Traces of Scotland in the West Indies: Diaspora Poetry from the Eighteenth Century

The legacy of Scotland in the contemporary Caribbean islands begins with a wave of emigration occurring in the eighteenth century. Among the countless Scots who planned to and actually travelled to the West Indies to work primarily in sugar plantations can be found several poets who recorded their experiences and observations. Of these poets, the best known is Robert Burns, a figure whose link to the West Indies continues to evince interest and speculation. (He did not make the journey there in the end). However, other poets from the time such as James Grainger and Hector MacNeill also explored the topography, culture, and daily life of the West Indies in verse that is much less familiar than Burns's entirely imagined views of the Caribbean. In the poetry of all three, contemporary readers can find intriguing traces of Scotland within a profoundly different locale, where climate, culture, and daily life were as far removed from the experience of the Scottish diaspora as can be fathomed.

West Indies and Central America

Old Map of the West Indies

The Scottish presence in the West Indies for the past three centuries has greatly altered our perceptions of eighteenth-century Scottish emigrants, for the contemporary Caribbean islands bear a striking number of Scottish place names and surnames. In Scotland on Sunday (11 March 2007), Chitra Ramaswamy reported that such common Scottish names as Buchanan, Douglas, and Clark are abundant among Caribbean locals, and one can even find villages named Glasgow, Dundee, Cessnock, Penicuik, and Kilmarnock in Jamaica. Such obvious traces of Scotland suggest not only the nation's historical role in developing and maintaining the British empire, but also alerts us to the communal influence often exerted by Scottish emigrants. Despite their failure in establishing their own independent trading colony with the collapse of the Darien scheme in the late seventeenth century, the Scottish diaspora traveled to the West Indies in great numbers throughout the century, eventually becoming one of the largest national groups of settlers in the region.

For many Scots who arrived in the West Indies, working at one of the numerous sugar plantations was the only option for employment and housing. Indeed, the sugar plantations were like small cities unto themselves, with a fixed social structure and internal economy. Due to the system of slave-labor on these plantations, many Scottish emigrants found themselves overseeing and managing the complex production of sugar cane, the region's principal trade crop. Such positions involved constant surveillance of the slaves, an element of plantation life that (for poets like Grainger and MacNeill) was difficult to justify, leading them to confront the moral and ethical consequences of slavery.

Along with monitoring the slave-laborers, Scottish emigrants also helped to manage the complicated finances of the plantations, assisting in record-keeping, inventory, and expenditures. Although the harvesting of the cane was rather primitive and labor-intensive, the process of its refinement became increasingly industrialized and efficient over the century, producing not only sugar but also highly profitable rum. With these exports, planters in the West Indies assumed greater influence and power in burgeoning trade markets and sought to defend their practices from an increasingly hostile British center, particularly in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. For Grainger and MacNeill, representing and defending the practices of such planters would become progressively more and more untenable.

Of these two Scottish poets, James Grainger would find it most difficult to reconcile the system of slavery with his experiences and duties on the plantations. Grainger was a mid-century physician and poet, best known for a single long poem entitled The Sugar-Cane. The poem has been remembered primarily for its historical and anthropological value, for it faithfully records Grainger's direct knowledge and experience of West Indian sugar production, as well as local flora and fauna, vocabulary and social customs. It is not thrilling reading, but it has perhaps been too easily stowed away for those who need a good footnote. A fine, long-overdue edition of the poem is provided in John Gilmore's The Poetics of Empire: A Study of James Grainger's The Sugar Cane (Athlone Press, 2000). Along with its account of West Indian landscapes and customs, The Sugar-Cane offers a thoughtful and empathetic view of the plantation slaves' plight, written from the point of view of a man who treated them daily and witnessed their suffering.

