William Hardin Burnley and the Glorious Revolution
By Selwyn Cudjoe
February 06, 2011
In an interesting article, "The 'Glorious Revolution'" (Express, August 2), Selwyn Ryan presents William Hardin Burnley (1780-1850), the largest slaveholder in T&T, as a "forward-looking" planter and suggests that Burnley felt that "the extinction of slavery has created a mighty revolution, in that, in this island, the master was now the slave and the former slave the master." He quotes Burnley as saying that "God and nature were conspiring to render the island of Trinidad 'a little Terrestrial Paradise for the African race.' He insisted that he was not guilty of hyperbole when he said that the African was like the 'Midas of Greek Mythology.'"
I disagree with Ryan on several substantive issues such as how he interprets the reported speech of Burnley as against his record; the sudden move from an African terrestrial society to the opposition of blacks to a plural society "from which Indians would be 'ethnically cleansed'" and a dense conclusion. Moreover, it is difficult to reconcile Ryan's picture of Burnley especially when Burnley believed that the emancipation was a mistake.
Born in New York in 1780, Burnley was educated in England before he took up residence in Trinidad in 1802. In 1809 he teamed up with Mr George Smith, Chief Justice, to steal the people's properties. As Acting Depositor-General, he had access to many properties from which he made his fortune "with Smith's knowledge, if not connivance." When he was finished he was worth a half a million dollars.
In 1818, Governor Woodford asked his Council, of which Burnley was a member, for suggestions to attract labourers to Trinidad. Burnley felt that "if Trinidad could increase its labouring population sufficiently, it could supply the rest of the West Indian islands with cattle, rice and corn...Upon serious reflection I am fully convinced that from Asia alone is to be derived the population we require." Those words made Burnley one of the first persons to advocate the bringing of East Indians to Trinidad to deal with the labour shortage.
Burnley opposed every significant event that led to the emancipation of Blacks. In 1823 he and his colleagues held a secret meeting in Tacarigua to protest the British government's initiative to stop the flogging of African female slaves and the overseers from carrying whips. In 1832 he went to London to fight against emancipation.
In 1841 Burnley made a final attempt to derail the benefits of emancipation when the Agricultural and Immigration Society which he chaired held hearings throughout the island to find out if "the great experiment of Negro emancipation succeeded." He contended that "although slavery has ceased, the angry feelings occasioned by the struggle to effect it, have not yet subsided." He was looking to break the monopoly that the ex-slaves had over the market by recruiting new laborers from Africa, Asia and the southern United States.
One needs to access Ryan's observations about Burnley's laudatory efforts against this background. It is true that Burnley believed that the cultivation of one sixth of Trinidad's soil would have satisfied the sugar demands of Great Britain. However, it does not follow that Burnley and his colleagues saw Trinidad as becoming a "prosperous African colony in the West Indies and a civilised one in Africa? (sic)." How Trinidad would have become a civilised state in Africa is another matter.
Ryan argues that by1846 "the 'Glorious Revolution' was replaced by an aggressive racist reaction." We are not told who practiced aggressive racism and who suffered from it. If an "era of good feelings" prevailed why did Burnley contend that the emancipation experiment occasioned "angry feelings" between the Blacks and Whites? Why, indeed, did Burnley warn that the society would "degenerate into barbarism" if those negative feelings of distrust continued. It is difficult to say wherein lay this utopian paradise that Ryan discerned.
Ryan makes another disastrous error when he contends that the arrival of immigrants from India, four years after Burnley's hearings, "also helped to bring to an end the dream of creating the 'African Terrestrial Paradise' many had envisioned." How was this possible when Burnley intended to exploit Africans and Indians alike?
Even if we grant Ryan's position, the question remains: who among the labouring class articulated this view. Who is this "many" of which Ryan speaks? Both the Mandingo representation of themselves and Rev. Hamilton's description the liberated Africans in Manzanilla presented different views of the same reality.
Ryan says that after 1846 there emerged "a plural society to which most blacks were unalterably opposed." No evidence is given but it is assumed that most blacks were (or are) unalterably opposed to a plural society. We are not told when this plural society came into being and how we opposed it. In Ryan's analysis Blacks go from being mute in their own deliverance to active perpetrators of the heinous crime of opposing a plural society.
Ryan is one of our most astute political scientists and social observers. However, he did an injustice to Black people when he gave Burnley the leading role in the events that surrounded emancipation. The historical record has a way of reproducing the bad and sweeping the good under the rug especially in Trinidad and Tobago. It is important that the historical record be presented in a balanced and accurate manner.