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Robert Burns Lives!
Burns and Slavery


Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Dawsonville, GA, USA
Email: [email protected]

Robert Burns has always been a good topic to write about as thousands of people can attest to having done so in the form of books or articles, not to mention the tons of annual speeches during Burns Night Suppers each January. Lately there has been much interest in Burns and slavery. A presentation entitled “Robert Burns and Slavery: The Dumfries and Galloway Context” was presented in the spring of 2009 at the University of South Carolina by Lizanne Henderson of the University of Glasgow Dumfries Campus. In the fascinating book, Fickle Man, edited by Johnny Rodger and Gerry Carruthers (see review on Robert Burns Lives! at http://www.electricscotland.com/familytree/frank/burns_lives51.htm), there is an excellent chapter on Burns and slavery by Carruthers. Also on Robert Burns Lives! (http://www.electricscotland.com/familytree/frank/burns_lives55.htm) is an additional piece by Carruthers on the subject. Others I am aware of having written on the topic include noted Burns professors Corey Andrews and Carol McGuirk.

Early in his young life Burns had contemplated fleeing Scotland for the islands and working for a slave-operated plantation. Can’t imagine him being part of an operation like that but a desperate man will sometimes contemplate doing things he never would have under normal circumstances. Even though Burns booked passage for his trip on several boats, I do not believe his heart was in it and the ships left without him. Publishing Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect had a lot to do with his decision to remain in Scotland because, for the first time, he had money in his pocket. For a man in his position, it was a quite a lot of money. Jamaica and the West Indies lost out on Burns and the world gained one of its better poets “for a’that”!

Below is an article by one of our favorite contributors, Clark McGinn. It is intriguing and does not lack proper documentation. Clark is one of the best two or three speakers on the Burns circuit worldwide and a Burns scholar if there ever was one! I would be glad to have articles on this topic by others to share with our readers, so please send them for inclusion on Robert Burns Lives! or simply share your thoughts on Burns and slavery with us through the email address above. (FRS: 7.22.10)

BURNS AND SLAVERY i
By CLARK McGINN

Burns has also been described as a poet of the poor, an advocate of social and political change, and an opponent of slavery, pomposity and greed.
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan
ii

Robert Burns, Scotland's national poet, is loved the world over as the bard of freedom, liberty and the common good of humankind. So in this, the run up to the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery, it comes as a great shock to many that he once accepted a job to help manage a slave plantation in the West Indies. What is the real story here – how could our Burns, the people's poet, look to become an instrument in what many now call 'The Black Holocaust'?

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 Kirk) but they had agreed to separate (without knowing that Jean was pregnant with twins); then Robert had fallen in love with another girl, whom we now call 'Highland Mary' who died suddenly while waiting for him to come to her. Jean's vindictive father sought court proceedings to arrest Robert and force him to support his illegitimate child so, like a fox with the hounds snapping at his heels, the poet needed to escape.

Patrick Douglas of Garallan was a local 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.

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?

Part One: Robert Burns: Face to face with Slavery – 1780s

Since 2007 a number of writers sought to explore his attitudes to, and engagement with, what Burns had called ‘the infernal trade’iii. Black slavery and its abolition is hardly touched on in his lettersiv and is the subject of only one relatively weak poem (The Slave’s Lamentv) and this near silence raises questions about whether the poet who was famed for his humanity failed to register the human cost of chattel slavery.

In fact Burns’s attitude to the slave question has been a point of concern for many years. The great abolitionist Reverend Henry Beecher Wardvi summed up this conflict in his Immortal Memory for the Burns Club of New York in 1859:

Persecution hung over him; his farming labours were disastrous, and he determined as the last resort of a broken-down and discouraged man, to go to Jamaica as the overseer of a plantation. I think I see Robert Burns on a plantation, with a whip under his arm. I think I see Robert Burns following a gang of slaves, and chanting ‘A man’s a man for a’ that.’ Poor Burns was in a very bad way, but he was not as bad as that.vii

Could it simply be that Burns failed to engage or understand the plight of Black slaves in 1786 because he had never met a Black person? As Gerry Carruthers rightly says, while Ayrshire made good money out of the slave economy: ‘Scotland had no such notorious port as Liverpool or Bristol where African slaves …were chained in the most appalling captivity.’viii That’s not to say that slaves were invisible to Ayrshire sensibilities. At the time RB considered throwing over Scotland and seeking a new life in the Caribbean (until making his fortune would hopefully allow his return), Ayrshire’s society included a number of rich West Indian plantocrats who had followed that exact career. These men had made fortunes overseas by exploiting slaves and returned to a prominent place in the county’s social hierarchy, bringing back Black servants to their Scottish households during the lifetime of Burns. Fictionally this trend was caricatured in Galt’s ‘Annals Of The Parish’ where Mr Cayenne arrives at Dalmailing in 1785 with his ‘Blackamoor servant’ (jarringly called ‘Sambo’) in towix.

The most famous real example at this period in Ayrshire is the Black freedman Scipio Kennedy. He was a Guinea slavex who came to the Kennedy family as part of the dowry brought by a slave captain’s daughter when she married into one of Ayrshire’s oldest and richest dynasties. Scipio was freed in 1725, but voluntarilyxi indentured himself to serve the family at Culzean. He was a well known part of Kirkoswald life: Kirkoswald Kirk saw him christened and worship, here he was censured for fornication, marriedxii and ultimately he was buried in the churchyard in June 1774, the year before Burns came to study therexiii. Scipio’s son Douglas and his five siblings still lived in the village for some years after Scipio’s death and Burns may well have met them but must at least certainly have seen them each Sunday in the Kirk where everyone in the village gathered for Divine Service.

Nearby lived Mungo Smith of Drongan (albeit he was an East Indies nabob rather than West Indies plantocrat). He had the reputation of being a forward-looking agricultural improver and an early industrialist, notably employing Symington to build a steam engine to power his colliery xiv. He is recorded on the tax returns as having kept a ‘Black boy called Jack Scott’ between 1777 and 1779xv. Smith served as the master of Lodge Tarbolton (Kilwinning) St James in 1780-81 during its merger with its fellow lodge which was the year Burns joined and subsequently Smith was a subscriber to the Edinburgh Edition, so he too may well have met the poet though there is no record of RB ever seeing Smith’s servant Jack Scott.

