It Was in Sweet Senegal – Or Was it? Some Notes on ‘The Slave’s Lament’

The Slave's Lament: first two lines of music from first printed edition
‘The Slave’s Lament’, in James Johnson, ed., The Scots Musical Museum, Vol IV (Edinburgh: Johnson & Co, 1792), p. 398.

Thus the blues – ‘the black slave lament’ – was offered up for the admiration of the oppressors.

Frantz Fanon, ‘Racism and Culture’ (1956) in Toward the African Revolution, trans. Haakon Chevalier (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970), p. 47.

A Bard’s Ransom

It is curious, as Stephen Mullen recently observed, that Robert Burns – who never went to Jamaica – has somehow come to stand in for the thousands of Scots who did in the second half of the eighteenth century.1 Yet it is perhaps not surprising given the way Burns (to an extent hardly matched by any other poet) has been regularly hauled before the court of critical opinion and questioned about his life choices.2 Even tributes to Burns are typically expected to begin by admitting his (moral or political) shortcomings before dwelling more extensively on his (literary) talents. That he even contemplated going to the West Indies – and in a letter rather flippantly imagining an alternative future as a ‘poor Negro driver’3 – has been enough for many to channel disquiet about a vast and enduring transatlantic system onto a single, celebrated individual.

At some point in the legal proceedings, someone is bound to step up in Burns’ defence waving Exhibit A. And just as – in the wider historical debate – any claim that Scotland was complicit in the development and expansion of colonial slavery is often met with the counter-claim that, ‘Ah yes, but we also abolished it,’ so the case for the poet’s prosecution is supposed to collapse in the face of ‘The Slave’s Lament’, the song he is believed to have composed, and which was first published in 1792.

The Slave's Lament: words and music from first printed edition
‘The Slave’s Lament’, in James Johnson, ed., The Scots Musical Museum, Vol IV (Edinburgh: Johnson & Co, 1792), p. 398.

It was in sweet Senegal that my foes did me enthral,
For the lands of Virginia ginia O:
Torn from that lovely shore and must never see it more;
And alas I am weary weary O!

All on that charming coast is no bitter snow and frost,
Lie the lands of Virginia ginia O;
There streams forever flow, and there flowers for ever blow,
And alas I am weary weary O!

The burden I must bear, while the cruel scourge I fear,
In the lands of Virginia ginia O;
And I think on friends most dear with the bitter, bitter tear,
And alas I am weary weary O!

The song appeared in the fourth volume of the six-volume collection, The Scots Musical Museum, put together by the Edinburgh engraver and music-seller James Johnson.4 It’s a moving lyric, to be sure, written from the point of view of one captured in West Africa to be enslaved in North America, bearing the burden while mourning the separation from loved ones back home. And it is regularly cited as a ‘get-out clause’ in response to those troubled by Burns’ colonial intentions.5 He was an abolitionist after all, they say. For many readers and listeners, then, the song itself seems to bear a burden: their own longings for something that offers, in Carla Sassi’s striking phrase, ‘a possibility of ransom from Scotland’s history’s darkest chapter.’6

Whose Song is it Anyway?

If ‘The Slave’s Lament’ is a ransom payment, the recipient might well feel short-changed. Set alongside other abolitionist verse of the period, the song – arguably – resembles less those that celebrate resistance than those that represent the enslaved ‘as helpless and supplicating’.7 Its model seems much closer to Wedgwood’s famous medallion, described by Marcus Wood as ‘the central icon of slave passivity and disempowerment’8 (distributed in Scotland the year the song was published)9 than, say, the statue of the Marron inconnu that stands in Port-au-Prince marking the Haitian revolution (which began the year before).

Michael Morris, in his sustained interrogation of Burns’ relationship to slavery and abolitionism, contrasts ‘The Slave’s Lament’ with Slavery: An Essay in Verse, a passionate twenty-page denunciation of the plantation system written by Burns’ exact contemporary, John Marjoribanks from Kelso who did go to Jamaica and served there as an infantry officer.10 No wonder then that Gerry Carruthers has dismissed it as ‘tame’ and ‘insipid’11 and as a single, ‘solitary item serves only to highlight how little interest [Burns] took in the pro-abolitionist cause, unlike many other Whigs of radical bent during the period.’12

But if this relies on a rather narrow model of what ‘radical’ poetry or song is, the ‘ransom’ falls short in another way. For evidence for Burns having written the song is weak. Carruthers suggests that ‘it is possible that Burns merely collected the song when scraping the barrel to send Johnson material’.13 Nigel Leask concurs: ‘Unfortunately there is no sure evidence that the song was written, rather than collected by Burns.’14 In this they follow editors James Kinsley, who notes that Burns’s ‘part in this song is uncertain’, and Donald Low, who cautiously remarks that it is ‘possibly not his work.’15

When James Currie (another Scot who ‘nearly went to Jamaica’, in his case as a surgeon)16 was leafing through the hundreds of songs Burns supplied to the Museum he may have paused when he came across ‘The Slave’s Lament’, not least because he himself had composed, with William Roscoe, a song they originally entitled ‘The Negroe’s Complaint’ (published pseudonymously as ‘The African’ in 1788).17 But he chose not to include it among the several dozen songs in the Works of Robert Burns he published in 1800.18 He may have had doubts regarding its authorship. More decisively, it may have lacked what Currie believed were the distinctive features of Burns’s songs, which, for him, typically depicted scenes of rural courtship in recognisably Scottish settings.19 And for many years, nothing more was claimed for the song than (as William Stenhouse remarked in his notes to the 1839 edition) it was ‘communicated by Burns to the Museum.’20

As far as I know, the first time it was included in collections of the poet’s works was in the Life and Works compiled by Robert Chambers in 1851, but even then it was, as it were, quarantined in a section entitled ‘Old Songs Improved by Burns from Johnson’s Museum’ and Chambers acknowledges the reluctance to ‘assign this song to Burns’. However, he believes that ‘his authorship of it is much fortified by its resemblance to another song of his, entitled The Ruined Farmer’s Lament, which seems to have been formed on the same model.’21 The resemblance is slight, but it helped to shoe ‘The Slave’s Lament’ into the Burns canon, and the song regularly appears in editions of his works thereafter.

During this period of relative anonymity, it is worth dwelling on the note on the song Allan Cunningham inserts in his Songs of Scotland, Ancient and Modern of 1825:

Of the author of this sweet song I can give no account. It is generally believed to be expressed in something like the simple language of that hapless race who were for so many centuries condemned by European avarice to perpetual slavery. The air too is supposed to be of African extraction. Indeed, the slaves in the West Indies have a remarkable taste for music; and every step they take, and every task they perform, is accompanied by song.22

By emphasising the uncertain origin of ‘The Slave’s Lament’, Cunningham is able to coax the reader who might skip over his qualifications (‘believed to be … supposed to be’) into imagining that it is an authentic slave song, sung not only to an ‘African’ melody but its words ‘too’ originally ‘expressed in … the simple language of that hapless race.’ As if it was based on the transcription of the singing of an actually enslaved person. An untutored cousin of Phillis Wheatley, perhaps, who like her was kidnapped in ‘Senegal’, but ended up in the fields of Virginia rather than the genteel homes of Boston, Massachusetts.23

After all, this period of the song’s anonymity coincides with the rise and fall of anti-slavery activity in Scotland, from Dickson’s tour of 1792 to the visits of Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown and others in the 1840s and 50s.24 The movement, though best known, especially in Britain, for its white leaders (William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson) prized the testimony of the enslaved, and autobiographical narratives and lecture tours by Black men and women (when appropriately managed) formed an important part of the campaign’s rhetorical armoury. By the middle of the century popular demand for this testimony had fallen considerably, and the travesties of blackface minstrelsy seeped into even ostensibly abolitionist works such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, particularly the theatrical adaptations that flourished in the decade before the Civil War.

From Poem to Song

Although ‘The Slave’s Lament’ was printed regularly in collections of Burns’ works from the 1850s, editions that included the melody were few and far between and for a long time hard to obtain. The situation improved with the republication of Robert Dick’s Songs of Robert Burns (1903) in 196225 and the appearance of Kinsley’s edition of the Poems and Songs in 1968, but the song never entered the repertoire of those renowned for their interpretation of Scots song for another two decades.

Only after Jean Redpath recorded it in 1981 as part of the ambitious Burns song project of Serge Hovey – based on many years’ research and featuring finely-crafted arrangements26 – did other singers begin to take notice.27

Versions of ‘The Slave’s Lament’ were recorded by Dougie MacLean (1991), Sheena Wellington (1995), Christine Kydd (solo for the Complete Songs of Robert Burns, 1995 and with Chantan 1997), Tam White (2003), Karine Polwart (2005), Battlefield Band (2006) and many more. (See this playlist for a selection.) In a documentary made during her visit to Scotland for the Burns Bicentenary in 1996, Maya Angelou said the song was ‘a perfect example of how a poet transcends race, time and space.’28

The song no doubt acquired new listeners when it featured in various art installations by Graham Fagen, which explored historical connections between Scotland and the Caribbean. Perhaps best known is the exhibit made for the Venice Biennale in 2015 (subsequently touring widely) which included a video projection of a specially-arranged string version by the composer Sally Beamish with the reggae singer Ghetto Priest.

All this not only put the song into much wider circulation, but also cemented its association with Robert Burns who is typically identified unproblematically as the author in the accompanying material. Sometimes this has been assisted by (unsupported) anecdotal claims that Burns wrote the song after seeing a slave ship in Dundee – a story heard by Sheena Wellington and printed in the sleeve notes to the live album on which her recorded version appears.29

Return to Source: The New Oxford Burns

By the first decade of this century, ‘The Slave’s Lament’ was pretty well established as a Burns song. Scholars would occasionally warn that the evidence of authorship was by no means settled, but their voices were seldom heard.

And now, with the new edition of the Scots Musical Museum, forming Volumes II and III of the recent Oxford Edition of the Works of Robert Burns (2018) perhaps they may be definitively silenced. For this edition Murray Pittock adopted an eight-fold system of classification (I to VIII) in an attempt to establish the degree to which Burns was involved as author and editor of each song. ‘The Slave’s Lament’ he assigns to ‘Category I [‘A song wholly by Burns, with no prior antecedents identified, or suspected’)] or Category III [‘A song significantly by Burns, with only isolated lines or a combination of phrases, subject matter, and tune evident from earlier evidence’’]’.30

That ‘Category I’ is considered a possibility is curious given that most of the editorial note that ends with this categorisation is concerned precisely with ‘prior antecedents’ of the song. As indeed Pittock (and the editors before him) does with most of the songs in the Museum, demonstrating that they did not spontaneously erupt from the imagination of the poet but were born of protracted immersion in the song culture of the eighteenth century, both in print (studying chapbooks, broadsides and bound collections) and orally (learning songs and tunes he heard sung and played by people he knew or met, either close to home or on his travels round the country).

In the case of ‘The Slave’s Lament’ the earliest attempt to identify an antecedent was by Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe in the 1839 edition of the Museum where he writes: ‘I believe that Burns took the idea of his verses from “the Betrayed Maid,” a ballad formerly much hawked about in Scotland’, which he transcribes ‘from the stall copy’.31 A few decades later, the editors of The Poetry of Robert Burns (1897) added: ‘But Sharpe had no direct proof that this “stall copy” was older than the Burns. It may be that older it is, and that Burns used it; but the original is certainly a blackletter broadside, The Trappan’d Maiden, or The Distressed Damsel’.32 That this was an important source for ‘The Slave’s Lament’ would seem to be confirmed by both Dick (1903) and Kinsley (1968) and in the new Oxford Edition Pittock finds it a ‘plausible’ claim.33

’The Trappan’d Maiden’ – facsimiles of copies dating from the late seventeenth / early eighteenth century may be viewed in the English Broadside Ballad Archive and the Bodleian Library’s Broadside Ballads Online – runs to sixteen verses and begins:

Give ear unto a Maid,
That lately was betray’d,
And sent into Virginny O:
In brief I shall declare,

When that I was weary,
Weary, weary, weary, O.

