You can’t go home again
By Jeremy Taylor
Illustrious Exile, by Andrew 0. Lindsay (Peepal Tree Press, ISBN 1-84523-028-0, 390 pp)
Farming and debauchery must be tiring occupations. By 1786, Robert Burns was doubly tired, being well practised at both. And there were other burdens:
a scandalous pregnancy an irate father, a public denunciation by the Calvinists. Bums’s instinct was to do what many of his compatriots had done: shake the dust of Scotland off his feet and head for the West Indies.
He took a job as a book-keeper on a sugar plantation in Jamaica. To raise passage money, he published a collection of little verses he had scribbled during his limited free time.
As it turned out, Bums and Jamaica were spared the pleasure of each other’s company. The book of verses (Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, 1786) did far better than expected. No longer in need of a new life in the Indies, Burns proceeded to Edinburgh to become a celebrity.
Andrew Lindsay’s remarkable novel is a “what if?” story. What if Burns had really gone to Jamaica? How would a poetic, romantic, late eighteenth-century Scottish sensibility respond to life on a Caribbean sugar plantation? Would Burns adapt, desensitise himself and pick up the lash with rest of them? If not, how long could he possibly last? And what sort of verse would this most celebrated of Scottish bards write in the Caribbean?
In Illustrious Exile, Lindsay has constructed an alternative life for Burns. The poet sails for Jamaica, works on the plantation, creates a scandal, moves on to another plantation in Demerara, and eventually escapes from the system altogether, trekking far into the interior of what is now Guyana with an Amenndian woman carrying his child.
To tell this story, Lindsay uses a well-tried device for linking past with present. Two hundred years after Burns’s death in 1797, his “journals” are “discovered” in the Guyanese hinterland where he died, and the events, thoughts, and feelings of his Caribbean years are revealed.
The real Robert Burns, as we know, was an instinctive radical, an anti-Calvinist, a supporter of the French and American revolutions, and a merciless satirist of establishment pomposity and pretension. He also (to put it mildly) knew how to have a good time. The character who
emerges in these fictional “journals” is neither monogamous nor sober, but he is not the professional roisterer of fond Scottish memory either. At the start of the book, he is a little uneasy at being a “Negro-driver”; by the end, he has made a comprehensive personal rejection of the system and all its implications. In the final pages, there is a sense that he has moved beyond the state of exile shared initially by everyone in the Caribbean except the Amerindian peoples, and has in a sense “come home”.
At first Bums has no grasp of the power he has as a white man, or the way he is expected to exercise it. He even thinks he can dig his own garden. He wants to see slaves as human beings, he wants to be liked by them, he recoils from violence and is disgusted by a slave auction. He is besotted by his house servant Adah, and is soon treating her in every way as a wife and equal, basking in the warmth and tenderness he receives in return. He even begins to argue with the plantation owner about the legitimacy of the system that supports them. The man is an obvious troublemaker.
Dimly, he senses his own complicity:
Never before in my life have I witnessed so much MISERY as in these last few days, and what makes it much worse to bear is the realisation that I have actively assisted in the process of imposing it. I have not been honest with myself. . . My hotheaded eagerness to leave Scotland overwhelmed completely whatever scruples I possessed. Even more reprehensibly, I consoled myself with the foolish notion that there might be some way of combining slavery with my principles . . . like a fool I have ignored the fact that [the slaves on the estate] do not belong here. God forgive me.
As he struggles to reconcile his public role with his private sympathies, Bums furtively reads Equiano (seditious stuff), ponders the root causes of white hatred for Africans, and decides to marry Adah and take her home to Scotland, where he will work with the abolitionists.
This fantasy is derailed when a prim Scottish lady arrives on the estate in pursuit of her errant husband. Burns seduces her with passionate poems, suddenly aware of all the European refinements that he misses and of which Adah will never be capable. Forced to fight a ludicrous duel with the homed husband, Burns is charged with murder and smuggled out toDemerara. So much for Adah.