The Hamilton family was powerful in Jamaica and Ayrshire, with several estates on both sides of the Atlanticxvi. The elder brother Robert was based at Bourtreehill near Irvine (we know William Burness borrowed books from Hamilton’s gardenerxvii) and later he bought an estate in Ayr which he renamed Rozelle after one of his Jamaican propertiesxviii. His nephew, John Hamilton of Sundrum, was better known to the Burns family as he acted as the oversman or arbitrator in the painful and protracted legal dispute which William Burness fell into with his Lochlie landlord. The connection was enhanced as Sundrum too was a founder member of Lodge St James (passing the chair in 1777). There is an interesting tale about how this old college friend and neighbour of James Boswell’sxix worked his estate:

In the village of Joppa on the main road from Ayr to Cumnock there were at one time a number of Negroes brought from the plantations in West Indies, belonging to John Hamilton of Sundrum. They intermarried with the local inhabitants, and traces of Negro in the hair and countenance could be observed for some generations.xx

Certainly, the Hamilton connections with the Caribbean lasted for more than another century as Sundrum’s son Colonel AW Hamilton of Pinmore acquired the Bellisle estate (on the road between Ayr and Burns Cottage)xxi and had a Black butler at the house from 1788; while as late as 1894 a Black stonemason, who had been born on the Hamilton Jamaica plantations, died an old man after a (free) working life at Sundrum. It is highly likely that there were other transient servants seen in Ayrshire, whether accompanying visiting Glasgow ‘Tobacco Lords’ or on duty at the other plantocrat estates in the county such as the Oswalds at Auchincruive.xxii

It was not just a county phenomenon, one gentleman called Macadam had a Black servant resident in Irvine who is recorded as having gone insane and had to be incarcerated in the town’s Tolbooth in 1785xxiii (although that was after RB’s unlucky sojourn there, but the fracas did make the newspapers so again while there is no direct evidence, it is possible that this newsworthy event came to Burns’s attention).

So there were Black inhabitants in Ayrshire at the time Burns was considering his Atlantic crossing. At the very least, Burns would have been aware of these few people in his society, albeit he may not have had direct meetings or relationships with any of these early Black inhabitants of Scotland however; the concept of a Black person could not have been totally alien to his experience in the county.

Of course, in 1786 many people were directly or obliquely benefiting from the wealth of the sugar crop in the West Indies and it would be wrong to underestimate the direct involvement of Scots in operating the slave trade and in managing the slave economy of the Caribbean with estimates that up to one third of the white employees of Jamaica were from Scotlandxxiv. Professor Geoff Palmer sums up the overall effect of the Scottish in Jamaican history in a telling illustration:

I have a Jamaican telephone directory and I would say that about 60% of the names in it are Scottish.xxv

So it was in the interest of many not to have the slave-question openly discussed as many Scottish fortunes were still being made on its back. This would be particularly relevant for Robert 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 and the booming sugar crop after the American Revolution closed off the Virginia trade. 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'.

When Samuel Ringgold Ward, a Black abolitionist, visited Scotland in 1853 he fearlessly admonished those who glossed over the impact that fellow Scots had on the slave economy and shocked his audience by showing them how traditional, clichéd Scottish ‘virtues’ could become inhuman vices in another context:

Scotchmen, in the West Indies, became slaveholders. They were severely exacting and oppressive. It was just like them to demand, and, if possible, to receive, the last 'baubee', from the unpaid toil of their slaves. They required the exhibition of Scottish energy from their bondmen; if they did not receive it, they were prepared to exhibit Scotch energy in forcing it out of them. Instances of this sort are to be remembered of many Scotch slaveholders (and, alas! by many Negroes, who were their slaves) to this day. The record of them, and the names of their perpetrators, would be the largest, Blackest roll and record of infamy that ever disgraced the Scottish name or blighted Scottish character.xxvi

But that was seventy years after Burns was contemplating flight in 1786 there was not yet a great movement in place to force the many to face the realities of what Scots were doing to their fellow men across the Atlantic. 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.

While it is possible that Burns had met Black people in Ayrshire in his youth so, if he was not unacquainted with black people, was the poet unaware of what was actually happening on the ground in the West Indies?

What did RB think about the question of slavery when offered the job by the Douglases? While we cannot read inside the plaster cast of his skull, we can look at a helpful analogy of a young man of the time who went through almost exactly the same change of life as Burns was planning in 1786 and who recorded his life changing experiences for history.

Zachary Macaulay was the son of the Manse in Inverary, born a few years after RB in 1768. He was known as a bright lad with a love of reading and so his father sent him to work in a counting house in Glasgow. Here his joy in books led him astray with the students of the University and ended up in too many evenings fuelled by much beer and increasingly open criticism of the Kirk. To straighten out his life he agreed with his reverend father to cross the seas:

Towards the end of the year 1784 a circumstance happened which gave a temporary suspension to my career, and led to a few sober reflections. I then saw that the only way that remained to extricate myself from the labyrinth in which I was involved was going abroad. I made known my wish to my father, and it was determined that I should try my fortunes in the East Indies.xxvii

A paternal friend suggested Jamaica as a place of greater opportunities and so the sixteen year old boy set off to the Caribbean, as many had done before and as RB would plan to do two years later. On arrival he ‘obtained the situation of under-manager or book-keeper on a sugar plantation.’xxviii No doubt thinking of the kind of tasks he had performed on the books back in Glasgow, he turned up to his new post to be met with a radically different prospect of duty:

Here I entered upon a new mode of life which waged war with all my tastes and feelings. My position was laborious, irksome, and degrading, to a degree of which I could have formed no previous conception, and which none can imagine fully who have not, like me, experienced the vexatious, capricious, tyrannical, and pitiless conduct of a Jamaica overseer. To this, however, I made it a point of honour to reconcile my mind. Indeed I saw there was no medium for me, under the circumstances, between doing so and starving. xxix

However unpleasant this was Zachary was trapped with no money for the passage home and no other way of sustaining himself, so he took that unhappy compromise that many have done: adopting the option of participating in the tyranny, but oiling his conscience by trying to be a ‘fair’ master and ‘shelter’ the slaves from the worst excesses of his brother slave drivers:

I therefore submitted with cheerfulness to all the severe toil and painful watchings which were required of me. What chiefly affected me at first was, that by my situation I was exposed not only to the sight, but also to the practice of severities over others, the very recollection of which makes my blood run cold. My mind was at first feelingly alive to the miseries of the poor slaves, and I not only revolted from the thought of myself inflicting punishment upon them, but the very sight of punishment sickened me.xxx

Time, heat and moral compromise wore Zachary down and soon he was adopting the cast of mind of the society around him. He wrote to a Scottish friend in 1785:

But far other is now my lot, doomed by my own folly to toil for a scanty subsistence in an inhospitable clime. The air of this island must have some peculiar quality in it, for no sooner does a person set foot on it than his former ways of thinking are entirely changed. The contagion of an universal example must indeed have its effect. You would hardly know your friend, with whom you have spent so many hours in more peaceful and more pleasant scenes, were you to view me in a field of canes, amidst perhaps a hundred of the sable race, cursing and bawling, while the noise of the whip resounding on their shoulders, and the cries of the poor wretches, would make you imagine that some unlucky accident had carried you to the doleful shadesxxxi
 

