Interview with Illustrious Exile author Andrew Lindsay

RL: Your book, Illustrious Exile, imagines Burns had travelled to the West Indies, something he planned to do in 1786 to escape a possible law suit. Can you tell us how you developed the idea into a novel?

AL: The planned emigration in 1786 tends to be mentioned almost as a footnote -- because it never actually happened. When I started to visit the Caribbean, particularly Guyana, there was clear evidence of the legacy of the slave trade, and the sugar in Demerara is still cut by hand, so it wasn't hard to turn the clock back, so to speak. There is evidence of Scottish involvement in the slave trade -- lots of black people with Scottish names. I found out as much as I could about plantation life in the latter part of the 18th century. Contemporary records were very illuminating, and quite a few people kept journals, so there was a lot of material. I've always been very interested in Burns, and I kept wondering how he would have fitted into this kind of life. The idea just grew from there.

In the novel, you transplant Burns from Jamaica to Demerara in Guyana. You live there for part of the year and this was part of your inspiration.

Yes, it would have been quite realistic for Burns to go to Demerara - as I say, plenty of Scots did. It would have been a very hard life, and I've tried to portray the privations that would have had to be endured. But it is also a very beautiful country, particularly in the interior, and I have reflected this too. In Burns' time, much of the country would have been unexplored, so that opened up all sorts of possibilities in the descriptive writing and the development of the plot.

You have based the tone on Burns' letters. Over 500 of these still exist. Presumably there were far more. Why do you think he was such an ardent communicator?

I think he just enjoyed writing! The letters really are remarkable. There is such a range of them, and they are addressed to people in all levels of society. He varies his tone accordingly - some are philosophical, some are very funny, some are prosaic. There is a staggering mastery of language, and all sorts of pithy observations. I don't think people started collecting his letters until he became famous, so that means that some pre-1786 material will have been lost. The letters were inspirational as I wrote the book.

Because Burns was an exciseman, he steered clear of what we would call 'party politics' in his verse. If he had taken the job in Jamaica, he would have been, as he put it, a 'Negro-driver', which seems to clash with our idea of a humanitarian writer and thinker. This paradox was one of your starting points, I believe?

Yes, this is at the heart of the book. Being a 'Negro-driver' clashes with the popular notion of the poet, but it's important to remember that the eighteenth century was hardly 'politically correct'. The great philosopher David Hume stated quite openly that Negroes were 'naturally inferior' to whites, and capable of virtually nothing except carrying out simple tasks. If you read the 1798 entry for 'Negro' in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, it states that Negoes are guilty of 'idleness, treachery, revenge, cruelty, impudence, stealing, lying, profanity, debauchery, nastiness and intemperance'. Even the 1911 edition states that Negroes are, by nature, inferior creatures. If Burns had indeed meant that a 'man's a man for a' that', white or black, he would have been two centuries ahead of his time. This is not to suggest that Burns was racist, but the intellectual climate in which he lived most certainly was. And if you look at his poems there's almost nothing about slavery except 'The Slave's Lament' which is hardly a diatribe -- he uses the word 'slave' figuratively to denote one who submits to another -- 'wha sae base as be a slave?' 'The coward slave we pass him by'. He only mentions the slave trade once in his letters, and that's in reply to a correspondent. But 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. My book explores this - if he had gone to Jamaica he would have had to confront the issue head on. And he so nearly did!

It's odd to see 'Burns' writing of 'rice and yams'. How did you approach composing the poems which are in the book?

That's hard to say. I've always loved poetry, and I enjoy writing it. As a former English teacher I know about scansion and rhyme - critical in 18th century poetry - and of course I steeped myself in Burns while writing the book. I tried to avoid pastiche - though my Caribbean version of 'Tam O'Shanter' is based on the original, for comic effect. The rice and yams come into a poem my fictional 'Burns' writes about a labba. It's like a large guinea pig, and is kept to be eaten. In the poem, the door of the cage is left open, but the labba has not run away, clearly because it is apprehensive about what lies outside. This parallels the problems the slaves will face when emancipation comes - where will they go? What will they do? The real Burns uses the symbol of the mouse to describe how nothing in life is certain; I used the labba to make a similar point, and borrowed the Burns stanza to do it. I also have poems in formal English, as does Burns: some are serious, and some are indelicate. I hope they sound Burns-like, but I would make no claim to possess even the tiniest fraction of his talent.

The book has clearly been painstakingly researched – how do you avoid the inevitable problems of anachronisms – both social and linguistic?

Social - I read as many contemporary accounts as possible. There is Lady Nugent's Journal, and the account by Edward Long. There is a lot of material. I also researched Jamaican family records, which can be done on the internet at a very modest cost, and which throws up all sorts of facts and information. To some extent this is also true of the linguistic side of things. You will find many echoes of Burns' letters throughout my book, and if I was unsure about a word I always checked it out in the Oxford English dictionary to avoid anachronism. Doubtless some will have slipped through!

The book might possibly annoy some Burns purists. I don't claim ownership of Burns, and I don't think anyone should. Of course he is a great Scottish icon, and quite correctly so. But he was human and fallible, and so is my version of him. It is for the reader to decide whether my portrayal of him is convincing or not.

  • Cover scan of Illustrious Exile
    Illustrious Exile: Journal Of My Sojourn In The West Indies By Robert Burns - 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.
Andrew Lindsay