Burns, barley and brothers of one creation
Ahead of our celebration of Burns Night on 25 January, human rights activist, Professor Emeritus and Chancellor of Heriot-Watt University Professor Sir Geoff Palmer reflects on what Robert Burns means to him as a barley farmer, a poet and at one point as the man who planned to emigrate to Jamaica to work on a slave plantation.
PHOTOS: MIKE WILKINSON
Burns, barley and brothers of one creation
Ahead of our celebration of Burns Night in 25 January, human rights activist, Professor Emeritus and Chancellor of Heriot-Watt University Professor Sir Geoff Palmer reflects on what Robert Burns means to him as a barley farmer, a poet and at one point as the man who planned to emigrate to Jamaica to work on a slave plantation.
PHOTOS: MIKE WILKINSON
I was born in Jamaica in 1940. My mother migrated to London from Jamaica in 1951. She left my wee brother and me with her sisters and aunt, whom we called ‘Auntie’. Our house in Kingston, Jamaica belonged to Auntie. Unlike us, she was fair skinned in complexion…her ancestors must have been white slave owners. I wish I had asked her who she was. However, she protected me and when I was leaving to join my mother in London in 1955, she wrapped my chest in newspaper to keep me warm. My aunts were strict disciplinarians. I had to attend church three times every Sunday…morning service, Sunday school and night service. Absence from both church and school was accompanied by doses of castor oil. In 1948, I received a prize from Sunday school for ‘Regular Attendance’ – I disliked castor oil!
Robert Burns (1759-1796) was unknown to me until his songs caused me significant problems at home in Jamaica as a boy. Singing and recitation were important parts of our colonial education. One day I returned home from school and two of my aunts asked me what I had learnt that day. I sang two songs. One was called My Love is like a red, red rose. The other was Coming through the Rye. At the end of my singing, one of my aunts grabbed me and said: “Don’t sing any more of those rude songs in this house! Little boys should not be singing about love and meeting women in bushes!” They told my teachers that they would stop me attending such singing lessons.
A CONNECTION WITH BURNS
I loved the songs but did not sing them again until I came to Scotland to study for my PhD between 1964 and 1968. I attended Burns Suppers for the first time and heard many stories about Burns’s life and work. From 1968 to 1977 I carried out barley and malt research at the Brewing Research Foundation in Surrey, but returned to Scotland as a lecturer at the Heriot-Watt University in 1977. I resumed my Burns Supper attendance and was attracted to the great man because of his interest in Jamaica. His links with colonial Britain turned this interest into a debate during the 250th celebrations of the birthday of Robert Burns in 2009. A photo appeared in the press of a gathering of white people celebrating on a street somewhere in Scotland. I was part of a complaint that highlighted the fact that Scotland also had a large non-white diaspora. The photo re-emerged with a non-white person with a book of Burns’s poems in his hand!
BURNS AND SLAVERY
I have spoken at many Burns Suppers, and included him in some of my talks and writings on British slavery in the West Indies. However, in 2021 it was a great honour to be appointed the first ambassador for the Robert Burns World Federation. Burns’s influence on the work I do comes mainly from two directions. Firstly, his statements about our ‘one creation’ and secondly, his early life as a producer of malting barley on his father’s farm as a boy. In 1784, Burns’s poem, Man was made to mourn enlightened us that despite our ‘one creation’, “Man’s inhumanity to man/Makes countless thousands mourn”. However, it disappointed me that in 1786 he decided that he would join the chattel slavery business in Jamaica and work as ‘a poor negro driver’ (see “On a Scottish Bard Gone to the West Indies” 1786 and “Will ye go to the Indies, my Mary”, thought to have been written in 1786 but published in 1792). However, the success of the Kilmarnock edition of his poetic work dissuaded Burns from going to Jamaica.
Burns would have known that Hume and Kant had stated that “negroes were inferior to whites and were an inferior race”. This untruth was used to justify our slavery as being economically ‘necessary’. Burns’s later work shows that this racist myth did not influence his recognition that slavery was inconsistent with our one humanity as ‘brothers’ as he stated powerfully later, in mainly monosyllable, in A Man’s A Man For A’ That. It is possible that Burns, like Zachary Macaulay, thought that working on a slave plantation in Jamaica was different from being a slave owner. However, Macaulay left this evil business after seeing its cruelty and became a distinguished abolitionist. In 1788 Burns’s poem Ode, sacred to the memory of Mrs Oswald of Auchencruive describes the cruelty of those who owned slaves such as Mrs Oswald, the widow of the rich slave owner Richard Oswald. He said of her: “See these hands ne’er stretched to save/Hands that took, but never gave.”