Simply put, the industry based on the slave trade was inhuman, so it was no surprise that the white ‘society’ built on it was brutalised too, no ‘Jamaica bodies’ these as Burns pictured them in his verses:

My outward conduct indeed, for a West Indian planter, was sober and decorous, for I affected superiority to the grossly vulgar manners and practices which disgrace almost every rank of men in the West Indies, but my habits and dispositions were now fundamentally the same. In these I was quite assimilated to my neighbours, and this is a part of my life of which I scarce like either to speak or think. It was a period of most degrading servitude to the worst of masters.xxxii

It may seem that neither Macaulay (nor Burns) consciously or unconsciously thought about what they would meet at the end of their Atlantic crossing – truly planter society described by Zachary in no way looks like the good Scots folk that Burns hoped would find a ‘cozie biel’ for a ‘dainty chiel’xxxiii. On top of the appalling social mores, there was, of course, a genuine risk of death in service. And while Zachary and Burns were free contractors rather than indentured men, their personal lot had serious risks:

Bookkeepers were not expected to marry, and were often forbidden to do so, but were encouraged to take ‘housekeepers’ from amongst the slave women. They lived, as a rule, in comfortless barracks exposed to the malarious influences so common around sugar works, and totally devoid of the refinement most of them were accustomed to in Scotland. The death registers of the colony indicate that 90 per cent. of the young white men who went out as employees on estates succumbed to the effects of imprudence and intemperate living. After the first shock of contact they were able to lose the fine sense of moral responsibility acquired in their Scottish homes, and were tempted to spend their scanty leisure time in low debauchery.xxxiv

In time, though, Zachary got a ‘get out of jail free card’. After a serious bout of illness renewed his Christian introspection, his uncle in London wrote offering a free passage home and place of work. Macaulay jumped at the chance and returned to England in 1789, but did not leave the ‘thick cloud of evils’xxxv behind. He settled in Clapham and joined its famous evangelical sect where he met Wilberforce and became one of the leaders of the abolition movement. Today, his monument sits yards away from RB’s in Westminster Abbey.

When Burns was considering fleeing Scotland for Jamaica, he had set out with the aim of realising enough cash from his poems to pay his passage out, in fact the financial success allowed him to stay in Scotland and not meet the hard truths faced by Macaulay. Zachary’s experience is a fair representation of what Robert would have known ahead of leaving and what he would have found life ‘as a poor negro driver’xxxvi had he arrived. There was not yet a widespread debate about, let alone a broad condemnation of, slavery, and the harsh truths were likely to have been understated or hidden from the folks at home. A young man, be it Robert or Zachary, was unlikely to have an appreciation of the cruelty underlying every part of the slave economy. Macaulay’s journey (physical, mental and moral) seems a good tool to use to interpret Burns’s mindset in 1786. Neither had a vision or comprehension of the Kurtz horrors they would starkly face across the sea.

While his negotiation of a contract with the Douglas brothers does not look like a wilful decision to share in the spoils of a corrupt and immoral institution, however, the simple fact that Burns looked to become one of the overseer or factor class does reflect poorly on him but that is not sufficient to condemn his decision – thankfully never completed – to leave Ayrshire for Jamaica in that Summer of 1786.

Part Two: Other Voices, Other Evidence – the 1790s.

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?

In the forum of public debate, 1786 was before what Iain Whyte calls the mobilisation of public support through the pulpits between 1788 and 1792 xxxvii . The Knight case had been through the Court of Session in 1776 and that must have stirred memories of the Montgomery case just before RB’s birth which involved an Ayrshire master and his runaway slavexxxviii. So while a young man like Burns may have seen or met Black people in Ayrshire it is hard to imagine that he would be any wiser than young Zachary Macaulay.

Young Burns does not seem to see slavery as an issue at all. Certainly when Burns was hurling invective at the late Mrs Oswald, the daughter of one of Jamaica’s wealthiest slave owners and the widow of Ayrshire’s most successful slave trader, in early 1786xxxix the insults are clearly about her wealth, not its roots in slavery. Similarly, in The Mauchline Wedding’ (written in 1785) Burns teases an old flame whose brother married a local girl on the strength of the bequest of £500 in ‘Jamaica siller’xl left to her by a brother who met his death working the plantations. Again, we see no attack on the source of the fortune, only its effect.

Philosophers and writers schooled by Francis Hutcheson of Glasgow University had expressed genuine concern about the ethics of slavery and we know RB read and studied Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentimentsxli, which has a brief attack on slavery, couched in terms of the polity of ancient Greek states who were:

involved in the most sanguinary wars in which each sought … either completely to extirpate all his enemies or, what was not less cruel, to reduce them to the vilest of all states, that of domestic slavery, and to sell them , man, woman and child like so many herd of cattle , to the highest bidder in the market. xlii

This passage may have stuck in RB’s mind in 1786 when he alluded to emigration (to escape the consequences of his ‘sport’ or fornication) in The Epistle to John Rankin:

Lord, I’se hae sporting by an’ by
For my gowd guinea,
Tho’ I should herd the buckskin kye
For’t in Virginia.xliii

There is a good argument that you can read this poem as revealing that Burns had more awareness of what a role in the New World meant for a young white bookkeeper: for the cattle (‘kye’) those buckskin-clad planters were herding were likely to be Black human ‘cattle’, a periphrasis often used in describing slaves in reports and inventories, echoing the Smith quote above. In another poem of that period, RB now seems clumsy in his use of the word ‘niger’ (sic) in The Ordinationxliv (at least to our ears) but even the use of the word in this poem satirising the rivalries in Biblical interpretation is not a direct reference to Black chattel slavery.

On balance, it looks more as if he failed to differentiate between the fates of Black slaves and the grinding lot of the poor peasantry of Scotland with whom he was intimately acquainted.xlv

This is clearly seen in the autobiographical letter to Dr Moorexlvi where he described his own life on the farm as ‘the unceasing moil of a galley slave’ then unselfconsciously only a few lines later lamented his future as a ‘poor Negro driver’. This failure of understanding may have been caused by thought of how his own life could change if he was obliged to become an indentured servant. Burns mentions that possibility in this letter, as he briefly considered this form of fixed term bondsmanship as a method of raising the money for his passage if ‘his master’ was unwilling to pay his fare. Indentured service was not uncommon in Scotland or the American colonies and shares aspects of servitude if not formal slavery. It looks as if Burns did not differentiate between this form of employment and the extremity of chattel slavery.

