Prospect's counter-factual columnby Robert Crawford / September 18, 2014 / Leave a comment
Sickened by the third of his public reproaches for fornication on 6th August 1786, and facing financial ruin, Robert Burns planned to emigrate just days later. Fleeing from his future wife’s family and from his entanglements in Scotland, he had arranged to sail with a Captain Smith aboard the Nancy, a ship bound from Greenock to Savanna la Mar in western Jamaica.
The poet had arranged to serve as assistant overseer on a slave plantation. His “master” was Charles Douglas, a Scottish plantation owner at Port Antonio whose brother was known to Burns in Ayr. These circumstances lie behind such verses as “On a Scotch Bard Gone to the West Indies,” whose penultimate stanza reads:
Jamaica bodies, use him weel,
An’ hap him in a cozie biel [place]:
Ye’ll find him ay a daintie chiel,
An fou o’ glee:
He wad na wrang’d the vera Diel [devil],
That’s owre the Sea.
Burns’s Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, published that year, were warmly received and he decided to stay in Scotland. But imagine, for a moment, that events had taken a different turn and that Burns did set sail for the Caribbean.
Before he left Ayrshire, Burns took part in a debate with fellow freemasons. He seems to have shown some awkwardness about committing himself to the practice of slavery, contending that eventually slaves might be granted “independence”; most of his friends, however, argued that the relationship between slaves and masters should remain as it was, since they were “better together.”
The poet had never been to sea before he began his Jamaican voyage. His surviving correspondence (including fragments preserved by Captain Smith) indicates that as soon as the Nancy left the Firth of Clyde, Burns began to be violently sea-sick. This continued for weeks. His discomfort was heightened by dental problems (common on board ship in this period), which he described as a “violent toothache”—perhaps an abscess. In the mid-Atlantic, Burns wrote his posthumously published poem, “On a Toothache during my Voyage to Jamaica,” which begins, “My curse upon your venom’d stang/ That shoots my tortured gums alang!”
Before setting off, the 27-year-old poet had been warned that the considerable journey…