A Cure for All Care
Slàinte mhath! January 25 is Burns Night, the annual observation of the birth and cultural contributions of Scotland’s most famous bard.
Burns Night, as the name suggests, celebrates all things Robert “Rabbie” Burns. A typical Burns Supper entails an evening of poems, haggis, whisky, and a heartfelt chorus of “Auld Lang Syne” (the poet’s best-known work). Focused mainly on his writings praising Scottish cultural identity, these events romanticize Burns as a “heaven-taught ploughman” and rarely delve into his radical political efforts.
The late 18th century in Scotland was a tumultuous time of political ferment. Burns, an intelligent and educated man, did not sit idle in the countryside. Instead, he joined progressive clubs and associations and contributed poems, songs, and letters to radical newspapers such as The Edinburgh Gazetteer and London Morning Chronicle. His thoughts on war, revolutionary change, poverty, class inequalities, migrants, and slavery reveal a man concerned with the oppressed and vulnerable in society.
Born in Alloway, Scotland, the future Bard of Ayrshire grew up in abject poverty. Starting at age 15, young Rabbie was the principal laborer on his father’s farm. Ten years of severe manual labor and a constant lack of nutritious food left him with a weakened constitution and permanent stoop.
In 1786, the 27-year old Burns was at the lowest point of his life. Near starvation and facing both financial and personal ruin, Burns decided to leave Scotland. Making arrangements through a family with an Ayrshire connection, he engaged himself as a “bookkeeper” on a sugar plantation near Port Antonio, Jamaica.
Jamaica at this time was a pivotal part of the inhuman “triangular slave trade” that generated great wealth for Scottish cities such as Greenock and Glasgow. Like all West Indian plantations, the sugar enterprise was built on an enslaved African workforce. A bookkeeper on a plantation did not “keep books”. Burns’ duties would have been to supervise an assigned group of slaves, “helping” them fulfil their tasks by free use of the whip.
Burns may not have been very knowledgeable about the West Indies, but he certainly knew about the slave trade. His readiness to sign a three-year contract (total salary £30, plus room and board) involving himself in slave management demonstrates no small amount of desperation. Did the poet really ever intend to emigrate to Jamaica and escape the woes threatening to overcome him, or was it all just a dramatic plea for attention?
In the end, Burns never went to Jamaica, instead spending the next decade penning revolutionary writings while employed as an exciseman (a collector of local taxation) on behalf of a Government he despised. Because it’s difficult to fathom how anyone who wrote so movingly about injustice and freedom could contemplate a role in slavery, Burns’s detractors often cite the Jamaica connection as proof of an inconsistent attitude toward slavery. Burnsians gloss over (or completely ignore) the proposed trip.
Scotland’s anti-slavery movement was in its infancy when Burns was planning his emigration to Jamaica. Evidence of Scotland’s slave trade connection was disguised as industrial progress, the few slaves well hidden behind the closed doors of huge country estates built with the wealth that enslaved Africans generated. In 1788, a slave named Joseph Knight sued and won his freedom when the Court of Session in Edinburgh ruled that no person in Scotland could be held by law as a slave. Sales and ownership of personal slaves were banned in Scotland, yet the triangular trafficking continued on.
In an autobiographical letter to the Scottish physician and author John Moore, Burns tacitly apologizes for accepting a job as a “poor negro-driver” a year earlier, citing a lapse of judgement due to his personal woes. Private correspondence with the pioneering anti-slavery campaigners William Roscoe and Helen Maria Williams show Burns’ developing awareness and understanding of “this infernal traffic”, as he called it.
By 1792, Scotland’s anti-slavery movement was in full swing. Critics sometimes point out that Burns’ signature is absent on surviving anti-slavery petitions. However, after a government spy told Burns’ employer that he was head of a radical group, Burns appears to have maintained a low political profile, obliquely (and sometimes anonymously) attacking issues via songs, letters, and poems for the rest of his short life.
Burns inspired many abolitionists, including radical actors Stephan and Elizabeth Kemble and American author (and former slave) Frederick Douglass. In an article published in the New York Weekly Tribune detailing his tour of Britain (including an April 1846 visit to Burns’ birthplace), Douglass revealed that he was an enthusiastic admirer of Robert Burns’ indomitable spirit and his “contempt for the hollow pretensions set up by the shallow-brained aristocracy”.
“The Slave’s Lament” is Burns’ only abolitionist work. Not his finest ballad, it nonetheless effectively expresses his feelings toward injustice and oppression. At age eight, the American poet Maya Angelou understood the importance of his words, describing The Slave’s Lament as “a perfect example of the ways in which a poet transcends race, time and place”. For Maya, “he was the first white man I read who seemed to understand that a human being was a human being and that we are more alike than unalike”.
Jamaica and Scotland forever have a shared history. Through ownership and management of the Jamaican plantations, the Scottish role in slavery has left a colonial legacy on the island. Scottish place names abound, and Scottish surnames can be traced back to the days of sugar plantations. It’s interesting to speculate on the outcome had Burns made the journey to Jamaica.
Assuming that his poor health did not do him in, would the poet have risen superior to his surroundings and become the Bard of Jamaica, his ballads set to a different groove, his spirit of choice rum? In the spirit of radical Rabbie, on this Burns Night let us offer a toast to remembrance, to revolutionary change, and to the ability that allows us to shape our own destiny for good.
Scotch-laced Jamaican Corn Pone
Robert Burns lovingly described Scotland as “Land o’ Cakes” after the oat bread called “bannock”: a touch of Highlands scotch in Jamaica’s favorite dessert makes this one “a cure for all care”.
3 cups cornmeal
3/4 cup flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 cups coconut milk
3 cups water
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 ounce (2 tablespoons) single malt scotch
1/4 cup butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons water
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup coconut milk
1 ounce (2 tablespoons) single malt scotch
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
In a large bowl, whisk together cornmeal, flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, and salt.
In a large saucepan over medium heat, simmer coconut milk, water, butter, sugar, and vanilla extract, stirring until butter has melted and sugar is dissolved, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat; stir in scotch.
Add half of coconut milk mixture to the dry ingredients; stir well to combine, then whisk in rest of coconut milk mixture until batter is smooth with no lumps. Transfer mixture to prepared baking pan and bake in middle of oven for 1 hour 10 minutes (pone is done when a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean).
Meanwhile, make the Butterscotch Sauce: In a small saucepan over low heat, simmer butter, sugar, water and salt; cook until sugar dissolves, about 3 minutes. Add coconut milk; continue to simmer, stirring, until coconut is fully incorporated.
When pone is finished baking, remove from oven, transfer to a wire rack and let cool in pan for 10 minutes. Run a butter knife around the edge to loosen pone from pan; release springform and remove. To serve, pour 1/2 of butterscotch sauce over pone, slice, and serve, passing remaining sauce on side for a wee bit of decadence.
Originally published at www.nibblesip.com.