The most extreme form of indentured bondage covered workmen in Scotland’s salt and coal industries, who despite ameliorative legislation in 1775, still suffered near slavery. White working families in Ayrshire such as the salters around Saltcoats and Kilburnie and those employed at the growing collieries (such as Smith’s at Drongan) were bound for life (with their wives and children too) to the workings of pan and pit until the law freed them finally in 1798. Interestingly, Burns makes no comment in poem or letters about the plight of this class of poor humanity either. Were they too out of his sight? When he visits the lead mines at Wanlockheadxlvii with Maria Riddell, neither of them takes issue with the hard life the skilled lead miners face (although free of servitude and highly paid, it was still hard and dangerous work); nor when he unsuccessfully tried to visit the huge Carron Works (Scotland’s largest industrial complex of the time) is there any exhibition of concern for the condition of the workforce. At this level, Burns seems to have an undifferentiated view of the poor working class – that all poor workers share in this ‘galley slavery’ regardless of colour, legal form of service or location.xlviii

Turning from the young Burns of 1786 to the older Burns in Dumfries (not that he was that much older). After 1788 the question of abolishing the Black slave trade was common talk and debate was taken up across Scotland, with notable contributions from Ayrshire and Dumfries, including many people whom Burns knew wellxlix. So later in Burns’s life, we do see some involvement in the issues of slavery and abolition through a single poem: The Slave’s Lament composed in 1792. Despite being championed by Maya Angelou, who has described Burns as a ‘slave’ himself, Gerry Carruthers is right when he says it is hardly the strongest exhibition of sentiment in the Burns canonl while Ian Whyte labels it ‘whimsical’li; the very interesting point is that Burns writes of a Senegalese slave destined for Virginia, not the West Indies. Was Jamaica just too close to home in terms of RB’s history or was it easier to avoid the Scottish question and to criticise the Southern States of the now independent USA whose direct links with Glasgow had diminished?

This and one letter are all Burns’s extant writings on the subject. Nigel Leaskliiand E Cory Andrewsliii have both discussed Helen Maria Williams’s abolitionist poem which she sent to RB for criticism and advice. The thrust of Burns’s reply to the poetess shows a heavier involvement in the critique of her poem rather than a discussion of its issues (‘the infernal traffic’ as he called it), which adds to the charge of disengagement; it is important to stress that when Burns does mention the real effects of slavery he is supportively abolitionist setting the contrast between ‘The unfeeling selfishness of the oppressor on the one hand and the misery of the captive on the other.’liv However, while there is no doubt that he is on Williams’s side of the argument, his letter is no polemic.

The only other direct reference that I can find is where Clarinda mentioned that she was reading ‘The Letters of the late Ignatius Sancho, an African’ lv Sancho was the first Black man to vote in a British election and was an early l embodiment of the abolitionist cause. The publication of his collected correspondence two years after his death in 1780 allowed wider debate and discussion of the slavery question. Nancy wrote asking:

Did you ever read Sancho's Letters? They would hit your taste.lvi

If Sylvander talked to Clarinda about her choice of reading on slavery, there is no reply in the letters. Once again, a direct question about our interface with Black slaves seems to go unanswered. Again, RB made no constructive engagement that we can see.

In fact, if you compare Helen Maria Williams’s outlook on the African question with RB’s (taken from his 1796 Versicles to Jessy Lewars), you see a disappointing superficiality. For Williams, the children of ‘Afric’ are condemned to being objects in the production line of slavery, for Burns they remain ‘savages’ as part of the menagerielvii.

Alas! To AFRIC’s fetter’d race
Creation wears no form of grace!
To them earth’s pleasant values are found
A blasted waste, a sterile bound;
Where the poor wand’rer must sustain
The load of unremitted pain.
lviii

Talk not to me of savages,
From Afric’s burning sun;
No savage e’er could rend my heart,
As Jessie, thou hast done.
lix

Burns's slowly 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, 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.

The real concern that many have debated recently is the poetic use that RB makes of the very word ‘slave’ and in particular the famous use of ‘coward slave’ in A Man’s A Man. Slave is a common thematic word in Burns’s poetry: think of Scots Wa Hae which warns of a base slave and a coward's grave as the alternative to national and personal liberty. While many references (particularly in the letters) to ‘slave’ are entirely figurative, there is a pattern of linkage between ‘cowardice’ and ‘slavery’ found in several poems creating a consistent theme.

His poem Poorith Cauld has this verse:

The warld's wealth, when I think on
Its pride and a' the lave o't;
O fie on silly coward man,
That he should be the slave o't.
lx

The Song Of Death taunts Death to 'Go frighten the coward and the slave'lxi while warning him that he has no terrors for the brave man, while MacPherson’s Rant compares a coward with someone who'd dare to dielxii. This shows a clear trend that supports the concept of a ‘coward slave’ as a common trope in Burns’s work.

What did he mean by ‘coward slave’? Was he belittling the victims of chattel slavery in writing this? On the one hand, as Andrew Lindsay describes it: ‘The use of the word [‘coward’] implies an element of complicity and cowardly acquiescence and may have nothing to do with the contemporary trade in captured Africans’lxiii, in effect saying that all modes and manners of men may be virtual or actual ‘cowards’ and ‘slaves’ economically or philosophically. While this is an appealing line of argument, Gerry Carruthers sums up the concern trenchantly in saying: ‘to use this metaphor at a time of real, appalling actual slavery is rather insensitive.’ lxiv

This engendered quite a heated debate on the two Burns discussion boards, with advocates looking to reread ‘coward’ as ‘cowered’/ ‘cow’rd’ or perhaps ‘cowed’ to avoid the juxtaposition which seems harsh to the liberal ear of an essential linkage between the state of slavery and the condemnation of cowardice . How could Burns describe slaves in the period of abolition debate as being cowards? Again, we cannot see his intentions, but we can see their outcome. Was his use of ‘slave’ offensive, unhelpful or unthinking? Does it show that he failed to stand against slavery by implying that chattel slaves were cowardly or lesser people, who in some way acquiesced in the peculiar institution?

Even though by this stage in Burns’s life, there was an open debate for and against abolition, he seems unwilling or incapable of classifying Black chattel slavery as a totally different form of ‘man’s inhumanity to man’. Zachary Macaulay’s contemporary experience, where he set off in ignorance of what he would find in Jamaica was balanced by a recognition of its horror and the need to destroy the institution of slavery. Staying at home, Burns was sympathetic to the call but remained unengaged on the specifics. Of course, he died too soon to see the climax of the debate and the first 1807 landmark Act and had he lived we might have seen his interest and understanding grow in line with the wider understanding of what needed to be done.