Sugar Cane

Two canes of sugar cane

The Sugar-Cane was Grainger's attempt to rewrite prevailing traditions of georgic poetry (viz., poetry focused on rural labor) by setting the poem in the West Indies, thereby claiming a measure of prestige and cachet for Scottish diaspora poets located there. However, in order to do so, Grainger had to directly confront the reality of slave-labor on West-Indian plantations. He first tried to engage the georgic convention generically, naming the slaves "swains" and describing their labor as an expression of useful activity that was even pleasurable at times. He even created a character named Montano, a virtuous planter whose happy slaves worked to reward him. This idealized view of plantation life comes to a screeching halt in Book 4 of The Sugar-Cane, where Grainger openly confronts and discusses the issue of slavery. Lest we had forgotten Montano's role on the plantation, Grainger reminds readers that he is indeed a slave-holder.

The fact of slavery on the plantation distresses Grainger's muse—"Who sees, with grief, thy sons in fetters bound; / Who wishes freedom to the race of man" (4.15-16)—as well as Grainger as a Scot. He makes an important comparison which shows a degree of cultural contact and identification with the slaves, one that draws on his background in Scotland where fellow Scots suffer in toil. The passage is quite straightforward:

With what intense severity of pain
Hath the afflicted muse, in Scotia, seen
The miners rack'd, who toil for fatal lead?
…Yet white men these! (4.177-79, 82).

John Gilmore states that such moments of empathy and contact imply that "Grainger is sincerely convinced of the slave's humanity, and considers that freedom for the slave is perhaps desirable in the abstract, but is something unlikely to happen for a very long time" (61).

Much different is the view of Hector MacNeill, an 18th century Scot who lived in the West Indies and responded to its cultural and social practices in prose and verse. Little is known about MacNeill's time in the West Indies or his role on the sugar plantations. However, he did publish pamphlet entitled Observations on the Treatment of Negroes in Jamaica (1788), in which he attempted to mollify criticism of slavery by offering a reportedly objective first-hand account of its practice in Jamaica. Unlike Grainger's conflicted views of plantation slavery, MacNeill's vision of slave-labor is based on unapologetically racist views that support an economic network that he acknowledges to be unjust and exploitive. Confronting the abolitionist position, MacNeill writes that "emancipating Negroes, and converting them into hired servants" is completely "chimerical," for he claims that "Negroes will never work, if left to the freedom of their own inclinations" (Observations 11). As previously noted, the blatant racism of MacNeill's observations distinguishes his views from those of Grainger, suggesting a much different experience of the West Indies than the doctor's.

At the end of his treatise, MacNeill predicts that "on the existence, or dismission, of the African, the West Indies must stand or fall" (Observations 45). He was correct on this point, for the anti-slavery movement in Britain during the 1790s so impacted MacNeill's views as to cause him to try to disown the pamphlet, saying it represented another person's views. Along with this distancing behavior, MacNeill published a number of poems in the 1790s that adopted Caribbean settings and themes. None of these poems are widely available, but they offer an intriguing perspective from a Scottish diaspora poet trying to come to grips with the changing Caribbean world. In his poem "The Scottish Muse, Jamaica 1798," the West Indies is transformed from a place of punishment and suffering to a site of nostalgic longing and self-discovery for the Scottish diaspora:

Frae east to west, frae main to main,
To Carib's shores returned again;
In sickness, trial, hardship, pain,
Ye ken yoursell
Drapt frae the muse's melting strain
Peace balmy fell (121-26).

Perhaps most tellingly, in his song "Valour Shields the Brave," MacNeill critiques slavery for nationalist purposes, not only borrowing from "Rule Britannia" but also from his own personal observations:

Gallia's chains for slaves are made!—
…Free Britons scorn the slave!
…Slavery's ill's the warst o'ony! (21, 23, 25)

Such an abrupt change in views not only suggests that MacNeill understood that the worldwide practice of slavery was indefensible, but it also implies that the Scottish diaspora in the West Indies could no longer ignore or justify its practice there.

In the poetry of Robert Burns, the representation of the West Indies is an expressly imagined one, mostly on the part of later readers. Burns never traveled to the West Indies and indeed, he never left 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. This planned trip 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.

