Prose & SongCorrespondence & Poetry

Robert Burns, Slavery and Abolition: Contextualising the Abandoned Jamaica Sojourn in 1786 (Part 1 of 2)

Robert Burns is the most famous Scot in history not to be involved with Caribbean slavery. That he intended to go to Jamaica in late 1786 – in his own words as a ‘poor negro driver’ – is not in dispute and the famous ‘what if he went’ scenario does pose important questions. How could the great humanitarian even contemplate becoming involved with such a nefarious system? And what compelled him to remain in Scotland: improving economic situation, or moral principles? During the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, the reputations of contemporaries James Watt and Henry Dundas have been re-evaluated. If the University of Glasgow – an institution publicly committed to reparative justice – can endorse the continued glorification of Watt, a now infamous trafficker of an enslaved boy in Glasgow in 1762, the reputation and legacy of Robert Burns, who purchased tickets for Jamaica that he did not use, seems fairly secure. Nonetheless, it is useful to revisit Burns’s intentions and movements in light of recent developments.

Disclosure from the outset: during research for my forthcoming monograph, The Glasgow Sugar Aristocracy: Scotland and Caribbean Slavery, 1775-1838, I spent a period on research in Jamaica in 2014 which shaped a chapter focused on Scots on the island. I have examined records associated with many hundreds of Scots resident in the British West Indies in the final stages of Caribbean slavery, of which Burns was not one. But as noted by Clark McGinn, there are five important aspects to the traditional account of Burns to Jamaica – based upon an autobiographical letter to Dr John Moore in August 1787 and his younger brother Gilbert’s narrative – that will be summarised here. Firstly, Burns was offered a position as a ‘book-keeper’ (overseeing enslaved people in sugar cane fields) by Ayrshire landowner Dr Patrick Douglas, whose family owned Ayr Mount near Port Antonio in Portland on the north-eastern coast of Jamaica. This was managed by his brother, Charles Douglas, also a native of Ayrshire. Secondly, the salary has been assumed to be £30 per annum (although McGinn suggests it was likely less). Thirdly, Burns had to fund his own passage to Jamaica. To raise the finance, a patron, Gavin Hamilton, advised publishing work on a subscription basis (which ultimately became Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, otherwise known as the Kilmarnock Edition). Fourthly, Burns was separated from Jean Armour; her father disapproved of marriage and was rumoured to have begun legal proceedings. Burns was already in a relationship with ‘Highland’ Mary Campbell who was asked to go to Jamaica though she died prematurely. Fifthly, Burns booked three separate tickets for himself; the Nancy from Greenock for Savanna-la-Mar on 10 August 1786; the Bell from Greenock for Port Morant at the end of September; and the Roselle from Leith to Kingston on 23 December. McGinn’s detailed analysis of the itinerary of intended voyages suggests Burns only decided against the Jamaica sojourn in December 1786, and thus aborted the trip because a ‘better offer came along’ rather than principled opposition to chattel slavery.

The concept of ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors influencing outward migration from Scotland are well-known and can be identified in this case. Gilbert Burns’ narrative reveals Mossgiel farm (which the brothers had taken over in 1783) was ‘very unprofitable’, and that Robert’s private life was in some disarray. For educated men of lower rank, an escape to the West Indies was not uncommon in this period. In the second half of the eighteenth-century – when Burns did not go to the West Indies – it has been estimated that around 17,000 Scots did. Jamaica was undoubtedly the premier Scottish enclave. Planter-historian Edward Long estimated that one-third of white Jamaican society in 1774 (around 4,000 people) were Scots or of Scottish descent. One example is Robert Cunninghame Graham. An enslaver on the island between 1752 and 1770, he returned to Scotland and became Rector of the University of Glasgow (1785-7). The escape route offered paid employment amongst a large Scottish diaspora in Jamaica where some had become fabulously wealthy and improved their economic position and social standing at home.

Scots were notorious sojourners to the islands; temporary economic migrants intent on generating major wealth in as short a period as possible, perhaps as overseers, or bookkeepers, tradesmen, often with the intention of assuming ownership of enslaved people and/or sugar estates. Most Scots who travelled to the Caribbean died there from disease and in penury. Some returned to Scotland cash rich, a few of whom purchased landed estates. It was these unrepresentative examples that attracted others to go. It has been hypothesised Burns would have become an abolitionist after he was disenchanted with conditions in Jamaica, but in all likelihood he would have been dead within three years from yellow fever. As the man himself predicted if he had went: ‘a victim to that inhospitable clime, and gone to the world of spirits!’

Dr Stephen Mullen

(Part two coming this week)

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