Unfortunately the few elements we have left in his writings do not give a sense of strong commitment to the specifics of slavery, but draw us to the conclusion that RB saw ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ as present in all forms of human society, not realising the fundamental differences between economic poverty in the agricultural poor and the cruelty within the legal code which transformed Black people into objects owned for life or death by a white master.

Part Three: ‘A Man’s A Man For A’ That’: Burns And The Abolition Of Slavery In The US.

So in his youth (for understandable reasons on balance) and in his later life (surprisingly), Robert Burns seems to have had little engagement with the growing movement to secure freedom for Black slaves.

It is going too far, however, to accuse Burns of being part of the problem as has been posited by some who suggest that the regular use of the words ‘coward’ and ‘slave’ and their linkage in his poems must lead to a belief that Burns felt that all slaves were in some way complicit with their masters and therefore cowards who did not merit the freeman’s concern. When debating the ‘coward slave’ question it is very helpful to look at the effect of Burns’s poetry after his death: the use made of it by the Abolition movement in the USA is particularly illustrative.

Mark Twain said that the American Civil War was a fight between Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns (a tad harsh as both Union President Abraham Lincoln and also Confederate President Jefferson Davis were devoted Burnsian scholars) but certainly the abolition movement took to Burns as a source of hope thirty years before Fort Sumpter. Early Black leaders in the American abolition movement looked to Burns and his poems for inspiration such as Dr James McCune Smithlxv, an American who as the first Black medical student at Glasgow University became the first Black American physician, was known as a ‘man of letters’ and was a quoter of RB in his abolitionist speeches:

When Dr. James M'Cune Smith returned from [Glasgow], in 1837, at whose University he had drank deep of the Pierian stream of classic literature, the colored citizens of his native New York tendered him a public welcome. Ransom F. Wake, in their behalf, congratulated him on having passed five years in a land where ‘a man's a man,’ without regard to his complexion.lxvi

The leader in quoting Burns as inspiration for emancipation was Frederick Douglass who was a co-founder of with McCune Smith of the National Council of Colored People. This man, the extraordinary slave orator, was introduced to the poetry of Burns by the New Bedford abolitionist, Nathan Johnston. It was Johnson who received the fugitive slave after his escape to the North and who in his love for Walter Scott, suggested Frederick change his surname to ‘Douglass’ after the Bruce’s good Sir James, or ‘Black’ Douglas.

The first book, however, Frederick bought after fleeing the South was a copy of Burns’s poems. It is a copy of the one volume 1833 Philadelphia edition and became his talisman. The volume can be seen today in the University of Rochester Library.

It bears these inscriptions in Douglass’s handwriting:

To Lewis H. Douglass from his affectionate Father –

Fredk Douglas
Oct. 15, 1867

This book was the first bought by me after my escape from slavery. I have owned it for thirty one years and now give it to my son as a keepsake. F. D.lxvii

Burns’s poems with their love of liberty expressed by an ordinary man captured Douglass and he read more about the poet and his life, culminating in a visit to Burns Cottage in 1846. After speaking at an abolitionist rally in Ayr’s Cathcart Church, he spent the afternoon with Isabella Burns Begg (the 80 year old sister of RB) and he wrote feelingly about Burns afterwards to the New York Tribune. He used this open letter to make a thinly coded attack on contemporary slave owning society in the States:

I have ever esteemed Robert Burns a true soul … Burns lived in the midst of a bigoted and besotted clergy - a pious, but corrupt generation - a proud, ambitious, and contemptuous aristocracy, who, esteemed a little more than a man, and looked upon the plowman, such as was the noble Burns, as being little better than a brute. He became disgusted with the pious frauds, indignant at the bigotry, filled with contempt for the hollow pretensions set up by the shallow-brained aristocracy. He broke loose from the moorings which society had thrown around him. ... The elements of character which urge him on are in us all, and influencing our conduct every day of our lives. We may pity him, but we can't despise him. We may condemn his faults, but only as we condemn our own. His very weakness was an index of his strength. Full of faults of a grievous nature, yet far more faultless than many who have come down to us in the pages of history as saints.lxviii

Here we see the image of Scotia, not Columbia, as being ‘the sweet land of liberty’ emanating from the pen of Burns, the ordinary ploughman poet. This was a classic image used extensively both in the US and in the UK by prominent abolitionists. A typical example is where Samuel Ringgold Ward reports that his Glasgow host:

conferred upon me one of the highest favours a Scotchman could confer or a Negro could appreciate--he gave me a copy of Burns' poems, from his own library. That was almost equal to proffering me the freedom of Glasgow, or making me a Scotchman. lxix

Burns was adopted by the movement as a symbol and as the cause of abolition grew in the US, the interesting point for us is the use the leading anti-slavery speakers (McCune Smith, Gerritt Smithlxx, Ringgold Ward, Henry Ward Beecherlxxi, William Lloyd Garrisonlxxii and especially Frederick Douglass) made of the phrase ‘a man’s a man for a’ that’. Burns was heavily invoked by Black and white abolitionists in papers, speeches and letters of the time.

Here are a few examples encompassing the range of people active in the cause who shared the use of Burns’s words (my emphasis is added):

Races and varieties of the human family appear and disappear, but humanity remains and will remain forever. The American people will one day be truer to this idea than now and will say with Scotia's inspired son: ' a man's a man for a' that’.lxxiii

A man's a man for a' that.’ I sincerely believe that the weight of the argument is in favor of the unity of origin of the human race, or species--that the arguments on the other side are partial, superficial, utterly subversive of the happiness of man, and insulting to the wisdom of God.lxxiv

My visit to this city [London] has been exceedingly gratifying, on account of the freedom I have enjoyed in visiting such places of instruction and amusement as those from which I have been carefully excluded by the inveterate prejudice against color in the United States. Botanic and Zoological gardens, Museums and Panoramas, Halls of Statuary and Galleries of Paintings, are as free to the Black as the white man in London. There is no distinction on account of color. The white man gains nothing by being white, and the Black man loses nothing by being Black. ‘A man's a man for a' that.lxxv

If you are sound in body and mind, there is nothing in your color to excuse you from enlisting in the service of the Republic against its enemies. If color should not be a criterion of rights, neither should it be a standard of duty. The whole duty of a man, belongs alike to white and Black. ‘A man’s a man for a’ that’.lxxvi

So much for insisting that, both on the ground of principle and consistency, the 'self-evident truths' contained in the Declaration of Independence ought to be reduced to practice, and that, whatever may be the color of his skin, 'a man's a man for a' that'!lxxvii

Again – take these slaveholding pleas to Scotland, from the graves of the dead and the homes of the living they shall be replied to in thunder-tones, in the living words of BURNS: ‘A man’s a man, for a’ that.’

