Robert Burns and the slave trade – Part 2: Makittrick and Son

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James Makittrick Adair was born in 1728 to the Ayr doctor, James Makittrick. James Makittrick Adair decided to practise medicine as well. James Makittrick Adair’s son – also named James Makittrick Adair – also became a doctor. James Makittrick Adair (junior) would go on to travel with Robert Burns to Harvieston in 1787. Makittrick Adair junior married Charlotte Hamilton, a woman who Burns himself may have had his eye on, as she was the inspiration for the love song ‘the Banks of Devon’. However, it is Dr. James Makittrick Adair senior (son of Dr. James Makittrick, father of Dr. James Makittrick Adair) that this article is interested in. Rather than practising in Ayr like his father, Adair took the route followed by many other Scots during the boom time of the West Indian sugar trade, and went to Antigua. On Antigua, Adair was appointed physician to the troops stationed at Fort Great George, and also became a slave-owner. Having made money and connexions, Adair returned to Britain in 1787 (the same year that his son was travelling with Burns) and set up as a doctor in uber-fashionable Bath.


James Makittrick Adair senior seems to have been a likeable man, he wrote essays poking fun at high society hypochondriacs who were convinced they had ‘fashionable diseases’ and he denounced quack doctors, this tendency to be opinionated also got him in trouble, he was jailed for duelling, and got caught up in the sort of violently libellous pamphlet wars that epitomised the literary eighteenth century. Adair died in 1801, and you can see his gravestone just round the back of Alloway Auld Kirk, propped up against the wall.


As well as epitomising the many Scots who practised medicine in the British colonies, James Makittrick Adair also represents the Scots who profited from and defended the slave trade. Adair made his views on the slave trade clear in 1790, when he wrote the unambiguously titled ‘Unanswerable Arguments Against the Abolition of the Slave Trade’.


The way that European slave traders received their slaves in Africa was that Africans would sell Africans of another tribe or nation into slavery, often these people had been captured during inter-tribal warfare. Some abolitionists had pointed out that not only were the Europeans taking advantage of these inter-tribal conflicts, but that these conflicts were sometimes caused by one tribe attacking another tribe so that they could capture slaves.

Adair believed the opposite, in fact he went so far as to say that the slave trade:

‘…is probably permitted by Providence, as the means of preserving the lives of many thousands who would otherwise be put to death…’

One of Adair’s early points is that we in Europe will always want and need sugar, so sugar will need to be produced by someone. If we decide to abolish the slave trade, it would be impossible for British planters to run sugar plantations and sell sugar, so not only would Britain lose money from trade, but we in Britain would still need to buy sugar from someone, perhaps even from our enemies the Dutch or the French, and they would still use slaves. Adair muses ‘whether we shall be in a degree less culpable in abetting slavery indirectly by purchasing the fruits of it from foreigners, rather than from our own subjects.’


Instead of moaning about the plight of the slaves, Adair asks that we consider the West Indian planters for once. Adair points out that the planters wouldn’t import slaves if they didn’t have to. ‘would the planters oppose the abolition, were they convinced that they could conduct these plantations without annual recruits?’

Of course not! Buying slaves is a massive expense, and means that the planters’ ‘disposition to live in an expensive stile [is] much restrained’

Far from living in luxury, Adair claims that the planters are in massive debt as it is

‘and struggling, like a drowning man, to keep his head above water, the abolition of the slave trade must, inevitably, sink him into the abyss of ruin, and he will drag the British Empire along with him’


While talking about the cruel punishment of slaves, Adair said that the larger number of African slaves when compared to white planters, meant that the planters needed to use harsh discipline as a way of keeping their slaves in line, ‘rigid discipline [was] their only security against insurrection’. Elsewhere, Adair warned his British readers not to put abolitionist ideas into the slaves heads, as the idea that they could achieve freedom‘may produce a general revolt’, which would be ruinous for the colonies and for the mother country.


The fear of slave uprisings is one shared by the defenders of slavery, and was a common reason given as to why slaves should not be freed. In the case of eighteenth century slave-owners, these fears of uprisings were well-founded. The massively profitable French sugar colony of Saint Domingue had a population that contained ten times as many African slaves as it did black or white free citizen. In 1791, news of the French Revolution and the supposed equality of all men, led the slaves on Saint Domingue to revolt, this conflict lasted from 1791 to 1804, and led to the foundation of the Republic of Haiti. It was the only slave revolt ever to achieve full success. An ugly culmination – though one that mirrored the French Terror – to the Haitian Revolution came in 1804, when Jean Jacques Dessalines, the first emperor of the new republic, ordered the massacre of the remaining white population of Haiti. 3-5000 men, women and children were allegedly slaughtered in this act of revenge and consolidation.


Dr. James Makittrick Adair wrote his defence of the slave trade in 1790, during the opening stages of the abolitionist movement in Britain. In the next article in this series I will explore the work of another contemporary of Robert Burns who defended the slave trade, a man whose name is better known to us than all three of the Doctors Makittrick, his name was James Boswell.


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