea woman, Leanna Sinclair, sometime after arriving in Jamaica in the mid-1800s. Nor was I at all surprised that the Irish were in Jamaica at that time. Donald Harman Akenson’s If the Irish Ran the World gives an excellent account of the Irish as colonists in the West Indies. HINT: It wasn’t all Guinness and step dancing. The Irish as colonist could be as brutal as any.

What I didn’t expect to find was a poem that connected with one of my far flung relations: Howe Peter Browne. He served as governor of Jamaica between 1834-1836. In Goodison’s collection, Turn Thanks, I stumbled across her poem Country, Sligoville.

I arise and go with William Butler Yeats
To Country, Sligoville
In the shamrock green hills of St. Catherine.

That made me stand up and pay attention. I always wear my grandmother’s signet ring that bears the crest and motto of the Sligo Brownes, and what I know about Howe Peter Browne, 2nd Marquess of Sligo, although it is not consistently glorious, is at least riveting. His ancestors were a junior branch of the Browne’s of The Neal, Co. Mayo and set up shop in Westport at the time of Col John Brown (c1636-1711). Supposedly, the wife of Col. John was a great grand-daughter of the pirate queen, Grace O’Malley. But I digress.

I learned a lot about Browne from Turtle Bunbury (see my earlier post about Turtle). He mentioned that Howe Peter Browne was one of the most enigmatic cads of the early 19th century and spent his early years partying with Lord Byron and Thomas de Quincy. In fact, he and Byron swam together in the Piraeus and also rode together to Corinth on mules. On one occasion:

[Browne] paid a visit to Lord Byron in Greece. Here the Marquess encountered the Oracle at Delphi, an occasion that impressed him so much he renamed the great valley near Killary fjord in County Mayo in its honour. It was also during this trip that he came into serious disgrace. One afternoon, he visited the Temple of Atreus at Mycenae wherein, if local lore is to be believed, lies the great Tomb of Agamemnon. The Marquess looked left and looked right and then, as was the current fashion, decided that the columns that led into the Temple would go rather splendidly as the new entrance to Westport House. He duly bribed a passing British merchant ship to bring them back to Mayo. Fashionable as it was in aristocratic circles, robbing ancient Greek temples was nonetheless illegal. His widowed mother, the fiery daughter of Admiral Howe, did her best for him but the Judge, Sir William Scott, could see no way out and so the 2nd Marquess of Sligo was sent to Newgate Prison. The Cuffe Family History. 

Browne’s mother had attended his trial, and was so impressed by the judge, Sir William Scott, that she married him a couple of years later. As for the wayward lad, jail may have settled him down. He focused on his estate at Westport, and also established a hotel now known as Cavanaghs, but back then was called Robinsons. This hotel was praised by no less than William MakepeaceThackeray in his Irish Sketch Book.  Browne also had close enough relations with King George IV that the King agreed to be his son’s godfather. Still, Browne must have retained something of the liberal convictions of his youth, since he was one of those who voted for Catholic Emancipation in the English House of Lords – not a common political tilt for his class.

In 1834, he was appointed Governor of Jamaica, and in keeping with his liberal sensibilities, he immediately infuriated his landholding friends by emancipating the slaves – three decades before they were freed in America. This also cost him personally. Without the revenues from his Jamaica estate, he had to turn down a Dukedom as he had not the necessary money to support it. Also, opinions over this decision were running so hot in the ruling class of Jamaica, that he resigned in 1836, and returned home leaving at least two other legacies in Jamaica.

A Baptist minister named Rev. James Murcell Phillipo bought a parcel of land, named it Sligoville in recognition of Browne, and made it available as a place for freed slaves to make a new start. It sold for £3 per lot, and on a list of the original purchasers was included the name of a Lewis Harvey, who I am guessing might have been related to William Harvey – another great-grandfather of Lorna Goodison.  I’ll have to ask when I see her next weekend. 

Browne also left a Jamaican family when he quit Jamaica, and eventually a descendant – although I do not know all the links that lead to him - named Charles Adolphus Thorburn Browne, aka Charlie. He retrieved recipes from his family archives, food that the Governor Browne had loved, and they have became the basis for the internationally acclaimed products made by Busha Browne’s.  Heck, I can even buy some of them at my local IGA:

From my kitchen: Busha Browne's
  •  Lorna Goodison will be reading in Sechelt August 6th at 2:30 PM from her most recent book, a collection of short stories: By Love Possessed. See the Globe and Mail review
  • For a more complete discussion of the poem Country, Sligoville, see Lamia Tewfik’s essay: Cultural Dovetailing in Lorna Goodison’s Country Sligoville. 
  • Since I am also asked to include family tree in these pieces, see BROWNEs of Sligo – Howe Peter Browne shows up in the 13th generation. 
 NOTE: In one of the six degrees of separation things, Sir William Beechey not only did a portrait of Howe Peter BROWNE but he also did one of The Oddie Children - a family on my mother's side things.   Beechy’s daughter Anna Dodsworth married a John Jackson, b. 1797, one of the Duddington Jackson line, whose cousins were connected to Fanningstown, Co. Limerick as well as to Lisburn, Co. Antrim. 
Other links:
A tribute to Howe Peter Browne published by The Mill Press.
Westport House and the Browne’s, The Marquess of Sligo, Westport House, 1981. This is the family story written by Denis Browne, 10th Marquess of Sligo.
The Long Song by Andrea Levy is a riveting account from the experience of slaves during the time of their emerging freedom. On page 264, she mentions a newly freed slave: Benjamin left to join hi minister-man to work his own piece of land in a place called Sligoville

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