‘Who would be a traitor knave?
Who would fill a coward’s grave?
Who so base as be a slave?
Let him turn and flee’
lxxviii

A constitution, which is not built upon the recognition of our common humanity; is entitled to no respect. ... The right to our manhood and to the conditions of maintaining our manhood … is not derived from the constitution. It comes from a source infinitely more sacred and authoritative - from a law infinitely older than the oldest works of men - from the law of human nature and of God. No judge is to pause to inquire whether by the constitution a man's a man. The man is himself the sufficient and sole proof of the fact. To go back of that proof is to insult him and insult his Maker, who made man in his own image.lxxix

Within a few weeks the Chief-Justice has left our world. There is a world (and maybe he has gone to it) where to condemn a man for his skin is held to be a mistake; and where those few words of dear Robert Burns, ‘A man's a man for a' that,’ infinitely outweigh all the nonsense and blasphemy which pro-slavery courts and pro-slavery parties and pro-slavery churches have uttered to the contrary. lxxx

But with me, all men are men. Are the skin and the mind of my fellow men dark? ‘A man's a man for a' that!’ I still recognize him as a man. He is my brother: and I still have a brother's heart for him.lxxxi

The American people will outlive this mean prejudice against complexion. Sooner or later they will learn ‘a man’s a man for a’ that’.lxxxii

Burns as a poet of liberty featured in the abolitionist press, too, with the Massachusetts Abolitionist (No 4 March 14 1839) featuring ‘Honest Poverty’ on its front page under the tile ‘Manhood by Robert Burns’ while a previous edition (October 1838) had carried ‘Man Was Made To Mourn’ prominently with its line which also features in abolitionist (and Black rights) rhetoric: ‘man’s inhumanity to man, makes countless thousands mourn.’lxxxiii Garrison even wrote an anti slavery anthem which became the abolitionist movement’s theme and set it to Auld Lang Synelxxxiv, but the phrase that resonated was 'a man's a man for a that' such that it became the shibboleth of the abolitionists in the run up to and their culminating victory in the Civil War.

‘A man’s a man’ was the touchstone of their aims and reached its apogee when used by Harriet Tubmanlxxxv, also known as Moses, the most famous of the ‘conductors’ of the Underground Railway. This volunteer network saved thousands of escaping Black people by spiriting them from house to house in the United States until they reached safety and undisputed freedom in Canada– was reported singing this song as she and her escapees crossed the iron railway bridge to Canada and to liberty:

De hounds are baying on my track,
Ole Master comes behind,
Resolved that he will bring me back,
Before I cross the line;
I'm now embarked for yonder shore,
Where a man's a man by law,
De iron horse will bear me o'er,
To ‘shake de lion's paw;’
Oh, righteous Father, wilt thou not pity me
But carry me to Canada where the slaves are free.lxxxvi

So these people hurrying for freedom saw no concern about the way this Scottish poet used the word ‘slave’ in his writings. What about its linkage with ‘coward’, however?

I have always read these lines in Burns as a difference between the place we have in life and the life we have inside each of us. You could have a coward slave, or a coward butcher, a coward baker or a coward candlestick maker. Certainly Frederick Douglass thought so. In his bestselling autobiography there is a harrowing chapter called ‘The Last Flogging’ and this is his summary of the turning point of his own life as a human being:

Covey [his slave master] was a tyrant and a cowardly one withal. After resisting him, I felt as I had never felt before. It was a resurrection from the dark and pestiferous tomb of slavery, to the heaven of comparative freedom. I was no longer a servile coward, trembling under the frown of a brother worm of the dust, but my long-cowed spirit was roused to an attitude on manly independence. I had reached the point, at which I was not afraid to die. The spirit had made me a freeman in fact, while I remained a slave in form.lxxxvii

Douglass saw the point that RB had made in his poem, as he had lived through it. The leaders of the great movement, and many of the Black population, saw Burns as accurately describing their plight: Burns was not calumniating slaves as people, but was telling them like Douglass that internal fortitude and character were what defined you – not the branded mark on the forearm or the whip scars on the back. A man’s a man for a’ that.

Douglass clearly saw that emancipation came in two steps: First no more coward slaves. Then no more slaves at all. Dare to be true to yourself even under the slave owner’s tyranny then dare to be free when the time came for emancipation. Both sides in the debate needed to hear this.

The simplest reflection of that credo was not in one of Douglass’s abolitionist lectures (which could span two hours and more) but in a short speech at a Burns Supper in Rochester New York in 1849:

I repeat again, that though I am not a Scotchman, and have a colored skin, I am proud to be among you this evening. And if any think me out of my place on this occasion (pointing at the picture of Burns), I beg that the blame may be laid at the door of him who taught me that 'a man's a man for a' that.' lxxxviii

 In 1786, Burns in line with many in Ayrshire was not aware (perhaps through an absence of deliberate enquiry) of what Black chattel slavery in the West Indies and Americas entailed. At the simplest level, RB deserves a hard look for crossing from the poor workers’ side to become one of the factors (or bookkeepers) that he attacked savagely in The Twa Dogs; but it is hard to pin deliberate bad faith on him as the level of his knowledge of the plight of the few Black people he may have seen at home or the many cruelly treated abroad (often by fellow Scots) was limited.

By the 1790s though, the debate had grown in significance and Ayrshire and Dumfries were active in abolitionist debate which seems to have passed Burns substantially by. His lack of involvement does permit commentators to be critical of Burns’s attitudes under the Burkeian premise that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. It is unfair though, in the light of the inspiration and effect that his poems gave the Black abolitionist movement in the US to accuse him of not doing enough –in his short life for reasons we can only wonder at, the fate of Black slaves (and also Scots pit workers and salt farmers, and the growing industrial underclass in Scotland) do not receive the close attention that the life of the agricultural poor receive. But the effect of his poetry was an electric force for good in the long march to the American Civil War and beyond.

Douglass encapsulated this, as in so many aspects of abolition. Douglass’s testimony show his epiphany, mirroring Burns’s words and leaving the coward slave behind. In doing so he ‘dares’ to speak the voice of freedom using Burns as his inspiration.

Burns was too young to comprehend slavery in 1786, and failed to fully engage with the debate at the end of his life, but his words did become after his death the call of change. The many voices calling for, and winning the Great Emancipation recognised Burns’s innate humanity if, like so many of us, we all recognise that he like us had failings too.

But in 1786, society’s verdict on the slave question was less clear, voices were still gathering, evidence was remote and disguised; so it is 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, echoing the real story of Zachary Macauley.