As a first-person tale of enforced exile, and with its rhyme of ‘Virginny O’ and ‘weary O’, the similarities with ‘The Slave’s Lament’ are evident.34 But one striking difference, which no-one had made much of till now, is that the speaker in the broadside ballad is no African. As the prefatory note makes clear, ‘This Girl was cunningly trapann’d / Sent to Virginny from England.’ Pittock’s annotations probe deeper, drawing attention to a variant, ‘The Virginian Maid’s Lament’ included in Ancient Ballads and Songs of the North of Scotland (1828) and the note thereon by Peter Buchan.35 Buchan situates the Lament thus:

The practice of kidnapping, or stealing children from their parents, in the north of Scotland, from 1735 down to 1753, a period of eighteen years inclusive, and selling them for slaves to the planters of Maryland, Virginia, &c in North America, is too notorious to require any illustration here.

But not so notorious to prevent him to going on at great length to narrate the story of Peter Williamson, quoting a long extract from his autobiography.36

That Buchan calls the victims of such practices ‘slaves’ was certainly not exceptional for his time, but the use of the term ‘slavery’ to refer indiscriminately to a wide range of economic, social, political and legal injustices was contested vigorously by those of his contemporaries committed to the struggle to abolish the very particular institution of chattel slavery in the Americas in the nineteenth century. They were all too well aware of the ways in which those who defended that institution were quick to seize on any excuse to deny the unique features of a transcontinental economic system based on human beings made the property of others. There are many who are worse off than the black slave, they would say. In a speech in Paisley in 1846 Frederick Douglass called this use of the term ‘slavery’ an ‘awful misnomer’.37 And it’s a point that needs to be repeated today as the flag of the ‘white slave’ (often ‘Scottish’ and ‘Irish’) is regularly raised in attempts to discredit anti-racist scholarship and activism.38

In the circumstances, then, Pittock’s suggestion that the ballad ‘does not seem to deal with African but with white slavery’ – uncritically adopting the terminology used by Buchan (without even the caution of quotation marks) – is injudicious, to say the least. The smirring of two very different forms of exploitation then makes it easy to dismiss the significance or emotional weight of ‘Senegal’ in the ‘The Slave’s Lament’ itself. Pittock concludes:

The final stanza of the Burns song makes clear that the woman who is lamenting ‘on friends most dear’ sounds more like a Jacobite exile than an African, who has suffered the fate of many of her fellow from the north-east of Scotland in the 1730-60 era, who were trafficked and sold ‘for slaves to the planters.’39

Conclusion: Restoring Strangeness to ‘The Slave’s Lament’

That the words of ‘The Slave’s Lament’ clearly owe something to ballads like ‘The Trapann’d Maiden’ has led editors and others to focus on the similarities rather than the differences, which rather conceals the work of transformation that turned one into the other. And unless we turn up other poems or songs in broadsides or printed collection that more closely resemble the one in the Scots Musical Museum, we must assume with some certainty that this work of transformation was ’significantly by Burns’, as Pittock’s second and more plausible categorisation has it. But why then belittle his input to the replacement of ‘England’ (in ‘The Trapann’d Maiden’) or ‘Scotland’ (in ‘The Virginian Maid’s Lament’) with ‘Senegal’ – and further diminish even this change as superficial by implying that ‘The Slave’s Lament’ is really about the tribulations of the Scottish diaspora, and not ‘about’ (chattel) slavery at all?

Why not both? Why not tease out the friction that comes from rubbing the two worlds of experience together, recognising certain similarities – even the possibilities of solidarity and collective resistance between them40 – without collapsing them in an unhelpful generic all-encompassing ‘slavery’ tag? It is possible to situate the song (as Carol McGuirk does) in the context of other verses by Burns on the theme of involuntary exile in a way that respects its difference: ‘Other exiled hearts speak not across time but from cultures far removed from Scotland’.41

And we might too pay more attention to the relationship between ‘The Slave’s Lament’ and other abolitionist verse of the 1790s – looking at not only differences of form but also of its place in print culture. Not in order to trace lines of influence necessarily but in an attempt to register how – on the page of the Scots Musical Museum – the lyric sounded to contemporary readers, familiar with abolitionist verse and other campaign material. Did they find it ‘in tune with growing and widespread unease’ about the slave trade, debated in the House of Commons at the time, as Robert Crawford suggests?42 Or did it strike a jarring or at least unexpected note?

For this reason (and having mentioned Phillis Wheatley earlier) it might be an instructive exercise to place ‘The Slave’s Lament’ alongside to her famous poem. ‘On Being Brought from Africa to America’, first published in her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773).43

Phillis Wheatley, 'On being brought from Africa to America'.
Phillis Wheatley, ‘On being brought from Africa to America’, from Poems on Various Subejcts, Religious and Moral(London: A. Bell, 1773), p. 18.

’Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
‘Their colour is a diabolic die.’<
Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.

Without making any assumptions that Burns was familiar with the poem, consider how the Middle Passage in one is figured in religious terms (as a journey from paganism to Christianity) in contrast with the dominantly climatic and adversarial frame of reference in the other (as a journey from warm to cold, from ‘friends’ to ‘foes’); the shift from an expression of thanks to what it has made possible to a mourning of what – and who – has been left behind.

But what is more important perhaps is the turn half-way through Wheatley’s poem where the poet switches from narrating a personal experience to name and address her oppressors (‘Remember, Christians’) on behalf of her fellows (‘our sable race’) to vigorously proclaim their collective humanity. There is no corresponding switch in ‘The Slave’s Lament’ which remains in the first person singular throughout. And if the objectified ‘me’ in the first verse becomes a more expressive ‘I’ in the third, it is still an ‘I’ that ‘must bear’ and ‘fear’ the toil and punishments of the plantation, while those who wield the ‘scourge’ are unspecified and therefore unable to be rebuked.

Yet there is something forceful in the closing assertion that the eponymous ‘slave’ is capable of thought and feeling, and perhaps in the many repetitions of ‘I am weary’ in the chorus one might detect a hint of the singer’s frustration at having to tell their story over and over because no-one is really listening.  Like Fannie Lou Hamer,sick and tired of being sick and tired.’

As for the tune, the supposition that it was ‘an original African melody’ has been given short shrift by scholars, even if it continues to be repeated in sleeve notes.44 But the fancy did not just emerge from a romantic or abolitionist desire for the authentic or exotic. It does recognise something anomalous about the song – that it sounds different from the others in the Museum. Whether it is its even pacing or its harmonic progressions, the melody has characteristics that set it apart from what is generally felt to be characteristic of Scots song. Martin Carthy reports, when told it was a Burns song on first hearing it, I did think, “Oh yeah?”’

The song chooses to render the experience of slavery as a ‘lament’ rather than as a ‘complaint’, a related but more accusatory genre that was more commonly adopted in abolitionist verse.45 As such it seems to sit comfortably with the half-dozen poems or songs by Burns that have ‘lament’ in their title; and certainly the lament has deep roots in Scottish music. But the genre points us outward too – back to the baroque classical laments and forward (as several interpreters of the song recognise, because they inhabit musical worlds unknown to Burns) to African American spirituals and blues.

So we shouldn’t be so surprised that Serge Hovey thought the tune ‘has all the characteristics of a Jewish lamentation in the Ashkenazic Ahavoh-Rabboh mode.’46 Or that, intriguingly, Sheena Wellington reports meeting in Singapore an ‘anthropologist from Dorset who said […] it’s actually 12th, 13th century Spanish sephardic, “Rachel’s Lamentation”, and they know it in North Africa to a different rhythm’.47

As far as I know this speculation awaits more detailed research. Perhaps there is more in Hovey’s Robert Burns Songbook, 1200 pages of manuscript completed in 1973 that remains in private hands.48 Furthermore, no one has yet found it in any printed collection that Burns might have consulted and any plausible circumstance in which he might have heard someone playing or singing it remains hard to reconstruct.49 This absence is significant because, as Kirsteen McCue has pointed out, the words to the songs he wrote were ‘most often inspired by a melody. Indeed Burns noted that he had to know a tune intimately before beginning to write a lyric for it.’50

There are many unknowns about ‘The Slave’s Lament’. There is so much more to find out. But if we resist the temptation to treat it primarily as evidence to be produced in defence of an individual’s character – or (even worse) to offer it by way of compensation for what has been called ‘Scotland’s hidden shame’ – we are more likely to appreciate the manifold musical, literary and historical forces that have combined to shape and re-shape the song, before and after its appearance in the Scots Musical Museum. It is time to rediscover a certain haunting strangeness in ‘The Slave’s Lament’ that those who perform it often capture so well.


This is a work in progress (last revised 9 Apr 2021).  Comments welcome.

