Robert Burns and Slavery

Hard times and difficult choices

Burns's life had many turns of fate and in many ways, the year 1786 saw him at the lowest of them. Financially, he faced ruin as a combination of his father's death and the poor soil on the farm he worked with his brother had reduced them to near starvation. His love life was even more troubled. He had been nearly married to his first love Jean (to the horror of her parents and the Church) but they had agreed to separate (without knowing that Jean was pregnant with twins); then Robert had fallen in love with another, 'Highland Mary' who died suddenly while waiting for him to come to her. Jean's vindictive father sought court proceedings to arrest him so, like a fox with the hounds snapping at his heels, Robert needed to escape.

Patrick Douglas was a doctor and friend of Burns with investments in an estate in Jamaica. This made him wealthy through the sugar which was so much in demand in Scotland (We still retain a sweet tooth today!). His brother was the resident manager and had a vacancy on the small white staff of overseers. Burns accepted the position, although some friends worried about his health in the climate, and he planned his emigration from the woes around him.

But the fact that hurts is that, like all West Indian plantations, the Douglas enterprise was firmly built on black slave labour. Some commentators play the 'get-out-of-jail-free card' to RB here. He was 'only to be the bookkeeper'.

It is true that the appellation sounds quite dull; but being 'bookkeeper' was as much about managing the assets as the numbers. He would have a daily interface with the truth of slavery - from assisting in purchases, through recording punishments and deaths and an ambitious young man might seek advancement by volunteering to be more 'hands-on'. Certainly, in a letter, Burns described his role as 'a poor Negro driver' which puts him more on the executive than the administrative arm.

History intervened though as, in a last defiance of his enemies, he published his Poems to instant acclaim and Robert turned from the ports towards the City of Edinburgh, fame and marriage with Jean. But the worry remains: our poet had voluntarily contracted to become a manager of enslaved human beings - does this harm our view of him?

Burns and slavery

The obvious irony is that 'slavery' is an important word in many of Burns's poems. His great national poem, based on Bruce's speech to the army before Bannockburn, 'Scots Wha Hae', reflects blood-firing sentiments that are still active in Scotland today. Throughout he contrasts the importance of freedom with the outrageously unacceptable 'Chains and Slaverie'.

The only directly relevant poem is 'The Slave's Lament' (of 1792) which, while not in the first rank of his talent, at least reinforces our view of Burns as the friend of humanity and an enemy of injustice or oppression.

It was in sweet Senegal that my foes did me enthral,
For the lands of Virginia, - ginia, O:
Torn from that lovely shore, and must never see it more;
And alas! I am weary, weary O:
Torn from that lovely shore, and must never see it more;
And alas! I am weary, weary O.

All on that charming coast is no bitter snow and frost,
Like the lands of Virginia, - ginia, O:
There streams for ever flow, and there flowers for ever blow,
And alas! I am weary, weary O:
There streams for ever flow, and there flowers for ever blow,
And alas! I am weary, weary O:

The burden I must bear, while the cruel scourge I fear,
In the lands of Virginia, - ginia, O;
And I think on friends most dear, with the bitter, bitter tear,
And alas! I am weary, weary O:
And I think on friends most dear, with the bitter, bitter tear,
And alas! I am weary, weary O:

So we have a definitively Abolitionist poem, but how do we reconcile those sentiments to Burns's contract to serve the slave masters?


Injustice at home

The first step is to recognise Burns's total hatred of injustice. In his 'Address to Beelzebub' he attacks the chieftains who 'own' the Highland peasant folk trying to escape to a new life in Canada; while in 'The 'Twa Dogs', he pictures the poor Lowland tenants badgered by the laird's factor (an overseer in another context) when they are hard pressed to pay the rent. This reflects some cruel realities in Scotland at that time. Until 1799, coalminers and salters were legally bound for life as serfs to the pits and pans they worked - the master could legally sell mine and men as one going concern! So Burns had seen forms of slavery - legal in the case of miners and social in terms of the poor tenant farmers - in his native Ayrshire.

Many believed (either innocently or to hide their shame) that white serfdom and the black slavery were similar. Shortly after Burns' 1786 crisis, William Wilberforce made his first speech against the Slave trade, a call which particularly appealed to Scots and which grew into a popular Scottish movement for freedom, peaking in 1792. I think we see here the development of Robert's understanding of the iniquity of black slavery over those six years.


Injustice abroad

The second element was in being a West Coast man. The economic foundation of Glasgow was the riches of the families who farmed - or had slaves to do it for them - the great Virginian tobacco fields. These entrepreneurs (whose names still grace the streets in Glasgow) created the wealth that allowed a commercial rivalry to Edinburgh. The 'Tobacco Lords' were astute and like the butcher who never shows how sausages are made, they held quiet on the true human costs. Sad to say that many were - or chose to be fooled into - accepting that pitiless proverb: 'You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs'.

Scots were prominent in the West Indies, representing over a third of the white Jamaican population. Advancement was possible, if you didn't focus on the morality. To make it easier, a salary of 30 a year looked quite tempting compared to an average labouring wage of 23 or the subsistence existence of a smallholder. Robert would have seen many lads leave in similar straits, only to return after a decade: weathered brown in skin, but golden in pocket.

I love Burns, but he was no saint (that's both a compliment and a criticism). He is a mix of passion and pragmatism and in June 1786 he was in a right hard fix. Without reading his mind, did he see oppression and poverty in Scotland in a similar light to the oppression of Jamaica?


The Abolition Debate

Burns's growing awareness echoes the development of thought in Scotland arguing for Abolition. The arguments were strong, as some of us can understand from watching the apartheid regime collapse slowly, and that growing conviction would have been an influence on many.

In terms of the active debate, Burns would have seen the slave-owners championed by people that he despised: from Richard Oswald who bought the estate of Auchencruive near Robert's farm in Ayrshire from his profits as one of the few active Scots slave traders, to the noxious James Maclehose (the feckless husband of 'Clarinda', his great Edinburgh love) - all people whom Burns reviled.

On the side of emancipation stood 'Dalrymple mild' of Ayr Auld Kirk who had baptised the infant Robert Burns, Robin in 1759, William Robertson and Hugh Blair in whose Edinburgh salons he was lionised and even that hard businessman Creech, the publisher of Burns's later editions. We know which people Burns would side with in this argument.

But in 1786, the position was less clear, voices were still gathering, evidence was remote and disguised; so it's not too hard to imagine a young man with no prospects, grabbing at a lifeline and venturing abroad without too many questions. Upon arrival, we can only guess at his horror as the depravity and barbarism unfolded.

Thank heavens, the publication of his Poems meant that the sloop left for the Indies without Burns. I am certain that whatever the rationale for accepting the passage initially, the man who shared his fears with the mouse in the field, who consistently defied oppression and who understood 'man's inhumanity to man' could not have been complicit.

It seems too coincidental that the abolitionist's badge of the period, with Wedgwood's iconic design of the kneeling slave, carried the slogan:

'Am I not a man and a brother?'

Or as we sing with our Burns,

'that man to man the world o'er, shall brothers be for a' that.'

That is his true belief. Let it be so.


Clark McGinn Biography

Clark McGinn was born in Ayr and educated at Ayr Academy and Glasgow University. Now a banker by trade, he lives an expat life in London with his wife and daughters, but his love of Burns takes him to Burns Suppers around the world every year to propose the Immortal Memory. His book: 'The Ultimate Burns Supper Book' was published in 2007 by Luath Press.

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Last updated 16 Jan 2014