The Slave's Lament

by Robert Burns (1759 - 1796)
Pub. 1792

It was in sweet Senegal that my foes did me enthrall
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 or frost
Like the lands of Virginia-ginia-O
There streams for ever 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 a bitter, bitter tear
And alas I am weary, weary O

Senegal: West African country

This song was brought to Sangschule by Christine Kydd. It was recorded by Chantan, the group consisting of Christine, Elspeth Cowie and Corrina Hewat on Primary Colours and their song note says: “On a visit to Dundee, Burns is said to have caught sight of a slave ship in the harbour. It was en route from Senegal to the plantations of Virginia.”

Christine has also recorded it with Barbara Dymock as Sinsheen on their CD Lift. Their note says: “In 1786 William Wilberforce made his first speech against the Slave trade, a call which grew into a popular Scottish movement for freedom, peaking in 1792. Burns accepted a position as bookkeeper on a West Indian sugar plantation in 1786 but then reneged after his first book of poems was published and his fame spread. Over the ensuing six years he developed an understanding of the iniquity of black slavery and this song appeared in the Scots Musical Museum in 1792. The manuscript is in the British Museum. Cecil Sharpe believed it was a make-up from a street ballad entitled The Betrayed Maid, popular in the West of Scotland in the eighteenth century. The original of this is a black letter broadside entitled The Trepan’d Maiden, or The Distressed Damsel, beginning:- ‘Give ear unto a maid, That lately was betrayed, and sent into Virginny O”. Burns gave the tune with the verses. William Stenhouse, the editor of an early 19th century reissue of the Scots Musical Museum, suggested that the tune is of African origin.”

The editors of The Canongate Burns (2003) say that anti-slavery was “particularly strong in Scotland which had over sixty anti-slave societies.” When a slave, Joseph Knight, made a successful legal appeal in 1778 to repeal his slave status, this “created a connection with the white Scottish colliers whose actual status was little better than that of plantation slaves.” The editors see Burns as “the creative voice of this enlightened Scottish impulse.”

Joseph Knight, born in Africa, had been bought in Jamaica from a slave trader by a Mr Wedderburn. Back in Scotland, Joseph asked his employer for wages, a legal possibility in England. He was refused and ran away. He brought his case before the Justices of the Peace in Perth who found in favour of his ‘owner’, Wedderburn.

But Joseph appealed to the Sheriff of Perth who found in his favour. Wedderburn then appealed to the Court of Session, Scotland’s highest civil court. Samuel Johnson helped prepare his case. The Court ruled that “ the dominion assumed over this Negro, under the law of Jamaica, being unjust, could not be supported in this country to any extent.” Joseph Knight was allowed to leave service and make a home for his wife and children.

The website of the National Archive of Scotland

says the original papers are in the archive including Joseph Knight’s ‘memorial’ giving his life story and describing the miseries of slavery in the colonies.

Information on the slavery of Scottish mineworkers and salters can be found at