In 1792 Burns published the Slaves Lament, describing the horrors of separation, transportation and enslavement. This was the same year that Henry Dundas initiated ‘gradual’ abolition of the slave trade to benefit slave owners. Burns knew Dundas well and in his 1784 Ballad on the American War he referred to him as ‘slee Dundas’, meaning ‘crafty’. Burns knew that Dundas was against America’s independence for economic reasons and supported the war which ended in 1783. Burns would also know that in 1770 Dundas, as a lawyer, designated the black ‘servant’ Latchemo a ‘slave’ to prevent him testifying against his client. In 1776 as Lord Advocate, Dundas indicated that black ‘servant’ Joseph Knight should be freed in Scotland but would be a ‘slave’ in Jamaica.
It is of great credit to Edinburgh City Council that in 2021, it changed the plaque on Dundas’s monument in St Andrew Square to reflect his influence in delaying the abolition of the slave trade from 1792 to 1807 and dedicated the new plaque to the enslaved who suffered.
Indeed, Prime Minister William Pitt knew his Minister, Henry Dundas MP, well and informed us in his 1792 speech that Dundas’s ‘gradual’ move towards abolition was like ‘waiting for a contingency’ – it really meant ‘indefinite’ and was approved by slave owners. This ‘slee’ activity of Dundas, according to historian Sir Tom Devine (2015), delayed the abolition of the slave trade ‘for a generation’ and he received ‘grateful thanks’ from slave owners. Burns’s perceptive poetic eyes had already noticed in 1784 that Dundas was capable of ‘slee’ behaviour in prolonging the slave trade in 1792.
Although Burns did not migrate to Jamaica to work in slavery, his lover Clarinda (Agnes Maclehose) travelled to Jamaica in 1791 to try and reconcile her marriage with her husband, who worked in slavery and had a black family. Burns was moved to write his famous love song Ae Fond Kiss for her when she left. Her reconciliation failed and she returned to Scotland but her relationship with Burns, who was married, ended and Burns died in 1795 and she died in 1841. Clarinda is buried in the Canongate Kirkyard. I have visited her memorial many times and spoken in the church on our slavery. Burns, Clarinda, Jamaica and Ae Fond Kiss are linked in love forever.
Burns was very much aware of the colonial importance of the enslavement of black people. In 1793 he, in a toast, recalled Admiral Rodney’s 1782 victory against the French navy in a violent battle in the West Indies for Jamaica. He did not mention the slave owners, but he reminded them and politicians like Dundas who guarded the economic ownership of Jamaica that the ‘fame’ of the British sailors that died in this battle for Jamaica will last ‘while the world goes round’. Therefore, Burns would have known of the commercial importance of Jamaica Street in Glasgow – it was opened in 1763.
BURNS AND BARLEY
My PhD studies in Scotland began in December 1964. The science and technology of the transformation of barley into malt was the topic of my research.
Burns worked on his father’s barley farm as a boy. His deep understanding of the local cultivation of barley is clear from his 1783 poem/song The Rigs O’ Barley. My dear late aunts would have approved of the cultivation of barley but would have objected to “I kissed her owre and owre again” and “I lock’d her in my fond embrace”. Burns’s 1782 version of the poem/song John Barleycorn is the best known. In my view, Burns knew the malting process in great detail and used it to say that we must never underestimate the seemingly small and unimportant because John Barley corn, despite its small size and the symbolic cruelties of processing, nevertheless produces Scotland’s unique drink known as ‘Scotch whisky’. Burns’s John Barleycorn ends: “Then let us toast John Barleycorn/Each man a glass in hand/And may his great prosperity/Never fail in old Scotland!”.
In defence of Scotland’s Scotch whisky in 1786, the year he intended to travel to Jamaica to work in slavery, Burns sent a petition to Parliament to, “The Right Honourable and Honourable Scotch Representatives in the House of Commons” such as ‘damned aulfarran Dundas’. He insisted that “Freedom an’ Whisky gang thegither!”. Burns’s association with Scotch whisky was not only with its drinking as a ‘cup of kindness’ (Auld Lang Syne, published in 1796). He became an exciseman in 1789 and did an excellent job, despite remaining a great poet.
Burns believed, as I do, that there are no excuses for iniquity and in 1794 he wrote to Mrs Frances Dunlop that: “Whatever mitigates the woes or increases the happiness of others, this is my criterion of goodness: and whatever injures society at large, or any individual in it, this is my measure of iniquity”.
In my view, Burns’s humanity grew from Man was made to Mourn in 1784 to A Man’s A Man For A’ That in 1795. Both express our one humanity as ‘brothers’ of ‘one creation’.