    1. For estimations of figures see Douglas J. Hamilton, Scotland, the Caribbean and the Atlantic World 1750-1820 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005), pp. 22-25.
    2. ‘The issue of whether the poet was (or was not) an admirable person … places the critic as moral judge in a recurring trial where Robert Burns is perpetual defendant’: Carol McGuirk, ‘The Politics of The Collected Burns,’ Gairfish: Discovery, ed. W.N. Herbert and Richard Price (Bridge of Weir: Gairfish, 1991), p. 36.
    3. Robert Burns to John Moore, Mauchline, 2 August 1787 in The Letters of Robert Burns, ed. G. Ross Roy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), Vol. 1, p. 144.
    4. ‘The Slave’s Lament’, in The Scots Musical Museum Vol. IV, ed. James Johnson (Edinburgh: Johnson & Co, 1792), p. 398.
    5. Nigel Leask, ‘“Their Groves o’ Sweet Myrtles”: Robert Burns and the Scottish Colonial Experience’ in Robert Burns in Global Culture, ed. Murray Pittock (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2011), p. 178.
    6. Carla Sassi, ‘Acts of (Un)willed Amnesia: Dis/appearing Figurations of the Caribbean in Post-Union Scottish Literature’ in Caribbean-Scottish Relations : Colonial and Contemporary Inscriptions in History, Language and Literature , ed Giovanna Covi, Joan Anim-Addo, Velma Pollard and Carla Sassi (London: Mango, 2007), p. 172.
    7. The range of late 18th- and early 19th-century verse is discussed by Alan Richardson in his introduction to his anthology, Slavery, Abolition and Emancipation: Writings in the British Romantic Period, Volume 4: Verse (London: Pickering and Chatto, 1999).
    8. Marcus Wood, ‘Popular Graphic Images of Slavery in Nineteenth-Century England’ in Representing Slavery: Art, Artefacts and Archives in the Collections of the National Maritime Museum, ed. Douglas Hamilton and Robert J. Blyth (Aldershot: Lund Humphries, 2007), p. 144.
    9. Iain Whyte, Scotland and the Abolition of Black Slavery, 1756–1838 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006), esp. pp. 74–78.
    10. Michael Morris, Scotland and the Caribbean, c.1740–1833: Atlantic Archipelagos (New York: Routledge, 2015), pp. 98-131, esp. 115–19. See also Karina Williamson, ‘The Antislavery Poems of John Marjoribanks,’ EnterText, Vol. 7, No. 1 (2007), pp. 60-79.
    11. Gerard Carruthers, ‘Robert Burns and Slavery’, The Drouth 26 (2007), p. 23.
    12. Gerard Carruthers, Robert Burns [2006] (Liverpool University Press, 2018), p. 60. Nigel Leask pursues this more fully in ‘“Their Sweet Groves”’.
    13. Carruthers, ‘Burns and Slavery,’ p. 23
    14. Leask, ‘“Their Sweet Groves”, p. 178.
    15. Robert Burns, The Poems and Songs of Robert Burns, ed. James Kinsley (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968),Vol. 3, p. 1405; Robert Burns, The Songs of Robert Burns, ed. Donald Low (London: Routledge, 1993), p. 547.
    16. Robert Donald Thornton, James Currie: The Entire Stranger and Robert Burns (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1963), pp. 92–4. As a younger man, however, he was employed as an apprentice by William Cunninghame & Company on their tobacco plantations in Virginia. Ibid., pp. 32–66.
    17. Thornton, James Currie, p. 191. For the words of the song and further details, see William Wallace Currie, Memoir of the Life, Writings and Correspondence of James Currie, M.D. F.R.S. of Liverpool (London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown and Green, 1831), Vol.1, pp. 127–35. It is also reprinted, as ‘The African’, in Richardson, Slavery, Abolition and Emancipation, pp. 99-100.
    18. James Currie, The Works of Robert Burns; with an account of his life… (Liverpool: J. M’Creery, 1800), 4 vols.
    19. For Currie’s assessment of Burns’s songs, see esp Works, Vol. 1, pp. 323-30.
    20. William Stenhouse, ‘Illustrations of the Lyric Poetry and Music of Scotland, Part IV’ in The Scots Musical Museum Vol. IV, ed. James Johnson (Edinburgh: William Blackwood, 1839), p. 353. Stenhouse’s notes were subsequently published separately in 1853.
    21. Life and Works of Robert Burns, ed. Robert Chambers (Edinburgh: W. and R. Chambers, 1851), Vol. IV, pp. 267–68.
    22. Allan Cunningham, Songs of Scotland, Ancient and Modern… (London: John Taylor, 1825), 4 vols, Vol. II, pp. 223–24. Fourteen years later Stenhouse repeats the supposition that ‘the air … is an original African melody’, (‘Illustrations,’ p. 353) ensuring that it enjoyed wide circulation.
    23. Although it is popularly believed that Wheatley came from Senegal or thereabouts, the location of her birthplace or even where she was forced on board the slave-ship, is uncertain. See Vincent Carretta, ‘Phillis Wheatley: Researching a Life,’ Historical Journal of Massachusetts, Vol. 43 No. 2 (2015), esp. pp. 70–1.
    24. The best survey of this activity is Whyte, Scotland and the Abolition of Black Slavery.
    25. James C. Dick, The Songs of Robert Burns [1903] (Hatboro’, PA: Folklore Associates, 1962).
    26. See Kirsteen McCue. ‘“Magnetic Attraction”: The Transatlantic Songs of Robert Burns and Serge Hovey.’ in Robert Burns and Transatlantic Culture , ed. Sharon Aiker, Leith Davis and Holly Faith (London: Routledge, 2012), pp. 233-247.
    27. Sheena Wellington remarked: ‘I first heard the poem from my father when I was about 9 and nearly cried but as “snivelling” was not encouraged in our house I went and learned the poem by heart instead. I don’t think I ever heard a tune to it until Jean Redpath recorded it’. Quoted in Valentina Bold, ‘The Slave’s Lament’, a talk delivered at Wigtown Book Town Festival, 2007, with Kathy Hobkirk performing the song.’, p. 13. This talk is the most detailed study of the song to date, and especially valuable for what it reveals of how singers themselves have responded to ‘The Slave’s Lament.’
    28. Quoted in Bold, ‘The Slave’s Lament,’ p. 8.
    29. Sheena Wellington, Strong Women (Greentrax CDTRAX 094) (1995), For further reflections on this story see Bold, ‘The Slave’s Lament’, p. 4.
    30. The Oxford Edition of the Works of Robert Burns. Vols II and II: The Scots Musical Museum, ed. Murray Pittock (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), Vol. III, p. 142 . The categories themselves are defined in Vol. II, p. 12, where it is stated that only those in Category I through to V ‘deserve a full place in the Burns canon’.
    31. C. K. Sharpe, ‘Additional Illustrations,’The Scots Musical Museum Vol. IV, ed. James Johnson (Edinburgh: William Blackwood, 1839), pp. 389-91. In some accounts of the history of ‘The Slave’s Lament’ Sharpe is confused with the English folk-song collector Cecil Sharp.
    32. The Poetry of Robert Burns, ed. William Ernest Henley and Thomas F Henderson (Edinburgh: T C and E C Jack, 1897), Vol. III, p.393.
    33. The Songs of Robert Burns, ed. James C. Dick (London: Henry Frowde, 1903), p. 479; Robert Burns, The Poems and Songs of Robert Burns, ed. James Kinsley, Vol. 3, p. 1405; The Oxford Edition, Vol. III, p. 141.
    34. On the recurrent theme of ‘involuntary exiles’ (of all kinds) in Burns poems and songs see Carol McGuirk, ‘The Crone, the Prince, and the Exiled Heart: Burns’s Highlands and Burns’s Scotland’, Studies in Scottish Literature, Vol. 35, No. 1 (2007), pp. 184–201.
    35. Ancient Ballads and Songs of the North of Scotland, ed. Peter Buchan (Edinburgh: W & D Laing, and J Stevenson, 1828), Vol II, pp. 215-17, 332-35.
    36. The Life and Curious Adventures of Peter Williamson. New edition. Aberdeen: 1826. The book was first published in Aberdeen in 1801.
    37. Renfrewshire Advertiser, 28 March 1846.
    38. See, for example, Stephen Mullen, ‘The Myth of Scottish Slaves’, Sceptical Scot, 4 March 2016; Liam Hogan, ‘“Irish Slaves”: The Convenient Myth’, openDemocracy, 14 January 2015.
    39. Oxford Edition, Vol. III, p. 141. Note also the assumption that the singer is a woman, casting aside the change from the gendered ‘maid’ or ‘maiden’ to the ungendered ‘slave’.
    40. See, for example, Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra: The Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (London: Verso, 2000).
    41. McGuirk, ‘The Crone, the Prince, and the Exiled Heart,’ p. 199. How ‘far removed’ Senegal and Virginia were ‘from Scotland’ in the 1790s remains an interesting question.
    42. Robert Crawford, The Bard: Robert Burns, a Biography (London: Pimlico, 2010), p. 352.
    43. Phillis Wheatley, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (London: A. Bell, 1773), p. 18.
    44. In 1903 Dick was rather sceptical (Songs of Robert Burns, p. 479); and more recent editors have rubbished the claim as ‘nonsense’ (Kinsley) and ‘ridiculous’ (Pittock).
    45. ‘Complaint’ appears in the title of several poems – not only Currie and Roscoe’s ‘The Negroe’s Complaint’ (1788) (already mentioned) but also William Cowper’s more famous poem with the same title (1788), and an anonymous ‘The African’s Complaint On Board a Slave Ship’ (1793). But note also ‘The Sorrows of Yamba; or, the Negro Woman’s Lamentation’ (1795), possibly the work of Hannah More. All are reprinted in Richardson, Slavery, Abolition and Emancipation.
    46. CD booklet, Jean Redpath, The Songs of Robert Burns, Volumes 3 & 4 (Greentrax CDTRAX 115, 1998) (Volume 3 on which ‘The Slave’s Lament’ appears was originally released on LP as Philo 1071 in 1981).
    47. Quoted in Bold, ‘The Slave’s Lament,’ p. 14.
    48. McCue. ‘“Magnetic Attraction”’, p. 237.
    49. The versions of ‘A Trappan’d Maiden’ Burns may have seen were not printed with the melody, and the words would not have fitted the tune in the Museum in any case, so it’s unlikely he came across the melody in that quarter.
    50. Kirsteen McCue, ‘Burns’s Songs and Poetic Craft,’ The Edinburgh Companion to Robert Burns, ed. Gerard Carruthers (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009), p. 75.

The Other Empire Exhibition, 1938

Image from Workers’ Exhibition programme, printed in the New Leader, 2 Aug 1938

Glasgow has a distinguished tradition of creating alternative forums of dissent whenever the civic authorities announce their latest orgy of self-congratulation. Especially perhaps when it concerns the city’s relationship to the wider world.

When Glasgow hosted the Commonwealth Games in 2014, Louise Welsh and Jude Barber convened The Empire Cafe in the Briggait as a space for readings, discussions, performances, exhibitions and refreshments that interrogated Scotland’s relationship to Atlantic slavery. This being one of the vectors of Empire the term ‘Commonwealth’ often obscures.

And amid the frenzy of cultural gentrification planned by the District Council when Glasgow was named European City of Culture 1990, a group of activists under the banner Workers City drew attention to cultures and histories the programme chose to overlook. Regarding the ‘Merchant City’ brand, one article in the Glasgow Keelie pronounced it

nothing short of disgraceful. Surely the Labour Councillors are aware that these ‘merchants’ made their colossal fortunes on the backs of thousands of slaves forced to work on tobacco, cotton and sugar plantations? The names of Glassford, Finlay and Colquhoun appear in most archives held in American Museums and Universities devoted to the history of slavery in the western hemisphere. How can the labour movement even associate itself with such people, let alone glorify them, in the way the District Labour Council does?1

Bellahouston for the Day

And before all that was 1938. That year Glasgow hosted the Empire Exhibition in Bellahouston Park, opened by the King in May, a few weeks after Hitler marched into Austria. It attracted over 12 million visitors over the next six months, despite the wet summer. The site included a number of temporary pavilions (showcasing Industry, Engineering and the produce of ‘the various Dominions and Colonies’), a ‘Highland village’, and two structures intended to be permanent: the Palace of Art (which still stands) and the 300-feet-high Tait Tower (which was dismantled the following year).

There were cafes and restaurants, and a young Canadian Billy Butlin was awarded the contract to run an amusement park. There was a football tournament, film screenings and a wide range of musical performances from leading orchestras, choirs and dance bands, with featured artists including Fritz Kreisler, Gracie Fields and Paul Robeson, as well as celebrity appearances by the Aga Khan and the visiting Australian cricket team.2

Black & white photo of 1938 Empire Exhibition with Tait Tower in centre.
1938 Empire Exhibition: View over the South Bandstand in Bellahouston Park, Glasgow, centre left the Garden Club, ICI Pavilion and others and Tait Tower overhead

Reporting on the Royal Visit the Glasgow Herald remarked

Time was when the Socialist town councillor was apt to be cynical over demonstrations of loyalty at royal visits, but that attitude has completely gone with the change in political fortune that has invested the party with more public responsibility.

And it looked forward to ‘the Socialist section of the Corporation’ gladly joining in the ‘demonstrative welcome of the King and Queen.’ However, it did admit that there was likely to be resistance from ‘the small I.L.P. Group.’3

Dissenting Voices

The Independent Labour Party had withdrawn its affiliation from the Labour Party in 1932, and its influence had much declined. But it remained a potent force in Glasgow, where the party still had more MPs than Labour (including James Maxton) and could still boast over a dozen councillors, with representation strong in certain areas, notably Shettleston and Bridgeton.4 If its power to influence Council policy was weak, the party’s ability to organise meetings and demonstrations remained undiminished.

During the 1930s Black radical intellectuals based in Britain such as C L R James, George Padmore and Jomo Kenyatta pushed the ILP to challenge working-class racism and engage extensively with imperial issues; it was also the only party on the left to openly criticise Stalin.5

Dominant themes in its newspaper the New Leader during 1938 were the Spanish Civil War; the collapse of the Popular Front in France; the inactivity of the League of Nations in the face of the invasions of Abyssinia, China and Spain; and workers’ demonstrations and strikes in the West Indies, especially Jamaica. The holding of the Empire Exhibition in Glasgow provided a good excuse to intensify its anti-imperialist polemic, which flavoured the May Day demonstrations that year, supported by an eight-page Empire Special supplement.6 The paper also planned a series of articles entitled ‘Behind the Empire Exhibition’, of which, however, only one appeared, ‘Police Fire on Jamaica Strikers’.7

The Empire Exhibition Racket

Even before the exhibition opened, Councillor W R Gault, who contributed regular reports on the activity of the ILP in Glasgow, was decrying the ‘Empire Exhibition racket’, in particular the ‘vandalism of the Exhibition authorities which threatens to destroy for all time the amenities of Bellahouston Park’.8

A month later his outrage had gathered steam: ‘The state of mind some of our Labour Councillors have reached in their desire to exalt Imperialism, Nationalism, Militarism, and Royalty is almost unbelievable. Not for many years has everything that Toryism symbolises had such feverish propaganda’.9

In August the New Leader pointed out that attendants in the Amusement Park were compelled to work a 68-hour week and charged the same price for meals as the visitors. Letters to the press on the subject were not published and the Council claimed they had no jurisdiction.10

But the ILP’s main objection to the Exhibition was that it peddled ‘illusions about justice and democracy in the British Empire’ in order ‘to encourage national unity and patriotism in Britain’.11

These are the words of Arthur Ballard, one of the Exhibition’s most vocal critics. A carpenter from Croydon, he was remembered by his close friend C L R James as ‘a very tall, handsome, striking looking man who was working as a proletarian in industry, but who was destined to be an intellectual.’12

Ballard went on to elaborate at greater length:

If you want to see the Empire as it really is you won’t visit the Empire Exhibition in Glasgow. The organisers have spared nothing to put on a good show and the Exhibition itself is a monument to their work. Walking amidst the wonderful buildings, which are a rainbow of colour, surrounded by gardens and cascades of water, one thinks that the Empire is just a paradise on earth.