Internet Links

However, much speculation has been offered about what the great poet would have thought of the West Indian slave trade. Aside from his discussion of Helen Maria Williams's poem "The Slave Trade" in a single letter, Burns did not offer an extended commentary on the subject. However, images of slavery appear frequently in his poetry. Such sentiments have led many people to suggest that Burns would have been a thoroughgoing critic of slavery. Notably, in the Inaugural Burns Lecture from 14 Jan 2004 (available at UN.org ), 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." Annan's endorsement of Burns suggests the magnitude of the poet's international esteem and influence, particularly as it extends to human rights.

However, if the Kilmarnock edition of 1786 had not met with instant success, it is very likely that Burns would have emigrated to Jamaica to become (in his own words) "a poor Negro-driver." Gerard Carruthers has suggested (in an interview with The Sunday Herald from 25 January 2008) that Burns "may not have been seriously contemplating going to the slave plantations, but even to pose as a potential slave manager doesn't cast him in a very good light at this period in his life." In fact, as Iain Lundy writes in Scotsman.com (20 January 2006), "[Burns] had put down nine guineas deposit and secured steerage passage on [the ship] the Nancy. Moreover he had a job to go to in Jamaica, as a bookkeeper on an estate in the town of Port Antonio, owned by one of his friends, Dr. Patrick Douglas. Burns had negotiated a three-year contract at a wage of £30 a year," which was £7 greater than his work as a field-laborer. As a bookkeeper, Burns would have had the kind of direct contact with slaves that Grainger had experienced, dealing on a daily basis with the purchase, punishment, and death of slaves.

Illustrious Exile

Small cover image of Illustrious Exile

Andrew Lindsay's recent novel Illustrious Exile provides an interesting speculative revision of Burns's Jamaican voyage, setting the book within a scenario in which Mary Campbell and Burns traveled to Jamaica to work on Douglas's Jamaican estate. Throughout the course of Lindsay's novel, the character of Burns discovers the reality of plantation slave-labor and voices his discontent about a practice which (in actuality) he rarely discussed. In an interview with BooksfromScotland.com, Lindsay notes that "being a 'Negro-driver' clashes with the popular notion of the poet," also 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 his goal in writing Illustrious Exile appears to be exploring that silence; as Lindsay comments, "if [Burns] had gone to Jamaica, he would have had to confront the issue head on."

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, instead focusing 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! (1-3)

The only real glimpse we have of the West Indies from Burns's pen appears in a farewell poem simply 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! (49-54)

Burns's wry joking inhabits this poem, replacing the maudlin adieus of his other farewell with perhaps a promise of sensual pleasures that await, "Jamaica bodies" he will encounter. For Carruthers, this poem instead "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" (The Sunday Herald 25 January 2008).

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 traces of the West Indies existed within Burns's Scotland. In the work of all three poets—Grainger, MacNeill, and Burns—the points of contact between Scottish and the Caribbean during this period were powerfully felt and imagined, continuing to offer rich fruit for study and reflection.

Dr Corey Andrews is an assistant professor of English at Youngstown State University (USA), who specializes on the work of Robert Burns and eighteenth-century Scottish poetry. His book Literary Nationalism in Eighteenth-Century Scottish Club Poetry was published in 2004, and he has forthcoming articles and chapters in The International Journal of Scottish Literature, The Eighteenth-Century Novel, The Social History of Alchohol and Drugs, and The Edinburgh Companion to Robert Burns.

  • Cover scan of Illustrious Exile
    Illustrious Exile: Journal Of My Sojourn In The West Indies By Robert Burns - Andrew O. Lindsay - Paperback
    In 1786, the Scottish poet Robert Burns, penniless and needing to escape the consequences of his complicated love life, accepted the position of book-keeper on an estate in Jamaica, but the success of his poetry made the journey unnecessary. Andrew Lindsay looks at what could have happened if the voyage had taken place.
  • Cover scan of The Sugar-Cane
    The Sugar-Cane: A Poem - James Grainger - Paperback
    Grainger sought to interpret his personal experience of the Caribbean and challenges assumptions about poetic diction and the proper subject matter of poetry. He boldly asserts the importance of the Caribbean to the 18th century British Empire.