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

The financial success of the Kilmarnock edition is sometimes cited by commentators as the reason why Burns did not go to Jamaica; but this is a simplistic take. The ‘Proposals for Publishing, by Subscription, Scotch Poems’ appeared on 14 April 1786, and publication followed on 31 July. The Kilmarnock edition sold 612 copies at 3 shillings, grossing c.£91 sterling of which Burns, in his own words, ‘pocketed, all expenses deducted, nearly twenty pounds’. This was not a life changing sum – for comparison, the annual wages of a male servant in Scotland in the 1790s was around £6 – but it was more than enough to secure passage to Jamaica if he were that intent on going. There is no doubt he intended to go. On 22 July, he signed an assignation of his effects – including profits from the Kilmarnock edition, and copyright of his work – over to his brother for the benefit of his illegitimate daughter. Later writing to Dr John Moore in August 1787, Burns confirmed in his typically coarse tone when discussing the Caribbean: ‘as soon as I was master of nine guineas [£9 9s], the price of wafting me to the torrid zone, I took a steerage passage in the first ship that was to sail from the Clyde’ (presumably the Nancy on 10 August). The alternative mode of subsidised travel, which Burns had also considered, was to sign an indentured contract, a legal agreement from which there would have been no backing out. In any case, Burns did not sail on the Nancy for Savanna-la-Mar on 10 August, with various reasons put forward by Gerry Carruthers for this. Moreover, since the Nancy was destined for the south-western corner of Jamaica, in his next intended voyage he was advised to sail closer to Ayr Mount and so he booked the passage on the Bell from Greenock to Port Morant at the end of September.

Fortuitously, a complimentary letter was sent to a friend on 4 September from Dr Thomas Blackstock, described as a ‘minor poet’, which provided Burns with ‘new prospects to my poetic ambition’. Instead of Jamaica, the bard went to Edinburgh. Thus, it was not the finance from the Kilmarnock edition that caused him to remain, rather it was something much less secure. Burns gave up a paid passage to Jamaica to chase the literary dream. A second edition, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (Edinburgh Edition), followed. According to Patrick Scott and Craig Lamont, this was in production from December 1786 and published in April 1787. In the meantime, Burns intended (again) to depart for Kingston on the Roselle on 23 December, but prosperous circumstances intervened. According to Nigel Leask, Burns made as much as £700 from the Edinburgh edition. In other words, the Edinburgh literati embraced Burns after the Kilmarnock edition, but it was not until the second edition that he accumulated large returns and, for the third time, cancelled a voyage to Jamaica. His subsequent career need not be recounted here, except to note A Slaves Lament (1792) is often credited to Burns – although there is a disagreement between Burnsian scholars Murray Pittock and Gerry Carruthers about the context of the song – and it is sometimes juxtaposed as a redemptive work after the previous flirtation with enslavers. Yet, having never stepped foot in the Caribbean, Burns had no reason to seek redemption.

‘Burns nearly went to Jamaica’ is invariably mentioned when Scotland and Caribbean slavery is discussed, including in my own popular work, It Wisnae Us (2009). To literary and Burnsian scholars, the ‘what if’ is a fascinating study of the bard’s mentalité and moral principles (or lack thereof). To critics and defenders amongst the general public, it provides evidence of his many character flaws or an opportunity to minimise his intentions. To an historian of slavery and the British Atlantic world, it is merely an interesting footnote of how certain factors might have combined to ‘push’ an educated young man to Jamaica. It seems increasingly odd that a man who did not go to the West Indies has become shorthand for the c.17,000 who did, most of whom remain anonymous in the modern Scottish imagination and the legacies of that wealth almost invisible. Yet, in the current climate of re-evaluating how individuals and properties with verifiable connections to slavery are commemorated, the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, Alloway, Ayrshire has reportedly been included in a National Trust for Scotland list of those ‘deeply connected’. This inclusion is only sustainable if ‘deep connection’ to slavery covers individuals with ‘no tangible connection at all’. As new forms of memorialisation and contextualisation are developed, academics and policy makers need to tread very carefully when defining what a ‘slavery connection’ really was. Alas, it seems likely that Scotland’s national bard will always be famous for voyages he did not make, and a poem he may not have written.

Dr Stephen Mullen

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