We are told that one of the objects of the Exhibition is ’to emphasise to the world the peaceful aspirations of the British Commonwealth.’ The average visitor, amidst this setting, may be carried away by this propaganda unless we are able to do something to present the real situation within the Empire.

Even in the ‘Peace Pavillion’ we get nothing but glorification of the League of Nations. Amongst the ‘pioneers of peace’ we find Tsars and Popes, we learn that slavery has been ‘abolished’ in China and that Italy has abolished ‘slavery’ in Abyssinia in 1936. Possibly the organisers anticipated some visitors with a Socialist tinge, so we get the slogan ‘Peoples of the World Unite’ with a quotation of Burns thrown in!

The ‘brightest jewel in the British Crown’ – India – is conspicuous by its absence, while the TUC pavilion is devoted entirely to Trade Union organisation in Britain! While it does not attempt to put over Imperialist propaganda, it is regrettable that the TUC does not say anything about the deplorable conditions within the Empire itself.

In the West African Pavillion we find furniture which is suited to grace the apartment of any Park Lane parasite; but naturally there is no mention of the horrible conditions in Africa itself. This is general of the whole of the Exhibition. All the resources of Capitalism have been used to glorify an Empire under whose flag conditions are equal to those within the Fascist countries.

The Revolutionary Socialists in Glasgow will have a difficult job in their attempt to present the opposite picture. How can this be done?13

An Anti-Empire Exhibition

Ballard had a plan. They would run an ‘Anti-Empire Exhibition’. His article continued:

The ILP in collaboration with various colonial workers’ organisations and individuals are preparing to conduct an intensive anti-Imperialist campaign in Glasgow during the month of August, when most people will be visiting the Exhibition

We propose, with the limited means at our disposal, to organise an anti-Imperialist annexe which will present the other side.

While we cannot put on an elaborate show, we believe that we can, by means of our Exhibition, at least show to the workers the intolerable conditions within the Empire and the necessity of their support for the anti-Imperialist struggle.

We appeal to all readers of our paper to assist us in this effort. We want any material and particularly photographs that usefully illustrate the conditions of the colonial workers.14

The exhibition was held in Kingston Hall on Paisley Road on the bus route many would have taken on their way to Bellahouston Park. Opened by the novelist Ethel Mannin, it ran from 13-27 August on weekday evenings (and from 2.30pm on Saturdays). Devised by Arthur Ballard himself, the event also bore the stamp of George Padmore, who spoke at the May Day rally at City Halls in Glasgow on 1 May.15

Photo of five people standing in front of exhibition display boards.
Opening of Workers’ Empire Exhibition. From left to right: J. Carmichael, unidentified person, Ethel Mannin, Arthur Ballard and Tom Murray. New Leader, 19 August 1938

The New Leader described the exhibition as follows:

The exhibits will be grouped around a central column, which will show that the real owners of the Empire are not the people of Britain or of the colonies, but the big financial and commercial interests centred in London.

Round the hall will be sections devoted to various parts of the Empire. Particularly striking are the sections dealing with the British West Indies, showing the intolerable conditions existing. The section devoted to the recent terror against the unemployed in Vancouver brings the Exhibition right up to date.

The Exhibition is in a blue and grey colour scheme – similar to Bellahouston. It has involved weeks of preparation, long research work, and the gathering of material from three continents. The Committee has had the help of a group of London artists, all working voluntarily.16

As far as I know there are no photographs of the exhibition itself, but we can get an idea of it from the brochure that was produced in conjunction with it.

The All-Red Route

(a) Cover of brochure featuring red silhouette of ocean liner (and showing price, 2d) (b) Sample page from brochure, headed 'Visit the Empire'
from Come and See the Empire by the All Red Route (Workers’ Empire Exhibition Committee, 1938)

The title of Come and See the Empire by the All Red Route 17 appears to be an ironic nod to the ‘All-Red Route’, a miniature railway built for the 1911 Crystal Palace exhibition, linking the pavilions and outdoor panoramas.18 But here the ‘red’ (the colour long used on maps designating the extent of the British Empire) acquires a revolutionary connotation in a publication that announces its desire to ‘help end the tyranny of British Imperialism’.19

It adopts the style of a holiday brochure, offering various (priced) tours that will allow ‘every British citizen to see OUR GLORIOUS EMPIRE’ – including ‘patriotic workers’ who are recommended to ‘make use of their holidays’ or the free time they have when unemployed. ‘We must take a proper pride in OUR POSSESSIONS, which cover nearly one-third of the earth’s surface.’20

But the sarcasm soon gives way to a more earnest catalogue of injustices. After introducing readers to the ‘luxury liner’ they will be travelling on – ‘quite a comfortable little tub for the 250 guineas round trip’ – they are reminded that it ‘is not so comfortable for the British seamen and stewards and the 45,000 lascars (Indian sailors) employed by the various famous shipping companies … which cover our route.’21

And so at each port of call on the way – West Africa, South Africa, Kenya, India, Ceylon, Australia, Hong Kong, China, the Caribbean and Ireland. The celebratory rhetoric of the Empire Exhibition is replaced by a more damning assessment. Here is the official guide on the West African Pavilion:

The Gold Coast is the world’s largest producer of cocoa … In the second section [of the hall] the agricultural riches of the colony are displayed. Cocoa, one prized by the Aztec kings and now, in its many forms, a good and drink for all the world, is given pride of place and is shown in every stage of its preparation, from the ripened pod to luxury chocolate.22

And here is the ILP brochure:

Cocoa is one of the main products of this part of the world. The great cocoa and chocolate firms form a ring which has a stranglehold on the small farmers who grow the cocoa. Cocoa prices have been forced down to a point where they a ruinous to the growers. (But you haven’t noticed that the price of your tin of cocoa has dropped, have you?)

The same ring also owns the trading and transport industries – so the farmer has had to buy from, and sell to, the same people. Any attempt to break the ring is countered with all the great resources of these capitalists.

Still, the growers are fighting hard, even to the length of going on strike and refusing to grow cocoa….23

The ILP counter-exhibition and brochure was not the only dissident voice in 1938. I understand that the anarchist Guy Aldred published a pamphlet entitled Boycott Bellahouston! What Empire Means to India and British West Indies, although I have not yet seen a copy. The title in this case echoing that of a flyer signed by André Breton and other French surrealists, ‘Ne visitez pas l’Exposition Coloniale’, protesting the Colonial Exhibition in Paris in 1931, an earlier imperial extravaganza that also prompted the creation of a counter-exhibition.24

A New Museum?

The counter-exhibition seems to have been funded largely through donations and the sale of programmes and pamphlets. In September, Gault’s column in the New Leader referred to the ILP’s struggle to secure a grant towards running the exhibition. In the end the council let them off half the rent of the hall.25

How much impact the ‘other Exhibition’ of 1938 had is hard to gauge. Half-way through its run, the New Leader pronounced it ‘a great success. The hall was packed and representative people from all sections of the Working-Class Movement were present’. It also claimed that ‘over five hundred programmes and two hundred pamphlets were sold at the door during the afternoon and evening, as well as a record sale of general anti-Imperialist literature’, which may be an exaggeration; certainly the claim that it ‘has received large scale notice in all the Scottish papers’ was.26

It is even harder to get a sense of what those involved learnt from it and how much the event smouldered in the collective memory of Glasgow’s radical traditions. But the provocative display in Kingston Hall did leave us the brochure, which can be taken up again today and be given a new life.

In the last few years, there have been increasing calls, led by the Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights (CRER), for the creation of a museum of slavery or empire in Scotland. Last year Glasgow Life announced that it ‘will appoint a curator who will develop a strategy for the interpretation of slavery and empire in Glasgow Museums’ as a first step. And the calls were echoed by MSPs of all parties in the Scottish Parliament in June this year.

Already a Scottish Empire Museum has appeared online, describing itself as a ‘digital space’ that aims to promote ‘a better understanding … of the history of empire, colonialism, slavery and migration so we learn can learn from the past to understand the present and agitate for change in the world we want to live in in the future.’  If a physical museum does come to pass in Glasgow – the strongest contender for its location at the time of writing seems to be the Egyptian Halls on Union Street – perhaps the local authority will contribute more than a miserly rent rebate. And, as well as ‘telling the truth’ about colonial slavery and imperial rule, let’s hope it will pay homage to the long history of dissent at home that has been struggling to tell this story for decades.

Perhaps imaginative interventions like the ‘All Red Route’ can be reignited and allowed to throw a spark across the years and be r recruited to effectively teach us about Empire today. What would an early 21st-century version of the brochure – and by extension the exhibition – look like?


This is a work in progress, part of a larger research project on critical responses to the 1938 Empire Exhibition, currently stalled by the closure of libraries and archives due to the COVID-19 crisis.

  1. ‘A Bygone Radical History of the TUC’ Glasgow Keelie (September 1991).
  2. For an overview see Bob Crampsey, The Empire Exhibition of 1938: The Last Durbar (Edinburgh: Mainstream, 1988).
  3. Glasgow Herald, 3 May 1938.
  4. Gidon Cohen, ‘The Independent Labour Party 1932-1939’, PhD thesis, University of York (2000), pp. 58-67.
  5. Priyamvada Gopal, Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent (London: Verso, 2019), pp. 371-72.
  6. New Leader, 29 April 1938.
  7. New Leader, 6 May 1938.
  8. William Gault, ‘Glasgow Labour Party Play the Tory Game’, New Leader, 22 April 1938.
  9. W R Gault, ‘Red Glasgow’s Empire Exhibition’, New Leader, 6 May 1938.
  10. W L Taylor, ‘Shocking Conditions at Empire Exhibition’, New Leader, 9 August 1938. While nothing was done to improve their conditions, the drivers and conductors of the autotrucks which ferried people around the Exhibition grounds went on strike and succeeded in getting a pay rise. See Crampsey, Empire Exhibition, p. 108.
  11. Arthur Ballard, ‘White Justice and Black’, New Leader, 20 May 1938.
  12. Interview with C L R James by Al Richardson, Clarence Chrysostom and Anna Grimshaw, November 1986.
  13. Arthur Ballard, ‘We Are Going to Run An Anti-Empire Exhibition’, New Leader, 3 June 1938.
  14. Ibid.
  15. The best account of this anti-empire exhibition is in Sarah Britton, ‘”Come and See the Empire by the All Red Route!”: Anti-Imperialism and Exhibitions in Interwar Britain’, History Workshop Journal 69 (Spring 2010), pp. 68-89.
  16. The “Other” Exhibition’, New Leader, 12 August 1938.
  17. Come and See the Empire by the All Red Route (Np: Workers’ Empire Exhibition Committee, 1938).
  18. John M MacKenzie, Propaganda and Empire: The Manipulation of British Public Opinion, 1880-1960 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984), pp. 106-7.
  19. Come and See the Empire, p 16.
  20. Ibid., p2.
  21. Ibid., p3
  22. Empire Exhibition: Official Guide (Glasgow: 1938), pp. 154-55.
  23. Come and See the Empire, p. 4.
  24. André Breton et al, ‘Ne visitez pas l’Exposition Coloniale’. For further background (especially on the ‘counter-exhibition, ‘La Vérité sur les Colonies’) see Jody Blake, ‘The Truth about the Colonies, 1931: Art Indigene in Service of the Revolution’, Oxford Art Journal, Vol 25 No 1 (2002), pp. 37-58.
  25. New Leader, 23 September 1938.
  26. ‘Success of Anti-Imperialist Exhibition’, New Leader, 19 August 1938.


