Burns, Slavery and the Douglases

 

100 years ago, a Burns enthusiast and traveller wrote the following, which appeared in the Burns Chronicle of 1903.

Robert BurnsWHEN in Jamaica during the early part of this year I visited Port Antonio, where Burns had engaged to go to during his dark days in 1786. I was the guest of a Scotsman from the Clyde district, who is one of the managing staff of the United Fruit Company, the gigantic trust which controls the fruit trade from the West Indies and Central America to the Eastern States of America. Among other places, he took me a very rough ride to a house belonging to him on the hill overlooking Port Antonio, which commanded a magnificent view of the fine harbour and the Caribbean Sea on one hand, and of the Blue Mountain range on the other. This was Springbank, to which, it is understood, Burns was coming out in 1786. By this is meant that it was the site of the Great House (the name given in those days to the residence of the planter), and it might be any of the properties belonging to the planter that Burns would be coming to.

The original house was there until the great hurricane in 1880. The foundations are still to be seen, and the present house extends over part of them only. Judging from the foundations, the original house must have been a large and substantial one, as, indeed, a planter's in those days was likely to be.My Scottish host, the present proprietor of this house, referred me to a half coloured man in the village named Aubrey Steele Hoyes, a grandson of John Steele, who was apparently proprietor of Springbank in succession to Charles Douglas, the planter whom Burns engaged to come out to.

Hoyes showed me various documents of Steele's, among others an interesting general sketch of parish tax and parish road rolls for the parish of Portland (in which Port Antonio is) in 1809, showing that for taxation purposes slaves in those days were put very much on the level of beasts of burden. For parish tax the 7688 slaves in the parish were assessed at 2s. 9d. each, and the stock at 1s. 6d. each. At Kingston I referred, along with Mr. Frank Cundall, secretary of the Institute of Jamaica, to the Jamaica Almanacs. The issue for 1811 is the first giving a list of properties, and in this list John Steele is given as proprietor of Springbank, owning 65 slaves and 28 stock, the largest owner in the parish having 454 slaves.

The editor of the Daily Gleaner, at Kingston, who is a Scotsman, showed me data collected by him in connection with the matter. Mr. Charles Douglas, to whom Burns engaged himself through his brother, Dr. Patrick Douglas, of Ayr, was the owner of at least two sugar properties in the parish of Portland viz., Ayr Mount and Nightingale Grove. The former was the principal estate, and lay about three miles from Port Antonio. The Great House commanded a beautiful view, and, although some details of scenery have since changed, the general aspect remains as it was then. The works, of course, are in ruin. The fields of cane have vanished, and instead there are the cultivations of small settlers, with thatched cottages embowered among fruit trees, but the outline of forest and field, the wealth of vegetation, the brilliancy of colour characteristic of this wet parish have never altered. The Rio Grande, the most romantic of Jamaica streams, still winds quietly along after its wild descent from the Blue Mountains, whose lofty ranges tower immediately behind.

The estate now comprises only 40 acres, which are divided among one family of Negroes. Nightingale Grove was further inland, and has now become merged in Golden Vale, the largest banana plantation in the country. The soil of both properties is extremely fertile, and in Burns's time must have yielded golden crops of canes. Port Antonio was the shipping place, and counted only some 30 houses. There were about 100 other settlements of various kinds, but the sugar estates were the chief centres of industry, and were in themselves small villages. Of these not one now remain Mr. Douglas appears to have personally managed his estates, which were well looked after, and were well stocked with cattle and slaves. He was one of four superintendents of the Maroon Negro towns established in the island. That under his direction was Moore Town, built on an almost inaccessible ridge of the Blue Mountains, and for his services he was paid £200 per annum. This was the only public office he held, so far as contemporary records show. Burns had signed a contract to serve as a bookkeeper for a term of three years at a salary of £30, with board and lodgings free. It is questionable, according to this informant, whether he realised the exact nature of the work he would be required to do.

A bookkeeper then, as now, did not keep books; his duties were to supervise labour in the field and in the boiling and still houses. On all estates there were three gangs in the fields, one consisting of men, another of women, and the third of children. These toiled from sunrise to sunset, and often at night when the moon shone full. It was the duty of the bookkeeper to follow them and superintend their work in all weathers, and to make them fulfil their apportioned tasks by the free use of the whip. The Slave Act enforced in 1786, not only legalised this practice, but sanctioned the infliction of terrible penalties for the most trivial offences, mutilations, dismemberment, branding, &c. Bookkeepers were not expected to marry, and were often forbidden to do so, but were encouraged to take "housekeepers " from amongst the slave women. They lived, as a rule, in comfortless barracks exposed to the malarious influences so common around sugar works, and totally devoid of the refinement most of them were accustomed to in Scotland.

