The Slave’s spicy forests, and gold-bubbling fountains,
The brave Caledonian views wi’ disdain;
He wanders as free as the winds of his mountains,
Save Love’s willing fetters, the chains o’ his Jean.
In this song of 1795 Robert Burns rejected the slave plantations of the Americas in favour of ‘Cauld Caledonia’, yet less than 10 years earlier his situation was quite different.
In 1786 Robert Burns was in dire financial straits, and seriously considered emigrating to Jamaica to working as a book-keeper on a sugar plantation that used slave labour, a position that had been offered to him by the plantation owner, the Ayr-based Dr. Patrick Douglas. It may even be that Burns published the first edition of his poems – the Kilmarnock edition – as a way of raising funds for his passage to Jamaica. As it happened, the reception to the poems was so positive that Burns delayed his planned emigration. Burns later recalled that ‘I had taken the last farewell of my few friends, my chest was on the road to Greenock; I had composed the last song I should ever measure in Scotland – ‘The Gloomy night is gathering fast’ – when a letter from Dr Blacklock to a friend of mine overthrew all my schemes, by opening new prospects to my poetic ambition.’
This is all part of the legend of Burns. Here was the heaven-taught ploughman who – at the moment of desperation – won the hearts of the Scottish literati, and is still remembered today.
That Burns never went to work on a slave plantation is obvious to us now, but it was a very common and attractive career-choice for many other Scots around this time. It was through luck, not conviction, that Scotland’s bard avoided working on a slave plantation. We are also lucky that Burns never emigrated, this is partly because he would very probably have died even younger than he did. The standard career trajectory of Scots and other Europeans working in the West Indies was to make as much money as fast as possible, and then return home to build their estate and escape tropical disease. If Burns had died in his twenties in Jamaica, we may not have gained canon of songs of poems written and collected by Burns, and if we had, his work would be tainted by its association with the slave trade.
Robert Burns was never massively outspoken against the slave trade, although works such as ‘the Slaves Lament’ mean that he could not be described as pro-slavery. While Robert Burns never defended the slave trade, he profited from it indirectly, as we all have in modern Scotland.
In the next blog entry in this series I will explore the career of Dr. James Makittrick Adair, the defender of the slave trade who is buried in Robert Burns’ backyard.