Ten Scottish Worthies and Frederick Douglass

Recent research has suggested that Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) was the most photographed American of the nineteenth century.  The former slave who became a leading intellectual and civil rights campaigner of his age, was captured on camera more times than George Custer, Walt Whitman, even Abraham Lincoln.

There are certainly photographs of Douglass that predate his tours of Scotland as a fiery young orator in 1846, promoting his stunning new autobiography and denouncing the hateful system of slavery in the United States.  But the only surviving images of him from this overseas trip are engravings. This might surprise us.

The Scottish press regularly carried advertisements for studios offering to take dageurreotype portraits of those who could afford them. And, since 1843, David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson had produced hundreds of calotypes depicting people, buildings and landscapes in Edinburgh and Fife.

If there is currently no evidence that they photographed Douglass, they did take portraits of many eminent Scots of the day. They included several whom Douglass met – or at least sparred with on the page or lecture platform – as he engaged with the country’s literature, science, history and politics.

Here are ten of them.

Isabella Burns Begg. Douglass had long been an admirer of Robert Burns. When he made the obligatory pilgrimage to his birthplace near Ayr, he met the poet’s youngest sister. ‘Though approaching 80,’ he wrote, ‘she does not look to be more than sixty. She enjoys good health, is a spirited looking woman, and bids fair to live yet many days.’ She and her daughters ‘did everything to make our call agreeable.’
Robert Candlish. When this Free Church minister expressed misgivings over the American churches’ relaxed attitude to slavery, one of its principal donors in South Carolina was furious. Candlish soon toed the line and worked hard with Cunningham to win over the sceptics with the fudging declarations at the General Assembly in 1846 that so disappointed Douglass and the abolitionists.
Thomas Chalmers. Revered as the man who led the exodus from the established church to form the Free Church of Scotland in the ‘Disruption’ of 1843, Chalmers cultivated the support of evangelical Presbyterians in the United States. The tortuous distinctions between ‘sin’ and ‘sinner’ he used to justify the relationship were roundly mocked by Douglass (‘Oh! The artful Dodger’), who quoted him sarcastically, showing how his words lent succour to the pro-slavery cause.
Robert Chambers.  The (anonymous) author of the best-selling Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844) and, with his brother William, one of the most influential publishers and editors of the period. The Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal reviewed Douglass’ Narrative in January 1846 and Douglass probably met them that summer. He may have wanted to explore the possibility of a Scottish edition of his book, although in the event this did not come to pass.
George Combe.The leading British exponent of phrenology invited Douglass to breakfast in June 1846, reporting that ‘he has an excellent brain. His benevolence and veneration are both large and his conscientiousness is full, while his intellect is vigorous and practical.’  For his part, Douglass later recalled with ‘much satisfaction the morning spent with this singularly clear-headed man,’ whose most celebrated work, The Constitution of Man, ‘had relieved my path of many shadows.’
William Cunningham.Leader of the Free Church fund-raising delegation to the United States.  With Chalmers in failing health it was left to him and Candlish to manage dissenting voices in the church who were uncomfortable with the donations from slaveholders. Of Cunningham’s manoeuvres, Douglass remarked, ‘I tell you why he does it. He’s got the bawbees.’ But even Douglass recognised his ability. ‘He was the only man in the Assembly who put forward anything like an argument.’
George Gilfillan. In January 1846 the Secession minister welcomed Douglass to Dundee and had him speak at his church in School Wynd, despite the objections of some of those on the managing committee, who subsequently resigned. The author of three volumes of Literary Portraits, who counted Carlyle and de Quincey among his friends, Gilfillan later proclaimed Douglass ‘the Burns of the African race’.
George Lewis. A member of the Free Church delegation that solicited funds in the United States, he wrote memorably about the trip in Impressions of America (1845), but was the target of Douglass’ withering wit, especially in Dundee where he was minister of St David’s Church. ‘Mr Douglass’s mimicry of the Rev. Mr Lewis was in very bad taste,’ remarked the Perthshire Advertiser. His audience, though, were thrilled by the impersonation.
John MacNaughtan. The Free Church minister in Paisley described Douglass as an ‘ignorant runaway slave who had picked up a few sentences.’ Douglass promptly replied: ‘The man whose pockets are lined with the gold with which I ought to have been educated, stands up charging me with ignorance and poverty. I should like to see the inside of his breast; there cannot be a heart of flesh there. Shame on him.’
Hugh Miller. Editor of the Witness, a widely-read twice-weekly newspaper sympathetic to the Free Church. Miller devoted many column inches to satirising Douglass and his fellow campaigners who ‘set, by their extremeness, a fool’s cap on a good cause.’ Their irreligious brand of abolitionism, he claimed, was ‘not indigenous to Britain’ but ‘exported wholesale across the Atlantic.’
Photo Credits

Scottish-American Graffiti

Woman in 19th-century dress brandishing a spade, with Arthur's Seat and Salisbury Crags in the background.
from a re-enactment by DRBs Scottish Women’s History Group.

One of the more colourful stories to emerge from Frederick Douglass’s time in Edinburgh in 1846 is the one about him carving a provocative slogan on the hillside above the city with two women abolitionists.  The full details of the episode are probably lost to history and may require imaginative reconstruction. What do the archives tell us?

At City Hall in Glasgow on Tuesday 21 April, the English abolitionist George Thompson whipped up the audience with the slogan that had come to dominate the campaign to persuade the Free Church of Scotland to break its ties with pro-slavery Presbyterians in the United States, ties symbolised by the donations it had accepted after a fund-raising mission had visited there two years before.

Yes, send back the money! Let that be the cry – and teach it to your children, and that when they see one of Scotland’s ministers in the street, they  may in infantile accents cry – ‘Send back the money! Women of Scotland! let the words become so familiar to you, that you shall in mistake say to those who sit at your table – ‘Will you please to send back the money?’. (Laughter and loud cheers.) Let every corner cover its walls with capitals, a foot square in size, ‘Send back the money.’ (Cheers.) Inscribe upon the pedestal of John Knox’s statue – ‘Send back the money.’ (Cheers.) Write upon the tombs of those who died (Cheers.) From the summit of Arthur’s Seat, let a banner perpetually float, with the watchword, – ‘Send  back the money.’ (Cheers.) Carve deep into the Salisbury Crags the words ‘ Send back the money.’ Inscribe on the Calton Hill, in characters that may be seen from St. George’s Hall, ‘Send back the money.’ (Immense cheering.).1

The slogan had already made its appearance in towns where Douglass had addressed meetings. ‘We understand that, in Glasgow and Paisley, the old plan of advertising blacking had been resorted to, and on every wall and public place is chalked up the significant phrase, “Send back the money”,’ noted the Aberdeen Herald.2  Douglass himself enjoyed telling audiences of the consternation such graffiti had provoked in Arbroath where

there was painted in blood red capitals, SEND BACK THE MONEY. A woman was sent to wash it, but the letters still remained visible, SEND BACK THE MONEY. (Great applause.) A mason was afterwards got to chisel it out, but there still was left in indelible characters, SEND BACK THE MONEY. (Cheers.)3

The John Knox statue that George Thompson mentions was undoubtedly the one towering over Glasgow Necropolis (hence the reference to the tombs). But the other sites Thompson recommends to the would-be graffiti artist – Arthur’s Seat, Salisbury Crags, Calton Hill – are all in Edinburgh.  Why? Because he and his fellow activists, including Douglass, were about to move to the capital the following week, and hold a series of public meetings through May in advance of the General Assembly of the Free Church which would open at the end of the month. As he expected, his speech was reported in both the Edinburgh Evening Post (on 2 May) and the Caledonian Mercury (on 5 May).

The idea may have tickled Douglass, who shared the platform with Thompson in Glasgow. Perhaps they joked about the possibility as they warmed themselves by the fire at the York Temperance Hotel on Nicolson Street once they arrived in Edinburgh.  Surely there would be no shortage of willing co-conspirators, inspired after coming across Thompson’s suggestion in the Edinburgh papers.  At any rate, a Rev Dr Campbell told a meeting in London later that month:

In one of the Scotch papers this man (Douglass), this mighty man, is represented as going to the foot of Arthur’s Seat, with a spade, and two fair Quakeresses as his companions, where he began to carve out with the spade, on the green grass, very beautifully ‘Send back the money.’ (Laughter, and loud cheers.) The paper goes on to say, that he was apprised in the midst of the philanthropic work that it was a felony, and that he would be at the tender mercies of a Mr. Baillie Gray. I do not think that a man who has braved the fury of the slave-holder, would be likely to tremble at the name of Bailie Gray. (Cheers).4

Historians have usually identified the ‘two fair Quakeresses’ as Jane Smeal and her step-daughter Eliza Wigham, two women who feature in Women on the Platform (pdf), showcasing research by the DRB Scottish Women’s History Group.  Office holders in the Edinburgh Ladies Emancipation Society, they lived at 5 South Gray Street, ten minutes’ walk from the Crags, and, in those days, in sight of them.  As active abolitionists they were already known to Douglass, who probably visited their home. After all, in Glasgow he had enjoyed the hospitality of Jane’s brother William, of the Glasgow Emancipation Society.

But to my knowledge, no one so far has discovered which of the ‘Scotch papers’ Campbell relied on for his story.  In fact it appears to have been the Witness, the twice-weekly newspaper sympathetic to the Free Church, edited in Edinburgh by Hugh Miller.

SEND BACK THE MONEY. – It was magniloquently urged by Mr Geoge Thompson upon his admiring auditors a few weeks ago, that they ought to carve upon the front of Salisbury Crags, in conspicuous characters, ‘Send back the money,’ and we have no doubt there were amongst his audience individuals foolish enough to attempt the arduous task, but as little can we doubt that the callous and obdurate rock would mock their impotency. Mr Frederick Douglas, however, forgetting that the hills and dales of Scotland are not quite such commons as the praries of his own native wilds, hit last week upon a simpler expedient for engraving upon the face of our picturesque scenery these notable words, and immediately hied, spade in hand, accompanied by two ladies belonging to the Society of Friends, to a spot in the vicinity of the Queen’s Drive, which is at present being laid out around the base of Arthur Seat, and began to carve this vulgar cry in graceful characters upon the green sward.  Information having reached the persons entrusted with the charge of the grounds, we understand that Mr Douglas was immediately taken to task, and given to understand that he was liable to be made answerable for the offence to Bailie Gray, ‘one of the Magistrates of Edinburgh,’ upon which the philanthropic man of colour expressed deep contrition for the crime, and here the matter at present rests.5

The Witness regularly attacked Douglass and his associates, and Miller no doubt seized on this event as an unmissable opportunity to poke fun yet again. Miller is best known today for his contributions to the science of geology, suggesting that he particularly enjoyed portraying the trio  as stupid enough to want to etch the ‘vulgar cry’ in the ‘obdurate rock’ itself before realising that turf might prove more malleable.

That their efforts were apparently halted by the authorities gives him the excuse to end his report with the ‘philanthropic man of colour’ humiliated and having to apologise for his ‘crime’.  That Douglass was assisted by ‘two ladies belonging to the Society of Friends’ would have further diminished him in Miller’s estimation given the editor’s previous mockery of the radical abolitionists for their support for women’s rights, confident his readers would have been amused when he invited them to imagine

armed regiments of equalized women charging in petticoat breeches some male anti-equal-right enemy, who had come to invade their country from without; and squadrons of female dragoons emancipated from matrimonial thrall and the side-saddle, trampling all horrid into dust, broken cohorts of imperative husbands and despotic lovers, who had assailed them in unnatural rebellion from within.6

But while we should be cautious of the way Miller shaped his account to suit his agenda, did he made it up? The detail of the location (‘in the vicinity of the Queen’s Drive’) and the naming of ‘Bailie Gray’ (who was certainly on the City Council at this time) lends an air of verisimilitude, even if the incident was open to an interpretation more favourable to Douglass, such as the heroic (though still masculinist) narrative offered by Campbell in London.

