Robert Burns and the Slave Trade: Part 3, Boswell’s case for the defence

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James Boswell is best known as the companion and biographer of Dr. Johnson, the author of ‘Johnson’s Dictionary’, but he was also an Ayrshire compatriot of Robert Burns. Despite their shared home and friends in common, Robert Burns and James Boswell never actually met. One reason for this may be that the conservative, Tory, wannabe-MP Boswell may have been worried about the negative impact that meeting Robert Burns, supporter of the French and American Revolutions, may have had to his career. It is therefore interesting to see Boswell as an upper-class parallel to Burns, and his views on slavery and the slave trade are worth exploring.


We know that Boswell started out opposed to the slave trade. As a young lawyer he was part of the defence team for Joseph Knight. This famous case involved a young man, Joseph Knight, who had run away from his master, John Wedderburn, while they were in Scotland. Knight then took Wedderburn to court, and won. The case established a precedent that slavery is illegal in Scotland … although it did not suggest that slavery in British Colonies was illegal. This would seem to put Boswell in the anti-slavery camp, and indeed, in 1787 he attended a meeting of the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade.


However, it was not long before Boswell appeared to have changed his mind, and became a supporter of the slave trade. Boswell always fancied himself as a gentleman rhymer, so it was natural for him to put his arguments forward in his pro-slavery poem of 1791, ‘No Abolition of Slavery; or the Universal Empire of Love’.

Boswell began his poem by addressing the abolitionists:


Noodles, who rave for abolition

Of th’ African’s improv’d condition,

At your own cost fine projects try;

Dont rob—from pure humanity.


Basically, instead of picking on plantation-owners, why don’t you make the world better in a way that eats into your own purse? Worse than this, the common people are getting involved in the debate, rather than leaving the issue of the slave trade to parliament, who always know best:


What frenzies will a rabble seize

In lax luxurious days, like these;

The People’s Majesty, forsooth,

Must fix our rights, define our truth


And worse than the people getting involved, SCOTLAND wants to have a say as well! Like many other of his countrymen departed to make their fortune in London, Boswell here turns on his birth-country:


Ev’n bony Scotland with her dirk,

Nay, her starv’d presbyterian kirk,

With ignorant effrontery prays

Britain to dim the western rays,

Which while they on our island fall

Give warmth and splendour to us all.


So far, Boswell has denigrated the people who are making the anti-slave trade argument, and saying that they do not know what they are talking about. Next he makes the argument, also made by Dr. James Makittrick Adair, that the slaves are better off than certain members of society and that they actually enjoy being slaves:


The cheerful gang!—the negroes see

Perform the task of industry:

Of food, clothes, cleanly lodging sure,

Each has his property secure;

Their wives and children are protected,

In sickness they are not neglected;


While Burns appears to have begun life – perhaps – uninformed about the slave trade and then became more radical and opposed to slavery, Boswell seems to have taken the opposite route, and while he started as a defender of slaves, ended up as a defender of slavery.


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