The Demerara plantation is hotter and more brutal than the Jamaican one, more highly charged with discontent and rebellion, and Burns is even more of a misfit. For a while he manages to run things on more liberal lines, but they always revert. Alarming portents occur. Allardyce, the plantation boss, is killed by a monstrous spider; koker men are swallowed whole by a thirty-foot anaconda. Again Burns prepares to return to Scotland, but is detained this time by the prospect of an expedition to the Upper Potaro (that old Guiana magic), and by the appearance of a beautiful Arawak woman, Yinta, with whom he falls instantly in love.
Until today, I had thought of the Guianas as a blank page in the history books — a vast tract of land unknown to man since the beginning of time. Today I realise that deep in these lonely tracts of eternal desolation there may lie secrets older than Europe; older than the Pharoahs; older than history itself. . . El Dorado, which I had always considered entirely a fable, was sought here by Ralegh. What strange things might there be, hidden in these terrible, dark, dripping forests?
No progress is made with Yinta, on the other hand, until Burns manages to write her a poem in Arawak, after which she becomes his perfect muse and companion till he dies. (Poets, take note.)
Bums’s education is continued by a conveniently well-read slave from Saint-Domingue, Ambrose. The poet’s burgeoning idealism (“Men should be brothers”) is countered by Ambrose’s realism: “White men will never relinquish the power.. . They own the land; the factories; the ships and the warehouses. They legislate; administer justice; write the history books; own the newspapers and the printing presses. . .“ Ambrose’s advice is to look to the example of Toussaint, not Wilberforce.
You assume, though you may not realise it, that equality means black people resembling white ones so closely that no difference remains, except for the colour of their skin. We must become like them. But does this not also beg the question that the ways of the white man are superior? Does it not deny us the dignity of a culture and an identity to call our own? Would I ask you to adopt the habits of Negroes?
“I hadn’t thought of that,” replies Bums. Not surprisingly: hardly anyone thinks of it even now. Schemes for improving other people always depend on them becoming more like us. Again Bums finds himself weighed in the balance and found wanting. “Until this moment,” he reflects, “I had thought myself absolved from guilt by virtue of the fact that I genuinely hated slavery, treated Negroes with courtesy and respect, and in Ambrose had found a true and valued friend. But I had wronged Adah, and now, it seemed, I had to face up to the culpability in myself.”
The arrival of a new estate manager even worse than the spider’s victim forces the issue for Burns. He takes off with Yinta - the first non-exile he has met in the Caribbean - on an exhausting two-month trek across the Essequibo, up the Mazaruni and the Potaro, and far beyond Kaieteur to Yinta’s home ground, and his own death.
Andrew Lindsay is himself Scottish, dividing his time “between Fife and Guyana” according to the publisher’s blurb. Mercifully, he does not make Burns write his journals in Scottish dialect, which would have made for a daunting read. In fact, Burns hardly sounds very Scottish in prose, though several of the poems use the dialect, constructed or reconstructed by Lindsay to echo poems that the real Burns wrote.
There is a hard lesson here for anyone eager to impose their own cultural and economic needs on an unwilling people.
What has been done to these people constitutes an act of vast criminality; an act so monstrous and terrible that it defies belief. How can a society that prides itself on its benevolence and its superior culture allow itself tobe so inextricably bound up with — nay, founded upon! — such suffering, cruelty and indignity?. . . What I have witnessed is so uniquely horrible and vile that generations of my countrymen in years to come will look back upon it in shame and self-loathing. Slavery cannot be undone. We have sown the seed, and the fearful harvest thereof shall be as bitter ashes in our guilty mouths.
But the book is not only about a white exile’s anger and guilt. Bums makes his final trek into the interior as a hunted man, a “murderer” and a “traitor”, having surrendered every last trace of his previous life and comfort (except his journals, of course) to be with Yinta, the Amerindian. Lindsay invests this personal journey with echoes of a more universal process: the exile or expatriate groping for a new grounding and a new source of being. The book suggests that exile can be left behind, that the Amerindian peoples represent a source, and that there are rites of passage for those rare individuals and societies that want to cut away cultural impositions and arrive at some sort of Caribbean authenticity •
The Robert Burns who emerges in these fictional “journals” is
neither monogamous nor sober, but he is not the professional
roisterer of fond Scottish memory either