Following his third visit to Europe in his late sixties, Douglass recalled his role in the ‘Send Back the Money’ campaign forty years earlier. According to a report of a speech published in October 1887 he said:

The debate was sharp and long – the excitement was great. Nearly everybody in Scotland outside the Free Church, were on the side of freedom, and were for sending back the money. This sentiment was written on the pavements and walls and sung in the streets by minstrels. The very air was full of send back the money.  Forgetting that I was in a monarchy and not in this republic I got my self into trouble by cutting, send back the money in the back of a seat. I was soon thereafter arrested for trespassing on the Queen’s forests, and only got off by a written apology.7

This appears to be the only occasion Douglass publicly referred to the incident, though it is still possible that, with the passage of years, he may have been reciting an abolitionist legend rather than remembering an actual event.

The reference to the encounter with the grounds-keepers is curious, however. It echoes another confrontation recounted a few months before by James Buffum, the Massachusetts abolitionist who had accompanied Douglass across the Atlantic the previous year. Buffum, speaking in Dundee, told his audience:

He had sailed down the Clyde. On landing, a beautiful hill was before him; he wished to climb this hill to obtain a prospect around him, but was stopped in his attempt by Lord Blantyre’s gamekeeper. If the Black population in America were not free, the hills of america were so.8

Douglass more than once expressed the pleasure he took in dwelling amid ‘the free hills of old Scotland’, partly to accentuate the prejudice and intimidation he had endured  in the United States – and would again when he returned. But sometimes those hills proved to be less free than the rhetoric demanded.

Last updated 10 June 2020


  1. Free Church Alliance with Manstealers (Glasgow: George Gallie, 1846), 34-5.
  2. Aberdeen Herald, 16 May 1846.
  3. Frederick Douglass, Paisley, 25 April 1846 as reported in the Renfrewshire Advertiser, 2 May 1846, reprinted in The Frederick Douglass Papers. Series One: Speeches, Debates, and Interviews, Volume 1: 1841–46, edited by John W. Blassingame (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), pp. 242-3.
  4. American Slavery: Report of a Public Meeting Held at Finsbury Chapel, Moorfields, to Receive Frederick Douglass, the American Slave, on Friday May 22, 1846, with a Full Report of His Speech (London: C. B. Christian, 1846), 27.
  5. Witness, 20 May 1846. The report was reprinted elsewhere, including the Fife Herald (21 May 1846), which corrected the spelling of Douglass’s name.
  6. Witness, 25 December 1844.
  7. Christian Recorder, 13 October 1887. The reporter, presumably unaware of Edinburgh’s topography, rendered Douglass’ ‘Arthur’s Seat’ as ‘a seat’, as the closest approximation that made sense.
  8. Dundee, Perth and Cupar Advertiser, 30 January 1846.

The Bloody Gold

When Frederick Douglass toured Britain and Ireland in 1845-47, one issue that dominated his speeches was the decision of the Free Church of Scotland to accept donations from pro-slavery churches in the United States. The ‘Send Back the Money’ campaign was already under way when he arrived in Liverpool and embarked on a four-month tour of Ireland, but his rousing public appearances in Belfast, Glasgow, Paisley, Dundee, Edinburgh and many smaller towns clearly captured the popular imagination.1

Dr Thomas Chalmers and other leading figures in the Free Church cleverly defused the concerns expressed by some of its members, but the very fact that the matter was debated by them at all angered at least one of the key fund-raisers, Dr Thomas Smyth, an Ulster-born Presbyterian minister in Charleston, South Carolina, who pressed Chalmers to publish a robust defence of the church’s position.

Chalmers may have disappointed Smyth by refusing to justify slavery, but he infuriated others more by refusing to break fellowship with slaveholding Christians in North America. Douglass mocked the distinction he made between ‘between the character of a system, and the character of the persons whom circumstances have implicated therewith.’2 In his turn, Smyth – who crossed the Atlantic to join in the debates – incautiously repeated a malicious rumour about Douglass’ sexual conduct, which he was forced to retract.3 Amid such polarisation it is perhaps not surprising that the money was not returned.

Some historians have concluded from this that the campaign was misjudged, even a failure. But Douglass was interested in more than the folly of a few clergymen. He sailed from Boston as an emissary of the American Anti-Slavery Society at a time when most abolitionists in Britain were more sympathetic to its rival, the breakaway American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. Douglass’ decision to target the Free Church was a shrewd one. The complacent attitude of the US churches towards slavery was one which inflamed both wings of the abolitionist movement, and while some of his colleagues lost their way in sectarian squabbling, Douglass was happy to share a platform with anyone dedicated to the greater cause.4

We know that on many occasions, Douglass drew large crowds: for example, on the 1st May 1846 he addressed an audience of 2000 people paying sixpence a head at Edinburgh’s Music Hall.5 Newspaper reports tell us how his words elicited cheers, applause and laughter (and sometimes hissing). But it is harder to tell how his campaign speeches in Scotland transformed his listeners – emotionally, intellectually. The speeches denouncing the Free Church are distinctive in their repeated use of the same slogan – the rhythmic ‘send back the money’ that was often chanted by his audience, providing – as such formulae often do – a sense of shared emotion that temporarily binds disparate people together. Douglass and his fellow speakers rarely analyse what these feelings might be – beyond congratulating themselves on the ferment of anti-slavery sentiment they have induced.6

We may glimpse perhaps something of a personal response to Douglass’ speeches in the letters of two women, who had attended his lectures condemning the Free Church, addressed to two men at the heart of the controversy.

One was written to Thomas Chalmers by a woman who had recently seen Douglass in Dundee; she was not known to Chalmers and chose not to identify herself.7 The other was sent to Thomas Smyth in Charleston by Mary Cunningham in Belfast: she and Smyth had been close friends as teenagers (before he emigrated with his family as a young man fifteen years earlier) and whom he had met more recently in 1844 on his first return to his home town.8

Both writers are keenly aware of the argument that the American churches have been soft on slavery, accepting slaveholders into their congregations without question, and that because of their actions their addressees have a case to answer. The women regard them as men of great influence and call on them to take notice of those critics who invoked scriptural authority to denounce the property in human beings.

The woman from Dundee imagines that the ‘strangers’ (Douglass and his white abolitionist colleague James Buffum) were sent by God not only to show the error of the ways of Chalmers and the Free Church but to persuade her to examine her own conduct.

To me also were there [sic] words reproofs. I was shewing a little of the slaveholder my own conscience tell me so. I was also beginning to murmur for more liberty I thought that I could not well get alone. But it was the Grand Intruder that was ever following me with his suggestions. God in Mercy sent these men to shew me my transgressions, by telling me what my sisters are suffering pent up in chains, bloodhounds their guardians Iron Collars their necklaces, Whips instead of the strong arm of Man to lean on or ward off ill. And are we content to leave it so…

Her own circumstances – represented here by ‘necklaces’ and the supportive ‘strong arm of man’ – hardly resemble those of slaves whose freedom is constrained by iron collars and bloodhounds. And yet in her confined domesticity she too has begun ‘to murmur for more liberty I thought that I could not well get alone.’ If Douglass’ speeches made her feel a little ashamed of the limited horizons of her feminism (in which she now glimpses ‘a little of the slaveholder’ in herself), they also provide an opportunity to overcome them, if only in the act of writing and posting a letter to Chalmers.

But this soul-searching co-exists with humour. She tells Chalmers how the abolitionists quoted his words before dramatically inviting the audience to imagine a rather improper scene:

When the Collar and whip were produced it was remarked would the application of these to you or your daughters make you change your views on slavery. This caused laughter… Oh it is too serious a matter to make sport of – Fre. Douglass did make me laugh when he preached the boys in Dundee send back the money –

We know that, on occasion, Douglass (like other anti-slavery orators) displayed instruments of slave restraint and torture, to vividly bring home to his audiences the horrors of slavery, sometimes claiming that they were the very ones used in the events he is recalling.9 Here, we are told, he invited his audience (in a perhaps more unusual performative flourish) to imagine them being applied to Chalmers and his daughters – a rather risqué move (especially if it was Douglass who was holding them) that partly accounts for the (presumably) somewhat embarrassed laughter at the meeting. But if the letter-writer dutifully steps back a moment to condemn the frivolity, she can’t help mischievously admitting to Chalmers that she herself was amused, undermining somewhat the avowedly pious intent of her epistle.10

Mary Cunningham tells Smyth of ‘the eloquent, and affecting lectures’ she has attended, lectures which she says opened her eyes to ‘the heart sickening horrors of this dreadful system’. She is most vexed by the revelation that so-called Christians participate in this system, in flagrant disregard of the Great Commandment and Golden Rule. She riffs on the ironies of ‘the land of liberty’ holding millions in bondage, which was one of Douglass’ favourite rhetorical tactics.

You reside in the land, called falsely, (it is now represented,) ‘The Land of Liberty,’ the place of freedom, the picture now before us, is dark indeed, all the false coloring, has been wiped away, and nothing left for the eye, to gaze upon, but the gloomy, ghastly, features of this hideous monster…

‘Hideous monster’ is a term Douglass used to describe slavery in his famous ‘What to the Negro is the Fourth of July?’ speech in 1852 and he may have used it earlier, though I have found no evidence for it. But she certainly did not take from Douglass the image which she chooses to close the letter:

Oh! the thought of ‘liberty,’ the birds, that wing their joyous flight, above the clouds of Heaven, afford, ample proof, of the wise, beneficent, and glorious intention of our Heavenly Father, contrasted with the drooping, and imprisoned tenant, of a gilded cage, though that cage, be living in the palace of an Emperor.

The caged bird is an ancient symbol of imprisonment. The ‘gilded cage’ more specifically (as a space of confinement so comfortable or luxurious that it may appear otherwise) is at least as old as Chaucer (it appears in the ‘The Manciple’s Tale’) and was a pervasive Victorian metaphor for the subjugation of women.11 There is nothing ‘gilded’ about the slave plantation whose brutal violence is repeatedly described by Douglass, who identified not with a caged bird but other, more roughly-handled creatures such as the ‘bridled horse and muzzled ox,’ as he did in one of his Belfast speeches.12 The cage Mary Cunningham had in mind was more likely to have been her own.

Both letters draw on the arguments and capture the gestures that Douglass evidently made in his speeches in Belfast and Dundee (we have newspaper reports of them) repeating them to the people he accused but were not there to hear them. But they also reinterpret them, transposing their largely secular message into a more Christian key (that was more agreeable to themselves as well as their addressees), and hint that the ‘Send Back the Money’ campaign aroused more private feelings of shame and guilt as well as emboldening them to assert themselves, taking up their pens to call influential men to account.

It is not, perhaps, surprising that the repeated injunction to ‘return the bloody gold’13 in the context of a fight against slavery should prompt these women to think of necklaces and other blandishments as the trappings of a gilded cage. If we multiply these letters by the thousands of individuals who were moved by Douglass’ speeches, who knows how many lives they touched, realigned and transformed?


