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Robert Burns Lives!
Lament for Slavery? The Case of Robert Burns By Corey E. Andrews, Youngstown State University


Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Dawsonville, GA, USA
Email: jurascot@earthlink.net

It is always a joy to welcome to the pages of Robert Burns Lives! past contributors such as Dr. Corey E. Andrews, Associate Professor, Youngstown State University in Ohio. His interests are varied and range from 18th-century Scottish Literature, poetry, mythology to working-class studies. This is not his first paper on Burns and slavery. He published “Ev’ry Heart can Feel: Scottish Poetic Responses to Slavery in the West Indies, from Blair to Burns,” in the International Journal of Scottish Literature, Issue 4, Spring/Summer 2008. While his primary research is Scottish Literature, the poetry of Robert Burns is a particular interest of his.

Dr. Andrews teaches in the English Department at Youngstown. Among his courses are Introduction to Literature, Introduction to Fiction Writing, British and American Surveys, Major Figures in British Literature, and Technical Communication. He has written for many publications and among them are:

"Venders, Purchasers, Admirers: Burnsian 'Men of Action' from the Nineteenth to the Twenty-First Century," Scottish Literary Review 2.1 (Spring/Summer 2010): 97-115.

"Immortal Memory Address, 2010," Robert Burns Lives!, Jan 25, 2010.

Burnsiana: The Collections of John Dawson Ross,” Books from Scotland.com 26 Jan 2010.

Literary Nationalism in Eighteenth-Century Scottish Club Poetry. Edwin Mellen Press, 2004

"Ev'ry Heart can Feel': Scottish Poetic Responses to Slavery in the West Indies, from Blair to Burns," International Journal of Scottish Literature (Issue 4, Spring/Summer 2008).

"ECCO and the Future of Eighteenth-Century Studies," The Eighteenth-Century Intelligencer 22.2 (2008): 8-13.

"Traces of Scotland in the West Indies: Diaspora Poetry from the Eighteenth Century," Books from Scotland.com 28 Jan 2008

"Cottage Industry: Robert Burns's Legacy from an American Perspective," Books from Scotland.com 24 Jan 2007

"Drinking and Thinking: Club Life and Convivial Sociability in Mid-Eighteenth-Century Edinburgh," The Social History of Alcohol and Drugs 22.1 (Autumn 2007): 65-82.

"'Almost the Same, but Not Quite': English Poetry by Eighteenth-Century Scots." The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation 47.1 (Spring 2006): 59-79.

Welcome back, Corey! It is always an honor to have you share your insights with our readers. Come again!

(FRS: 7.28.10)

Lament for Slavery?
The Case of Robert Burns
By Corey E. Andrews, Youngstown State University

Corey E. Andrews
Corey E. Andrews

In the poetry of Robert Burns, the representation of West Indian slavery is an expressly imagined one, mostly on the part of later readers. Burns never traveled to the West Indies and only took brief excursions from his native Scotland. He had, however, once planned a trip to work at a Jamaican plantation in 1786, largely in order to escape his increasingly difficult personal life and lack of opportunities. As T.M. Devine notes,

Most migrants [to the West Indies] were young men in their teens and early twenties. Entirely typical was the young poet and farmer Robert Burns who, in 1786, was seriously considering taking up an appointment as a book keeper on a Scottish-owned sugar estate in Port Antonio, Jamaica.i

This planned yet aborted trip instead served as the occasion for a series of farewell poems that Burns wrote for friends and family. These works, along with a few other occasional pieces, tend to depict the West Indies as an unknown, but perhaps pleasurable destination, offering an alternative view of the Caribbean to actual diaspora poets like James Grainger and Hector MacNeill.

There has been much speculation about what Robert Burns would have ‘really’ thought of the West Indian slave trade. Aside from his discussion of Helen Maria Williams’s ‘A Poem on the Bill Lately Passed for Regulating the Slave-Trade’ in a single letter, Burns did not offer an extended commentary on the subject.ii Williams’s poem contains powerful abolitionist rhetoric, such as in the lines:

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.
iii

Although he singles out the last line above for praise, Burns’s criticism of Williams’s poem focuses largely on issues of prosody and diction, with little direct commentary on her views of slavery.iv Because little prose commentary on slavery exists in Burns’s writing, many people have turned to his poetry to suggest that he would have been a thoroughgoing critic of the practice. Notably, in the Inaugural Burns Lecture from 14 Jan 2004, former Secretary-General of the United Nations Kofi Annan stated that ‘Burns has been described as a poet of the poor, an advocate of social and political change, and an opponent of slavery, pomposity, and greed.’v Annan’s endorsement of Burns suggests the magnitude of the poet’s international esteem and influence, particularly as it extends to human rights. Other critics, however, have found Burns’s silence on the slave trade to be damning; Gerard Carruthers states that ‘Robert Burns’s rather insipid “The Slave’s Lament” (1792) has provided an otherwise disappointed politically correct readership for the Scottish Bard with a slender thread with which to tie him to the Abolitionist cause’.vi

