by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Dawsonville, GA, USA
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
Purchasers, Admirers: Burnsian 'Men of Action' from the Nineteenth to the
Scottish Literary Review
2.1 (Spring/Summer 2010): 97-115.
Memory Address, 2010,"
Robert Burns Lives!, Jan 25, 2010.
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
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
22.2 (2008): 8-13.
of Scotland in the West Indies: Diaspora Poetry from the Eighteenth Century,"
Books from Scotland.com 28 Jan 2008
Industry: Robert Burns's Legacy from an American Perspective,"
Books from Scotland.com 24 Jan 2007
and Thinking: Club Life and Convivial Sociability in Mid-Eighteenth-Century
The Social History of Alcohol and Drugs
22.1 (Autumn 2007): 65-82.
the Same, but Not Quite': English Poetry by Eighteenth-Century Scots."
The Eighteenth Century: Theory and
Interpretation 47.1 (Spring
Welcome back, Corey! It is always an honor to
have you share your insights with our readers. Come again!
Lament for Slavery?
The Case of Robert Burns
By Corey E. Andrews, Youngstown State
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
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
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
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
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
T.M. Devine, Scotland’s
Empire, 1600-1815, London, 2003, 230.
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.
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).
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.
Taken from Annan’s Robert Burns Memorial Lecture, available at un.org.
Carruthers, Gerard. Robert Burns and Slavery, Drouth 26 (2008):
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.
See Lindsay, Andrews. Illustrious Exile, Leeds, 2006.
Burns, Robert. The Poems and Songs of Robert Burns, ed. James
Kinsley, Oxford, 1968, vol. 1, 272. All references are to this edition.
Burns, 1968, vol. 1, 239.
Quoted in Kelly, 2008.
xiii Carruthers, 2008, 26.