  1. For a detailed account of the campaign see Iain Whyte, ‘Send Back the Money!’: The Free Church of Scotland and American Slavery (Cambridge: James Clarke, 2012).
  2. Frederick Douglass, Arbroath, 12 February 1846, reprinted in John W Blassingame (ed), The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series 1: Speeches, Debates and Interviews, Vol 1: 1841-46 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979) (hereafter FDP 1:1), 162-4. See also speeches in Paisley, 20 March 1846: FDP 1:1, 192-93; and Glasgow, 21 April 1846: FDP 1:1, 236-37.
  3. See Thomas Smyth, Autobiographical Notes, Letters and Reflections, edited by his granddaughter Louisa Cheves Stoney (Charleston: Walker, Evans and Cogswell, 1914), 362-78.
  4. This was the one of the main topics of discussion at the Annual Meeting of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society in 1840, at which Thomas Clarkson made his last public appearance. His address, later published as A Letter to the Clergy of Various Denominations, and to the Slave-Holding Planters, in the Southern Parts of the United States of America (London: 1841), and James Gillespie Birney’s pamphlet, American Churches the Bulwarks of American Slavery (London: 1840), were to be influential texts in the movement during the following decade.
  5. Editorial note: FDP 1:1, 244.
  6. In letters from Dundee, Douglass wrote: ‘The agitation goes nobly on – all this region is in a ferment’ (to R D Webb, 16 February 1846) and ‘Old Scotland boils like a pot’ (to Francis Jackson, 29 January 1846), Clare Taylor, British and American Abolitionists: An Episode in Transatlantic Understanding(Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1974), 251, 248.
  7. . Anon to Chalmers, 2 April 1846 in the Thomas Chalmers papers CHA.4.321, New College Library, Edinburgh.
  8. Mary Cunningham to Thomas Smyth, Glenwood, 14 January 1846, transcribed in Smyth, Autobiographical Notes, 365.
  9. A report of an abolitionist meeting in Dundee addressed by Douglass on 30 January 1846 refers to the exhibition of ‘instruments of torture’ including collar, handcuffs, anklets and lash, Dundee Courier, 3 February 1846. See also Douglass’ speech in Limerick, 10 November 1845, FDP 1:1, 85-6.
  10. I can find no reference to such an episode in Blassingame’s compendium of newspaper reports of Douglass’ speeches, in Dundee or anywhere else. In one speech in Dundee Douglass was reported as saying, ‘Do you think Dr Chalmers would ever have said this, if, like me, he had four sisters and one brother in bondage?’ (Dundee 30 January 1846: FDP 1:1, 155). Perhaps these hypothetical sisters were misremembered as a daughter, with the theatrical application of the whip a fanciful addition. In a letter to the Scottish Guardian (cited by the Dundee Courier, 21 April 1846), a correspondent advises ‘the semi-savage, Douglass to be somewhat more tender-hearted in the application of his three-toed thong to the back of Dr Chalmers and others’ which might suggest that the image of Douglass applying a whip to his Scottish opponents was a regular motif in the counter-attacks by supporters of the Free Church.
  11. The image appears frequently in the work of many Victorian poets and novelists, including Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Gaskell, Christina Rossetti, and Thomas Hardy. ‘I find that the caged bird makes a metaphor that truly deserves the adjective female’ -Ellen Moers, Literary Women (Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1977), 250. My first thought was that Cunningham was drawing on Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Nightingale’, which also features an emperor, but this did not appear in English (in The Nightingale and other Tales, translated by Charles Boner, London: Joseph Cundall, 1846) until a few months after Cunningham’s letter – and the cage in the story is not ‘gilded’ (though often mis-remembered as such in plot summaries).
  12. Frederick Douglass, Belfast, 5 December 1845, FDP 1:1, 93.
  13. Frederick Douglass, Paisley, 20 March, 1846, FDP 1:1, 189.

Remembering the Freedom Riders

In 1961 Mother’s Day in the United States fell on May 14th. Two groups of civil rights campaigners were half way through the second week of their bus journeys south from Washington, designed to test a Supreme Court decision of the previous year that declared the segregation of inter-state transportation unconstitutional.

With the black and white passengers deliberately sitting together, and ignoring the signs that directed them to different facilities at rest stops, they expected to face suspicion and hostility, but apart from an ugly incident in Rock Hill, South Carolina, they had not run into any serious trouble. But in Alabama, things suddenly turned nasty.

As it left Anniston, the Greyhound bus was pursued by a convoy of angry whites who, when it pulled over for a flat tyre, attacked the vehicle, set it ablaze, and assaulted passengers as they emerged from the smoke. The Trailways bus, carrying the second group, arrived later and, after on-board segregation was forcibly established, were allowed to continue to Birmingham, where many of the passengers were brutally set upon by members of a large crowd which was waiting for them.

Shaken and injured the campaigners were nevertheless determined to continue to Montgomery the next day. But when the Alabama authorities refused to guarantee their safety, the riders reluctantly agreed to complete their journey to New Orleans by plane. Thus ended the first Freedom Ride.

When I wrote a piece recently on two writers – John Lewis and Gary Younge – who had revisited the sites of some of the most momentous scenes of that first ride, in what I argued were politicized variants of the popular ‘footsteps’ genre of travel writing, I looked for an appropriate image to illustrate it, and found this:

Historic marker at 4th Avenue N and 19th St N, Birmingham, Alabama: photo by kschlot1

The marker was erected in 1995, close to the site of the old Trailways bus terminal (now occupied, somewhat inevitably, by a bank). The site of the bus burning in Anniston was memorialized in 2007, although both were privately funded: evidence perhaps of Alabama’s official reluctance to come to terms with parts of its past it would prefer to forget.

But what I didn’t immediately notice about the plaque is how inaccurate and misleading it is. That it refers to the Greyhound, rather than Trailways, terminal is perhaps of no great consequence, although it must surely puzzle those passers-by who know that the Greyhound terminal is several blocks north and must wonder why the marker is placed here and not there.

The use of the word ‘youth’, though, demands a little more attention. Not only is it simply misleading to imply that the riders were all young people – five of the fifteen riders who arrived in Birmingham that day were over 40 (indeed three of them were over 50) – it’s a very curious choice when applying it to a very specific group of individuals, for it is neither a plural nor a collective noun. It is as if in the struggle to find a wording that everyone would find acceptable, no one knew what to call them.

The ‘klansmen’ who attacked them have a certain familiarity, as do the ‘police’ who stood by and watched, and yet – perhaps to compensate for this reckless admission of official collusion – the riders themselves become a strangely disembodied, abstract entity, the personification of one of the stages of life. It makes it easier for us to feel the kind of sympathy that is born of condescension rather than solidarity; it marks them as immature, easily swayed by manipulative others (the acronym CORE – surely opaque to many who read the notice – serving perfectly in this respect).

Above all, it codes them as feminine in contrast to those hyper-masculine thugs who participated in their humiliation. Or it would, if it weren’t for that final clause that suddenly and unexpectedly has them ‘standing their ground’ – a phrase that has circulated with particular speed these last few weeks, but which for a century or more has conjured up the image of an armed white patriarch defending his private property against intruders. Here, in a brilliant twist, it is being used to honour non-violent protesters (black, white, male, female) seeking to assert their right to occupy public spaces together.

Evidently, there is more than one way to stand your ground.

Malcolm X as Photographer

One of the surprises for me reading Manning Marable’s recent biography of Malcolm X is the number of references to him as a photographer.

In the summer of 1963, for instance, to a civil rights demonstration in New York, he ‘brought along a 35-millimeter camera and busied himself taking photographs. “If there were no captions for these pictures, you’d think this was Mississippi or Nazi Germany,” he informed one New York Times reporter’ (p253).

This is not the first mention of Malcolm filming demonstrations. It seems he made a habit of it, possibly because the mainstream media could not be relied on to report objectively, but also, perhaps, to help the Nation of Islam identity (or at least provoke) FBI observers and infiltrators.

On holiday in Miami with his wife, children, and Cassius Clay in January 1964, he kept a notebook in which

he drafted several paragraphs about his family’s visit to Clay’s training camp that were designed to be the basis for a feature news story, ‘Malcolm X, the Family Man.’ Most of his notes were captions designed to accompany photographs he had taken (p280).

During his second trip to Africa and the Middle East, he toured Algiers ‘by taxi, leaning out of the car window to take photographs’, apparently catching the attention of the police who detained him on departure at the airport, believing the photos to be a security risk (p319).

An evening program at the Audubon Ballroom organized by the Organization for Afro-American Unity in January 1965 ‘featured color films taken by Malcolm during his travels’ (p404).

This suggests his interest in photography extended to cinematography too, and indeed, several images of Malcolm show him holding an 8mm movie camera, like this one published in Life magazine, taken at London Airport in July 1964.

Here’s another picture of Malcolm holding a camera. And there is actually a similar shot (possibly taken on the same occasion) on the home page of the Malcolm X Project, a collection of resources compiled in association with Marable’s biography.

But most intriguing of all is the claim that de Laurot’s remarkable film Black Liberation (1967) features Malcolm X not only on screen but ‘behind the camera’. You can – if you’re lucky to get a good connection – stream a video here, but it is impossible to guess which bits of footage he may have been responsible for.

Surely there is enough here to merit further investigation. Malcolm was not the first political leader to try to control his photographic image. But a leader who wields a camera in public is certainly unusual and cannot be attributed solely to a concern over how he was represented. After all, most of the film he shot would have been of people and places he encountered, not of himself.

Perhaps it is time to return to the vast on- and off-line Malcolm X archive and ask it questions about photography that it may not have been asked before. How skilled a photographer was he? Do his photographs and movie footage evince a particular sensibility, even the hints of a radical aesthetic practice, or are they indistinguishable from conventional holiday snaps? At any rate, the special interest in photography on the part of someone who was almost exclusively identified with a – very distinctive – verbal (largely oral) delivery might cause us to wonder about the co-existence of these very different rhetorical forms in his repertoire.

There are five boxes of photographs in the Malcolm X Collection at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. The collection description record is fairly general, but does indicate that it includes ‘portraits of African-American expatriates and visitors, and views of crowds, possibly photographed by Malcolm X during his visits to various African countries, particularly Nigeria and Ghana (ca. 1964).’

Looks like a good place to start.

The Fire Last Time

Dany Laferrière has suggested – with a hint of provocation, no doubt – that the greatest novel of the Duvalier dicatatorship was written by an Englishman: Graham Greene’s The Comedians.1 In the same spirit, perhaps, we might add that the best film of the Haitian Revolution was made by an Italian: Queimada (1969) by Gillo Pontecorvo.

Pontecorvo, best known for The Battle of Algiers (1966), named Queimada after the fictional Portuguese colony in the Caribbean he chose for its setting. Filmed in Colombia, it is a defiantly unglamorous period drama that tells of the struggle against slavery and colonial rule in the mid-nineteenth century.

William Walker (Marlon Brando) arrives on the island and helps to rekindle a slave rebellion, which he then recommends the white mulatto elite support in order to win independence from the Portuguese. Walker is an British agent whose objective is to get the Portuguese out of the way so that the Antilles Royal Sugar Company can profit from its plantations. Once independence is won (and slavery abolished), Walker persuades his protege, the black leader Jose Delores (Evaristo Márquez) to convince his men to return to the cane fields. The reluctant mulatto figurehead Teddy Sanchez (Renato Salvatori) becomes president and Walker leaves.

Ten years pass. The sugar company effectively rules Queimada instead of the Portuguese, but precariously. For the last six years, Delores has been leading a guerrilla campaign and has proved unwilling to negotiate. At the government’s request, Walker returns. He advises the army to ruthlessly destroy key villages, but the campaign continues. The army stage a coup against Sanchez (who is prepared to capitulate) and General Alfonso Prada calls in the British Army. With their superior fire-power, the scale of devastation multiplies, and the sugar company is concerned that its plantations are being destroyed in the process. With Dolores still at large, it wonders whether the price is worth paying. But Walker reminds the company’s representative Mr Shelton (Norman Hill) that even if Queimada is burnt to the ground, it would be worth it, because it would at least stop the revolution spreading to other islands where the company also has sugar interests.

Finally, Dolores is captured, but he maintains an enigmatic silence, and refuses to talk to Walker. The government discusses the preferred form of execution. Walker reminds them that Dolores would be much more dangerous dead than alive. They try to offer him freedom if he leaves the Caribbean but Dolores laughs. He knows the value of martyrdom. And, as he explains to a black soldier guarding him: ‘If a man gives you freedom, it is not freedom. Freedom is something you, you alone, must take. Do you understand?’ On the day of his execution, Walker offers to allow him to escape, asking for nothing in return, but Dolores again refuses. He is led to the gallows.

Walker leaves before the execution takes place. On the quayside he is approached by a young man offering to carry his bags (as Dolores did in the two scenes that bookend the first half of the film depicting Walker’s arrival and departure). Momentarily caught unawares, Walker turns round and the stranger stabs him fatally in the chest.

