William Davidson left Jamaica for Scotland in 1801. He arrived, aged just 15, just as the annual Burns night custom began in Scotland. His first few years were thus influenced by the works of this great radical poet. When he was captured by the Coldstream Guards and Bow Street Runners on the night of the 23rd January 1820, he sang a song in defiance of his captors, that he had learnt in those early years on these shores.
Davidson could have come across Burns much earlier if Burns had not chosen to decline an offer to leave Scotland as an emigrant to Jamaica in the year Davidson was born, 1786. There were very strong links between Scotland and displaced Africans. Scotland’s flag—the Saint Andrew’s Cross, or saltire—inspired both the battle flag of the Confederate States of America, a racially divisive and provocative symbol, and Jamaica’s flag post-independence. It is in Jamaica, the land of William Davidson’s birth, that we can find the strongest links. Davidson’s father was one of a large group of Scots, who made up one-third of Jamaica’s white population were Scots. Many people of Jamaican descent have Scottish surnames.
By the 1770s, Scots were beginning to question their country’s role in the slave trade. In 1778, the Court of Session in Edinburgh upheld the sheriff’s ruling that slave owners could not force the slaves they owned to return to Jamaica once they had been brought to Scotland. When Davidson arrived in Edinburgh, as a young man to study law, he would be very aware of that fact. Davidson later studied mathematics at Aberdeen University before arriving in London, where he worked as a cabinet maker, converted to Wesleyan Methodism, and was active in radical circles.
In 1820, William Davidson was executed for his role in the Cato Street Conspiracy to assassinate Lord Liverpool’s cabinet. Arrested, Davidson was led away singing Burns’ “Scots Wha Hae!” with the immortal lines,:
By oppression’s woes and pains! By your sons in servile chains! We will drain our dearest veins, But they shall be free!