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.


i This essay for ‘Robert Burns Lives’ consolidates articles published on Scotland Now (issue 6, December 2007) and in The Burns Chronicle (Spring 2010) with thanks to the editors of both publications.

ii K. Annan, ‘Inaugural Robert Burns Memorial Lecture’, United Nations Building, New York: 13th January 2004 text from UN Information services : http://www.unis.unvienna.org/unis/pressrels/2004/sgsm9112.html.

iii Clark McGinn ‘Burns and Slavery’ Scotland Now (Issue 6, December 2007) http://www.friendsofscotland.gov.uk/scotlandnow/issue-06/history/burns-and-slavery.html

iv Nigel Leask ‘Burns And the Poetics of Abolition’ in ‘The Edinburgh Companion To Robert Burns’ Ed: Gerard Carruthers Ed EUP 2009, pp 47-60.

v Gerard Carruthers ‘Robert Burns And Slavery’ in ‘Fickle Man: Robert Burns In The 21st Century’ (Eds: Johnny Rodger and Gerard Carruthers) Sandstone Press, Dingwall 2009, pp 163 – 175.

vi Henry Ward Beecher (1813 – 87) Congregationalist clergyman and abolitionist, brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe.

vii ‘Chronicle Of The Hundredth Birthday Of Robert Burns’: New York Ed: James Ballantine Fullarton Edinburgh & London 1859, p 580.

viii Carruthers p163.

ix John Galt ‘Annals of The Parish’, OUP 1986 p115. Note that Mr Cayenne is described as an ‘American Loyalist’ rather than a West Indian sugar planter.

x Leask p56 suggests a reading of the line: ‘The rank is but the Guinea’s stamp’ as being a reference to ‘the branding of slaves from the Guinea Coast... British slavery was often known as “the Guinea Trade” given the importance of the region as a source of slaves.’

xi Details of Ayrshire Black servants are discussed on the Ayrshire Archives Black History Month exhibition ( http://www.ayrshirearchives.org.uk/exhibition/Blackhist/Blackhist1.htm) and on the National Archives for Scotland website (http://www.nas.gov.uk/guides/slaveTrade.asp)

xii Both his liaison (with Jean Fergusson) and matrimony (with Mary Gray) occurred with locally born women.

xiiiHis Gravestone may still be seen in Kirkoswald Parish Church.

xiv It was Symington who built the engine for Patrick Miller’s prototype steamboat on Dalswinton Loch and the engine at the Wanlockhead lead mines.

xv Ayrshire archives cited.

xvi Ayrshire archives cited.

xvii Gilbert Burns, Letter To Mrs Dunlop 1797, quoted in ‘Burns’ James Mackay, Alloway 1992, p46.

xviii Interestingly, one of the ships sailing between Scotland and Jamaica was the Roselle (Burns had a passage booked and it was the vessel Nancy McLehose used on her abortive visit to Kingston). More research is needed to see if this was another part of the Hamilton businesses.

xix This friendship must have been influential in confirming Boswell’s pro slavery stance, as evidenced in his anonymous 1791 ‘No Abolition of Slavery or The Universal Empire of Love’. See Ian Whyte ‘Scotland and The Abolition of Black Slavery 1756 – 1838’ EUP 2006 p.57.

xx Jean Acheson, ‘Servants in Ayrshire 1750 – 1914’ p 15 in Ayrshire Monographs No 26, Ayrshire Archaeological and Natural History Society, 2001 quoting from JE Shaw, ‘Ayrshire, 1745–1950, A Social and Industrial History’ [Edinburgh & London, 1953], p. 23.

xxi From his uncle, Hugh Hamilton of Pinmore, who was patron to RB’s Kirkoswald fellow student and letter recipient Willy Niven.

xxii A century after Burns considered the Jamaica option this was written: ‘Auchincruive is now [1878] the property of Richard Alexander Oswald, elder son of George Oswald, who died in 1871… There is now hardly one left of our old West Indians, probably not one Glasgow man that ever owned a slave.’ In ‘The Old Country Houses Of the Old Glasgow Gentry’ John Guthrie Smith and John Oswald Mitchell Glasgow 1878, LXXIV footnote 4.

xxiii David McClure ‘Records and Functions of the Ayrshire Commissioners of Supply’, Scottish Local History Journal Vol 39 (1997). McClure tentatively suggests that this may have been Macadam the great road engineer.

xxiv Whyte, p49 quotes Coleridge’s observation that ‘three out of four overseers in the West Indies were Scots.’

xxv Prof Geoff Palmer interviewed in ‘The Guardian’ 25th November 2008.

xxvi Samuel Ringgold Ward ‘Autobiography Of A Fugitive Negro’ New York 1855 pp349 -350.

xxvii Lady Knutsford, ‘Zachary Macaulay’ London Arnold 1906 p5 (quoting a ‘short autobiographical memorandum written by Macaulay in Sierra Leone in 1797’)

xxviii Knutsford p6

xxix Knutsford p6

xxx Knutsford, p7,8

xxxi Knutsford p8

xxxii Knutsford p8

xxxiii ‘On A Scotch Bard, Gone To The West Indies’

xxxiv ‘Burns Jamaica Connections’ (Anonymous, but attributed to a descendent of Patrick and Charles Douglas of Garallan) Burns Chronicle 1903. Which shows, as part of another argument that ‘Highland Mary’ Campbell wasn’t going to Jamaica with Burns as young men were employed without ‘trailing spouses’. See also Nancy McLehose’s description of her brief visit to her dissolute husband in Kingston, Jamaica (Mackay ‘Burns’ p 489)

xxxv Knutsford p9

xxxvi The Autobiographical Letter

xxxvii Iain Whyte p70

xxxviii Ian Whyte p14

xxxix ‘Ode, Sacred To The Memory Of Mrs Oswald’

xl ‘The Mauchline Wedding’ and see also the covering letter To Mrs. Dunlop 21 August 1788, ‘You would know an Ayr-shire lad, Sandy Bell, who made a Jamaica fortune, & died some time ago’.

xli ‘It has long been recognised that Smith’s Moral Sentiments… was an important text for Burns.’ Murray Pittock, ‘Nibbling At Adam Smith’ in ‘Fickle Man’ p121

xlii Adam Smith ‘The Theory Of Moral Sentiments’ Glasgow Edn Oxford 1976 p228

xliii RB To Dr John Moore, Letter dated Mauchline, 2nd August 1787 (known as ‘The Autobiographical Letter’)

xliv Carruthers discusses this in The Fickle Man

xlvThe glossary to the Edinburgh Edition contains these entries:

‘Niger: a negroe;

Buckskin, an inhabitant of Virginia

Kye, cows.