Two versions of Queimada were released. The original version (132 minutes) is dubbed in Italian. To hear Brando’s own voice (and his plum accent), you will have to make do the English-language version that is 20 minutes shorter. Lawrence Russellclaims that it was Brando’s favourite film, despite the tribulations of the shoot itself, in which the star and the director disagreed over just about everything. It is certainly possible that he was attracted to a script that ‘fitted well with his social activism on behalf of the American Indian and the black civil rights movement’. Or admired it as a ‘furious Vietnam allegory’, as Stephen Hunter has described it.

But its allegorical possibilities do not stop there. The Somali teenager Sagal in Nuruddin Farah’s novel Sardines (1981) has production stills of Brando from Queimada on her bedroom wall, along with posters of Che, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, but she cannot explain to her mother the story of the film or which revolt was being depicted. Not surprisingly, perhaps, as its parallels are legion. One reason, no doubt, that, as her mother goes on to inform her, it was only shown once in Mogadishu and then only in a highly censored version.2

And indeed, the parallels may continue to proliferate. For instance, during the second half of the film, it is not hard to think of the current war in Afghanistan and the ten-year search for Osama bin Laden. The title is even a close anagram of Al-Qaida.

But the historical events they most closely resemble are those of the Caribbean itself, notably the struggles that led to the abolition of slavery in the French islands in the 1790s and the brutal attempt to restore it – successfully in the case of Guadeloupe, but not Saint-Domingue, which became the independent republic of Haiti in 1804.

What is striking is the way Pontecorvo captures the complex, shifting political allegiances of metropolitan governments, private companies, white settlers, prosperous free people of colour, and the black slaves. We might have got a sense of this in the film Sergei Eisenstein planned in 1934 to make about Toussaint Louverture, starring Paul Robeson.3 And may still yet in Danny Glover’s rumoured-to-be-forthcoming biopic, based – it is alleged – on a screenplay by Med Hondo.

But it is a book – C L R James’ The Black Jacobins (1938), his classic study of the Haitian revolution – that Queimada most resembles. In particular, the emphasis on the importance of the decisions that Toussaint made to accept or reject offers of help from those whose commitment to black freedom were suspect. The British and the Spanish for instance. Or even the representatives of the French Revolution, which had promised to abolish slavery, like commissioner Sonthonax. In each case, James spells out the political and military calculations Toussaint had to make when choosing his allies.

In Queimada, these dilemmas are dramatised clearly in a series of three scenes early in the film which show Walker and Dolores preparing to join forces.

The story of Queimada is told from Walker’s point of view, an outsider – like the audience – unfamiliar with the island which he first sees through an eye-glass from the deck of his approaching ship. And yet Walker is ultimately out-manouevred by Dolores. They both die at the end but it is clear that it is Dolores who will be remembered, not Walker.

In this clip, the two characters are at first glance, presented as equals who can help each other, who share a common goal. But in fact the formal equality suggested by the presentation (the scrupulous attention to both partners in the dialogue, filmed chiastically in shot reverse shot), in the end draws attention to their differences.

In the church, Walker proposes they join forces to rob the bank and split the proceeds. But of the 100 million gold reales, fifty go to Walker while the the other half is shared between Dolores and his men.

On the hillside where he outlines his plan, it becomes clear that they won’t be escaping together. While Walker intends to flee to England, Dolores and his men dream of Africa.

Once the preparations are complete, Dolores and Walker drink to the success of their mission. They drink each other’s habitual tipple (Walker tries rum and Dolores whisky) and toast (separately) ‘England’ and ‘Africa’ before finding something they can both pronounce: ‘the world’. But it is the thinnest cosmopolitan veneer. Pulling faces, neither manages to down his cup, and, relieved, they switch back. Each to their own. May the best man win.


  1. Dany Laferrière, Tout bouge autour de moi (Montréal: Mémoire d’encrier, 2010), p127.
  2. Nuruddin Farah, Sardines (London: Heinemann, 1982), p29.
  3. Scott Allen Nollen, Paul Robeson: Film Pioneer (Jefferson, NC, McFarland, 2010), pp52-3.

The Guinea’s Stamp

When Robert Burns published his first book of poems, he intended it as a parting shot before leaving Scotland for good. A position had been arranged for him on a plantation in the West Indies, and he was due to set sail from Greenock in September, 1786. ”Twas a delicious idea that I would be called a clever fellow,’ he wrote in a letter of August 1787, ‘even though it should never reach my ears a poor Negro-driver.’

But he never did cross the Atlantic. Instead he set out for what he called the ‘new world’ of literary Edinburgh to follow up his recent success there and exploit the tempting prospect of a second edition. Today Burns is more likely to be remembered as the friend of liberty, man of the people, and composer of the sentimental abolitionist song ‘The Slave’s Lament’: ‘It was in sweet Senegal that my foes did me enthral / For the lands of Virginia-ginia O.’

In 1846, fifty years after his death, he was paid homage by someone who had travelled in the opposite direction to escape the long arm of American slavery. In a letter from Ayr printed in the New York Tribune, the fugitive wrote animatedly of the romantic setting of his Monument. He took delight in being able to see with his own eyes the places named in ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ and ‘Ye Banks and Braes.’ And he was honoured to meet Burns’ 80-year-old sister, ‘a spirited looking woman who bids fair to live yet many days.’1

The author was Frederick Douglass, already well-known in the United States following the appearance of his autobiography the previous year. Its graphic descriptions of life on a Maryland plantation, and of the cruelties he witnessed as a child and later endured himself, made the book an instant classic. It told how, against all odds, he taught himself to read and write, and – barely out of his teens – engineered his escape, equipped with forged papers, to the free North. In New England he hooked up with radical anti-slavery campaigners and became one their leading spokesmen.

But in publishing his story, he increased the chance of being identified and recaptured. So in 1845 the fiery abolitionist sailed for Britain, where he stayed nearly two years. Douglass captivated audiences at hundreds of speaking engagements across the country. He made several extended tours of Scotland, where the anti-slavery societies were especially active. His slogans were carved on the turf of Arthur’s Seat and his visit celebrated in popular ballads of the time.

In his letter from Ayr, the former slave made common cause with the former ploughman who saw through the empty rhetoric of the ‘bigoted and besotted clergy’ and the ‘shallow-brained aristocracy’, and ‘broke loose’, as he put it, ‘from the moorings society had thrown around him.’ But he acknowledged his faults too. ‘Like all bold pioneers, he made crooked paths’, he observed – perhaps alluding to some of his own.

Both men rose from lowly origins to become figures of major historical importance. Douglass himself went on to hold government posts during the Civil War and afterwards, including that of Minister to Haiti. His books are nowadays required reading in schools in the United States. And he has become a cultural and political bone of contention, claimed by black nationalists on the one hand and those who think of him as more a typical American on the other – in much the same way that Burns can appear in turn the quintessential Scot and the hybrid cosmopolitan.

Douglass was not the only African American writer to have found much to admire in Burns. In James Weldon Johnson’s introduction to the Book of American Negro Poetry (1931), his work was held up as an example of how sophisticated a vernacular literature could be, comparable to that of Paul Lawrence Dunbar:

The similarity between many phases of their lives is remarkable, and their works are not incommensurable. Burns took the strong dialect of his people and made it classic; Dunbar took the humble speech of his people and in it wrought music.

The Caribbean-born poet and novelist of the Harlem Renaissance, Claude McKay, was dubbed the ‘Jamaican Burns’ for his early dialect verse, though it is possible that Louise Bennett might be more deserving of the title (so long as we also allow that Burns might be the ‘Scottish Bennett’). More recently, Maya Angelou celebrated the Burns bicentenary in 1996 with a visit to his homeland, the subject of a fascinating documentary made for television.

Douglass’ interest in Scotland did not stop at Burns, though. His surname – adopted after his arrival in Massachusetts – he took from the hero of The Lady of the Lake. A rather cheeky gesture, perhaps, given the popularity of Walter Scott among the Southern planters he left behind. In view of the continued appropriation of Scottish emblems on the part of white supremacists in the United States – from the pseudo-celtic rituals of the Ku Klux Klan to the tartan wallpaper that adorns Confederate websites – his choice invites us to imagine a different Scotland, one less amenable to fantasies of racial purity and ethnic exclusion.

Another Scot who inspired Douglass was Lord Byron, particularly the lines from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage:

Hereditary bondsmen! know ye not
Who would be free themselves must strike the blow?

As far as I can tell, he quoted them first in an article entitled, appropriately enough, ‘What are the Colored People Doing for Themselves’, published in the North Star, the newspaper he founded on his return to the United States in 1847. No doubt a certain impatience with white abolitionists contributes to its subsequent reappearance in his fictionalization of the 1841 mutiny aboard the slave ship Creole in The Heroic Slave (1852) and at the end of the chapter that records his triumph over the notorious slave-breaker Covey in his second autobiography My Bondage and My Freedom (1855).2

But if Byron provided the slogan for an emergent black radicalism breaking free of white patronage, it was the words of ‘A man’s a man for a’ that’ by that other Scots poet which were called on time and time again to underscore Douglass’ robust egalitarianism.3 Most poignantly perhaps in an address at a Burns Supper in Rochester, New York in 1849.

He began by admitting that ‘I am not a Scotchman, and have a colored skin, but if a warm love of Scotch character – a high appreciation of Scotch genius – constitute any of the qualities of a true Scotch heart, then indeed does a Scotch heart throb beneath these ribs.’ He described to his listeners his recent travels in the country – where ‘every stream, hill, glen, and valley had been rendered classic by heroic deeds on behalf of freedom’ – and his memorable visit to the poet’s birth-place.

‘And if any think me out of my place on this occasion,’ he concluded, pointing to the portrait of Burns on the wall, ‘I beg that the blame may be laid at the door of him who taught me that “a man’s a man for a’ that.”‘4


  1. Frederick Douglass, ‘A Fugitive Slave Visiting the Birth-place of Robert Burns’, extract from a letter dated 23 April 1846, New York Tribune, 9 July 1846, reprinted in Alasdair Pettinger (ed), Always Elsewhere: Travels of the Black Atlantic (London: Cassell, 1998), pp95-7.
  2. Frederick Douglass, ‘What are the Colored People Doing for Themselves’, North Star, 14 July 1848, reprinted in Philip S Foner (ed), The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass. Volume 1: Early Years, 1817-1849 (New York: International Publishers, 1950), p315; The Heroic Slave [1852] in William Andrews (ed), The Oxford Frederick Douglass Reader (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), p157; My Bondage and My Freedom [1855] (New York: Dover, 1969, p249. The lines also appeared in Henry Highland Garnet, An Address to the Slaves of the United States of America [1843] (New York: Arno Press, 1969), p93; they were used as masthead of Martin Delany’s paper The Mystery, launched New York, 1843) (see Robert S Levine (ed), Martin R Delany: A Documentary Reader (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2003), p27); cited in James McCune Smith, ‘Outside Barbarians’, Frederick Douglass’ Paper (25 Dec 1851), reprinted in John Stauffer (ed), The Works of James McCune Smith: Black Intellectual and Abolitionist (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), p80; and featured as the epigraph to Chapter III of W E B DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk [1903] in Writings (New York: Library of America, 1986), p392.
  3. Frederick Douglass, Letter to William Lloyd Garrison, London, 23 May 1846, reprinted in Philip S Foner (ed), The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass. Volume 1: Early Years, 1817-1849 (New York: International Publishers, 1950), pp170-1; ‘The Claims of the Negro Ethnologically Considered: An Address Delivered in Hudson, Ohio on 12 July 1854’, reprinted in John W Blassingame (ed), The Frederick Douglass Papers. Series One: Speeches, Debates and Interviews. Volume 2: 1847-54 (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1982), p523; ‘Our Recent Western Tour’, Douglass’ Monthly, April 1859, reprinted in Philip S Foner (ed), The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass. Volume II: Pre-Civil War Decade, 1850-1860 (New York: International Publishers, 1950) p451.
  4. Frederick Douglass, ‘On Robert Burns and Scotland: An Address Delivered in Rochester, New York on 25 January 1849’, reprinted in John W Blassingame (ed), The Frederick Douglass Papers. Series One: Speeches, Debates and Interviews. Volume 2: 1847-54 (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1982), pp147-48.

(Revised and expanded version of an article first published in the Sunday Herald, 23 January, 2000).