Indeed, if the Kilmarnock edition of 1786 had not met with instant success, it is very likely that Burns would have emigrated to Jamaica. As a bookkeeper, Burns would have had direct contact with slavery, dealing on a daily basis with the purchase, punishment, and death of slaves. Carruthers has argued that although Burns ‘may not have been seriously contemplating going to the slave plantations […] even to pose as a potential slave manager doesn’t cast him in a very good light at this period in his life’.vii Andrew Lindsay’s recent novel Illustrious Exile offers an imagined alternative account of Burns and slavery; the book envisions the life that Mary Campbell and Burns may have experienced had they traveled to Jamaica to work on a sugar plantation.viii Throughout the course of Lindsay’s novel, the character of Burns discovers the reality of plantation slave-labor and voices his discontent. In an interview with Books from Scotland, Lindsay notes that ‘being a “Negro-driver” clashes with the popular notion of the poet,’ observing that ‘there was a huge drive at the time to have the slave trade abolished: he was a contemporary of Wilberforce, so his silence on the topic is curious.’ Part of the goal in writing Illustrious Exile appears to have been exploring that silence; as Lindsay comments, ‘if [Burns] had gone to Jamaica, he would have had to confront the issue head on.’ix

The only existing works we have on Burns’s views of the West Indies, however, are a series of farewells to his native Scotland. In these poems, Burns rarely give hints on what he expects to find in the West Indies, focusing instead on what he is leaving behind. In “The Farewell,” he writes,

Farewell, old Scotia’s bleak domains,
Far dearer than the torrid plains,
Where rich ananas blow!
x (1-3)

Less overtly sentimental imagery appears in another imagined glimpse of the West Indies, found in a farewell poem aptly entitled “On a Scotch Bard, Gone to the West Indies.” The second stanza reads,

Jamaica bodies, use him weel,
An’ hap him in a cozie biel:
Ye’ll find him ay a dainty chiel,
An’ fou o’ glee:
He wad na wrang’d the vera Deil,
That’s owre the sea!
xi

Burns’s wry joking inhabits this poem, replacing the maudlin adieus of his other farewell with a glimpse of the “Jamaica bodies’ he will encounter.

For Carruthers, the poem ‘projects a happier life among people who will care for him. Well, these presumably white people may care about Burns, but in the poem he is completely devoid of compassion for the human traffic that is all around him.’xii For this reason, Carruthers claims that Burns’s silence can be regarded as an instructive example for the present day:

That Burns, a man of undoubtedly genuine humanitarian spirit, is largely silent or maybe even confused on the Abolitionist issue should be a sober lesson to us all in how […] we can lose sight of the big socio-moral questions that face us.xiii

What Burns would have really thought of the West Indies and the slave trade will always remain a source of speculation, but it is clear that the points of contact between Scots and West Indians, poets and slaves, were powerfully felt and imagined, providing an important example of the interconnectedness and estrangement at the heart of the British empire.xiv

Notes

 T.M. Devine, Scotland’s Empire, 1600-1815, London, 2003, 230.

ii See Nigel Leask ‘Burns And the Poetics of Abolition’ in The Edinburgh Companion to Robert Burns, ed. Gerard Carruthers, Edinburgh, 2009, 47-60, and Gerard Carruthers ‘Robert Burns And Slavery’ in Fickle Man: Robert Burns In The 21st Century, ed. Johnny Rodger and Gerard Carruthers, Dingwall 2009, 163 – 175 for discussion of Burns’s relationship to slavery.

iii Williams, Helen Maria. A Poem on the Bill Lately Passed for Regulating the Slave-Trade, Slavery, Abolition and Emancipation, ed. Alan Richardson, London, 1999, Vol. 4, 83-98 (88).

iv See Corey E. Andrews’s chapter ‘Robert Burns, Critic’, The Edinburgh Companion to Robert Burns, ed. Gerard Carruthers, Edinburgh, 2009, 109-124 for an extended discussion of this letter.

v Taken from Annan’s Robert Burns Memorial Lecture, available at un.org.

vi Carruthers, Gerard. Robert Burns and Slavery, Drouth 26 (2008): 21-26 (22-23).

vii Quoted in Kelly, Lynn. Forget ‘A Man’s a Man for a’That’— Burns Planned to Make Fortune from Slave Trade, Sunday Herald, 25 Jan. 2008.

viii See Lindsay, Andrews. Illustrious Exile, Leeds, 2006.

x Burns, Robert. The Poems and Songs of Robert Burns, ed. James Kinsley, Oxford, 1968, vol. 1, 272. All references are to this edition.

xi Burns, 1968, vol. 1, 239.

xii Quoted in Kelly, 2008.

xiii Carruthers, 2008, 26.

xiv A fuller version of this essay can be found at http://www.ijsl.stir.ac.uk/issue4/andrews.htm. Another discussion of mine focusing on Scottish diaspora poetry in the West Indies is available at http://www.booksfromscotland.com/Features/Articles-and-Essays/Traces-of-Scotland-in-the-West-Indies.


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