Some later glossaries make a direct gloss of ‘buckskin kye’ for ‘negroes’.

xlvi The Autobiographical Letter.

xlvii Maria Riddell’s book: ‘Voyages to the Madeira, and Leeward Caribbean Isles: with Sketches of the Natural History of these Islands’ (1792) was recently described as exhibiting ‘self-censorship’: ‘Riddell's selective elisions of well-known aspects of West Indian society, such as slavery, register her efforts to reconcile these colonies with British values.’ From Melissa Bailes ‘Hybrid Britons: West Indian Colonial Identity and Maria Riddell's Natural History’: European Romantic Review, Volume 20, Number 2, April 2009, pp. 207-217. That being said Maria Riddell did attack slavery in her private correspondence: ‘Our ancestors, when they instituted the accursed transfer of the slave trade, brought over a nation who though long patient and submissive to servitude, seem now to have nearly reached, by the decree of providence, the term of their bondage and have already begun to retaliate the injuries imposed upon them by their persecuting masters.’ Letter of 17 November 1793 to William Smellie in ‘Memoirs Of The Life, Writings And Correspondence of William Smellie’ Ed: Robert Kerr, Anderson, Edinburgh 1811, Vol II p 376.

xlviii Although his preface to ‘The Address To Beelzebub’ of 1790 seeks to defend a group of Highlanders frustrated by ‘their lawful lords and masters whose property they were, by emigrating … to the wilds of Canada, in search of that fantastic thing – LIBERTY.’

xlix Clark McGinn ‘Burns and Slavery’ Scotland Now (Issue 6, December 2007) http://www.friendsofscotland.gov.uk/scotlandnow/issue-06/history/burns-and-slavery.html

l Gerard Carruthers ‘Robert Burns And Slavery’ in ‘Fickle Man: Robert Burns In The 21st Century’ (Eds: Johnny Rodger and Gerard Carruthers) Sandstone Press, Dingwall 2009, p172

li Ian Whyte ‘Scotland and The Abolition of Black Slavery 1756 – 1838’ EUP 2006 p.57.

lii Nigel Leask ‘Burns And the Poetics of Abolition’ in ‘The Edinburgh Companion To Robert Burns’ Ed: Gerard Carruthers Ed EUP 2009, pp 47-60

liii Cory E Andrews ‘Burns the Critic’ in ‘The Edinburgh Companion To Robert Burns’ Ed: Gerard Carruthers Ed EUP 2009, p 119

liv RB to Helen Maria Williams Letter, n.d July/August 1789

lv Ignatius Sancho, ‘The Letters Of The Late Ignatious Sancho, An African’ Cosimo NY 2005

lvi Agnes McLehose to RB Letter n.d.

lvii Literally, as the versicles are in Burns’s handwriting on the back of a handbill advertising the visit of a touring menagerie to Dumfries.

lviii Helen Maria Williams: ‘Poem On The Bill Lately Passed For Regulating The Slave Trade’: in ‘Romantic Women Poets, 1788 – 1848’ Ed: Andrew Ashfield Manchester University Press 1998, vol 2 pp12 -19

lix ‘Versicles To Jessy Lewars’

lx ‘Poorith Cauld’

lxi ‘Song Of Death’

lxii ‘McPherson’s Rant’

lxiii Andrew O. Lindsay ‘Negro-driver’ or ‘Illustrious Exile’: Revisiting Illustrious Exile: Journal of my Sojourn in the West Indies’, International Journal of Scottish Literature, Issue 4, Spring/Summer 2008, p110

lxiv Carruthers p172

lxv James McCune Smith (1816 – 1835) born in New York, studied at Glasgow University before returning home to practise medicine and run a pharmacy.

lxvi William Cooper Nell, ‘The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution, With Sketches of Several Distinguished Colored Persons To Which Is Added a Brief Survey of the Condition And Prospects of Colored Americans’, Boston 1855 p353.

lxvii University of Rochester Library Rare Books and Special Collections (Thanks to Melissa S. Mead).

lxviii Frederick Douglass ‘A Fugitive Slave Visiting the Birth-Place of Robert Burns’ in New York Weekly Tribune, vol. 5, no. 45 [cont. no. 253], (July 18, 1846).

lxix Samuel Ringgold Ward ‘Autobiography Of A Fugitive Negro’ New York 1855 p332.

lxx Gerrit Smith (1797 – 1874) US Congressman, presidential candidate and abolitionist. Close friend of John Brown.

lxxi Henry Ward Beecher (1813 – 1887) Congregationalist clergyman and abolitionist, brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe.

lxxii William Lloyd Garrison (1805 – 1879) American journalist and abolitionist who founded the American Anti Slavery Society.

lxxiii Frederick Douglass ‘The Future Of The Colored Race’ Boston MA 1866.

lxxiv Frederick Douglass ‘Speech, Commencement Exercises at Western Reserve College, July 12, 1854’ Frederick Douglass The Orator’ Ed: James M Gregory Springfield IL 1893 pp110/111.

lxxv Douglass ‘Letter to William Lloyd Garrison May 23, 1846’ ‘Life and Writings of Frederick Douglas’ Ed Philip Foner, New York 1950 vol I, p165.

lxxvi Frederick Douglass, ‘Why Should The Colored Man Enlist?’ F D Douglass’s Monthly, April 1863.

lxxvii Ibid.

lxxviii William Lloyd Garrison New York Times, 15 Feb 1854.

lxxix Gerrit Smith: Letter to George T Downing 6 March 1874, Syracuse University Library Gerrit Smith Broadside and Pamphlet Collection.

lxxx Gerrit Smith ‘Speeches of Gerrit Smith’ New York, 1865 p50.

lxxxi Gerrit Smith ‘Speeches of Gerrit Smith’ New York, 1865 p203.

lxxxii National Anti-Slavery Standard, 16 April 1864 ‘Letter from Teachers of the Freedmen’ Harriet A Jacobs and Lisa Jacobs.

lxxxiii ‘Man’s Inhumanity to man’ was used more extensively after the Civil War to denote the inhumanity of slavery. The quotation features in a range of contexts by Marcus Garvey, to Dr Martin Luther King to the UN resolutions marking the 2007 bicentenary.

lxxxiv After Emancipation, Garrison turned his attention to other causes. He also used’ a Man’s A Man’ and Auld Lang Syne as a tune to support women’s and animals rights.

lxxxv Harriet Tubman (née Araminta Ross c 1822 – 1913). She escaped slavery herself and rescued over 70 slaves through the network of the Underground Railway and fought in the Civil War. At the end of her life she was active as a Suffragette.

lxxxvi Sarah H Bradford ‘Harriet: The Moses Of Her People’ New York 1886 p 50.

lxxxvii Frederick Douglass ‘Autobiographies’ Ed: Henry Gates Jr, Library of America, 1996 p286.

lxxxviii Frederick Douglass: ‘The Frederick Douglass Papers .Series One. Speeches, Debates and Interviews, Ed: John W Blassinghame New Haven, 1979, 2, 148.


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