The death registers of the colony indicate that 90 per cent. of the young white men who went out as employees on estates succumbed to the effects of imprudence and intemperate living. After the first shock of contact they were able to lose the fine sense of moral responsibility acquired in their Scottish homes, and were tempted to spend their scanty leisure time in low debauchery. It may be concluded that if Burns had fully realised the nature of his prospective work he would never have agreed to place himself under the tyranny of a system so degrading. The editor of the Daily Telegraph, of Kingston, also a Scotsman, had the official records at Spanish Town searched by Mr. Judah, one of the officials there, as to the various Douglasses living in the island in 1786, and furnished me with the following resultant data :-

First Charles Douglas, in Portland, owned property in that parish from 1777 to 1799. He had several estates, amongst which were Finches of 160 acres and Nightingale Grove of 300 acres. In December, 1785, he purchased a Negro slave named Andrew from Mrs. Janet Colt of Leitch Hill, in the county of Perth. Scotland. (This was the Douglas to whom Burns had arranged to go.) In his will, dated February 15, 1815, he states:? All the residue and remainder of my estate, real, personal, and mixed, wherever found, I give and bequeath to my beloved niece, Janet Douglas (now Mrs. Boswell), the daughter of my brother Patrick Douglas, Esquire, of Garallan, in the shire of Ayr, in North Britain, to her and to her lawful heirs for ever.

Second Charles Graham Douglas, of St. John (now St. Catherine), who died about the year 1823. He was a person of colour, and was apparently possessed of a good deal of property.

Third - Charles Douglas, of the parish of Vere, gentleman, whose will is dated 1842. He mentions his father, William Douglas, and his mother, Janet Douglas, of the town of Falkirk, Scotland, to each of whom he bequeathed ,£100, also £100 to his sister, Anne Miller, of the town of Elgin, Scotland, and a similar amount to another sister, Margaret Lawson, of the town of Falkirk. It will be seen from Wallace's edition of " Chambers's Life of Burns" that Janet Douglas (niece of No. 1), who succeeded her father, Dr. Patrick Douglas, in Garallan, married fir. Hamilton Boswell, of Knockroom, collector of taxes for Ayrshire, and that Mr. Hamilton Douglas Boswell, great grandson of Dr. Patrick Douglas, succeeded later as proprietor of Garallan.


Mr. Liddel, of the Surveyor?General's office at Kingston, in Jamaica, showed me a map dated 1804, which gives a property of Douglas's near Golden Vale, in the parish of Portland. This would be Nightingale Grove, which was absorbed in Golden Vale. A map of 1876 shows Ayr Mount of 50 acres overlooking Rio Grande Valley and Port Antonio. There is also an estate in the neighbourhood called Douglas Mount.


Burns in one of his letters mentions that he was to have gone to Savannah la Mar, on the south coast of Jamaica, but that some Jamaican friends informed him it would cost £50 to send him from there overland to Port Antonio, and it was then arranged for him to wait for a vessel direct to the latter I port. This fortunate delay, as is well known, led to his not going at all. A visitor to Jamaica finds it difficult to believe that it would have cost anything like £50 to transport Burns from Savannah la Mar to Port Antonio even in the days in question. Dr. Gillies, of Seabank, Kingston, formerly a minister, now a D. D., and who is probably the oldest white residenter in the island, having been connected with it for about 50 years, with whom I discussed the matter, yeas also of this opinion. Even if the £50 were in currency, which would be somewhat less, he considered the amount stated was out of the question. It might be interesting to speculate what would have been the result had Burns gone to Jamaica. Would he have been dragged down by the degrading associations of a bookkeeper's life, or would he have risen superior to his surroundings  The natural situation of the estate, as has been indicated, is unusually fine, the views of mountain, river, and sea being magnificent. This would no doubt have quickened Burns's inborn love of nature, and would have stimulated his genius in that direction.

It is somewhat sad for the visitor from Britain to find on reaching Port Antonio that from Springbank, Burns's intended destination, then an exclusively British preserve, he now sees everywhere evidences of the encroachment of Americans. The Stars and Stripes are flying from most of the steamers which frequent the beautiful harbour ; the only hotel is American, and it is filled with American tourists; the port is surrounded by American plantations; and the district is practically controlled by an American company. How little could this have been foreseen in the time of Burns ! - Glasgow Herald.

See also our slave trade feature

 

 

This page was last updated on 25 January 2016

Click here to 
Print this page

Biography finder

A

B

C

D

E

F

G

H

I

J

K

L

M

N

O

P

Q

R

S

T

U

V

W

X

Y

Z

 

 

Index of first names

 

 

 

At this stage, the content of this website is a collection of materials gathered from a variety of sources, some of it unedited.

The webmaster does not intend to claim authorship, but gives credit to the originators for their work.

As work progresses, some of the content may be re-written and presented in a unique format, to which we would then be able to claim ownership.

Discussion and contributions from those more knowledgeable is welcome.

Contact Us

Last modified: Monday, 21 April 2014