Robert Burns (1759–1796), the celebrated ploughman poet, is lauded for the humour and earthy realism of his poems that raised the status of the Scots dialect and showed new respect for the rural poor in Scotland. He is a Scottish cultural icon and a national obsession. Many public monuments were erected in his honour in the nineteenth century, often through public subscription, with vast crowds attending unveilings. The first Burns Supper was held in Greenock in 1802 (only six years after his death), Burns Clubs were founded across the country and many Scottish streets were named after him. However, few will know that this poet celebrity, who railed against oppression in Scotland and wrote ‘The Slave’s Lament’ (1792), once intended to emigrate to Jamaica to work as a bookkeeper on a sugar plantation that made its money from the labour of enslaved African people.
Glasgow Museums has in its collection a painting by Scottish artist Thomas Faed (1826–1900) which imagines a meeting in May 1786 between Burns and his lover Margaret (‘Mary’) Campbell (1763–1786) just before his intended voyage to the Caribbean. At this time Campbell was working as a nursemaid for Burns’ friend Gavin Hamilton in Mauchline and Burns was running a farm with his brother Gilbert at Mossgiel nearby. Burns and Campbell apparently exchanged Bibles and made matrimonial vows. The intention was that they would begin a new life together in Jamaica. Burns had been offered the job of bookkeeper on the Springbank sugar plantation in Port Antonio through his friend the doctor Patrick Douglas. Douglas had investments in the estate which was owned and managed by his brother Charles. In his song, ‘Will ye go to the Indies, my Mary, And leave auld Scotia’s shore?’, Burns entices Campbell with the image of a seductive, bountiful paradise:
O sweet grows the lime and the orange,
And the apple on the pine;
But a’ the charms of the Indies
Can never equal thine
Burns was aware of the nature of the job, describing his role as a ‘poor Negro driver’. Faced with financial straits following the death of his father, a farm that yielded little return and trouble from the family of his common-law wife Jean Armour, the prospect of a new start and a steady salary (3 years at £30 per annum, with accommodation included) were too tempting to refuse.
Burns related that after saying farewell to Campbell the intention was that ‘she should embark for the West Highlands to arrange matters among her friends for our projected change of life.’ However, things did not go as planned. Campbell died not long after in October 1786, aged only 23, probably from typhus. Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect was published by John Wilson of Kilmarnock in July 1786, the first published edition of his work. Its success opened up an alternative path and, although he had purchased tickets on the ship Nancy, he travelled to Edinburgh, not Jamaica. Still unsure of his plans he booked another passage to Jamaica on the Roselle from Leith, but in the end he decided to stay in Edinburgh. Here the publisher William Creech commissioned Alexander Nasmyth (1758–1840) to paint a portrait of Burns to be engraved for a new edition of his Poems (1787). Glasgow Museums’ portrait is a later copy by Nasmyth of this Burns portrait, an image now familiar across the world.
The fact that Scotland’s renowned bard considered working on a plantation where he would have been responsible for recording the purchases of enslaved African people, as well as their punishments and deaths, is shocking. Perhaps more staggering, however, is just how many young Scottish men saw involvement in the slave industry as a viable career at this time. Around 17,000 Scots emigrated to the Caribbean between 1750 and 1800, many lured by job advertisements calling for men of practical trades, such as joiners, carpenters and blacksmiths, to work on estates with promises of ‘good encouragement’. The Chief Justice of Jamaica, John Grant, complained on 24 June 1786 that ‘of late swarms come by every ship from Scotland’.
For a man who, like Burns, ‘writes a good hand and understands figures’ there was particular demand as an overseer, with ‘handsome and liberal encouragement’. However, commenting on the role of ‘under overseer or negro driver’ on 18 June 1773, William Grant admitted it to be ‘laborious dangerous to health and disagreeable’ and not the ‘calm sedentary life’ some may have expected. Had Burns travelled to Jamaica, he would no doubt have been appalled by the cruel realities of plantation life where enslaved Africans were forced to work under horrific conditions and were arbitrarily punished and brutally tortured by white overseers or ‘bookkeepers’.
Dr Jo Meacock
Curator of British Art
Dr Tony Lewis
Curator of Scottish History
See also ‘Robert Burns & Graham Fagen‘ on the Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA) Glasgow website
For more information on Glasgow Museums’ collections please visit http://collections.glasgowmuseums.com
Images (c) CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection