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Ignorant Negroes/Tyrannical Masters:
William Burnley and the Caribbean Slave Experience 1

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe 2
Published: April 05, 2013

In the 1950s when I was growing up in Tacarigua, Trinidad, West Indies, there existed a large, faded mansion in the Orange Grove Savannah that had seen the last of its glories. It stood there as a colossus on this magnificent expanse of land which, at that time, was one of the largest savannah in the country second only to the Queen's Park Savannah in Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad. It reminded one of the glorious days of a time long past. I was a young boy then and could not have known that in this residence there once lived one of the most important men in the West Indies during the first half of the nineteenth century.

As a young boy, we all knew of the Orange Sugar Estates (its formal title by then was the Trinidad Sugar Estates) a plantation that was central to the life of every person who lived in the district of Tacarigua. A century before-or even fifty years before-there were several sugar estates in the area---El Dorado, Paradise, Laurel Hill, Garden City-but by the 1950s, they had all ceased to operate. Only Orange Grove remained as the central sugar estate in the area around which all life turned. At crop time-that is, from around January to May-the entire village came to life. It was the source from which all the villagers received the necessary cash to buy items such as kerosene or clothing. Along with their meager salaries they received from Orange Grove, they made ends meet by cultivating their provision gardens and tending their chickens, goats, pigs, and cows. My grandfather (Robert James), my uncle (Niles), my brother Winston and even I for a short period, worked at the estates during crop time. I was saved from that experience by becoming a pupil teacher. My family-aunts, uncles, and grandparents -rented lands from the estate until the 1960s when the sugar industry was dying and the estate was forced to sell its lands to its tenants, the major portion going to a local developer called Home Construction Limited.

In the late 1960s when Black Power and Marxist radicalism set in, I began to understand that these lands, the Orange Grove Sugar Estates, were owned by William Hardin Burnley, the biggest slave owner in the country who was responsible for shaping much of the island's policy between 1810 and 1850, the year in which he died. Even as slavery was coming to an end, he made various trips around the Caribbean and Latin America "for the sole purpose of observing and considering the state and efficiency of the laboring population in these various places, under different aspects of slavery and freedom, to enable him to form a more correct opinion as to the probable result of the measures now in progress in the British colonies." 3 When slavery ended, he made a gallant effort to recruit labor from all around the world (including the United States) to ensure that freedom of the slaves (that is, free labor) did not prevent his profits from flowing into his coffers and to ensure that the planters of the island had the labor they needed to ensure the continued production of their sugar estates.

But this is getting a bit ahead of my story. Who exactly was William Hardin Burnley; when did he arrive in Trinidad; and how did he become such a powerful figure in Trinidadian and West Indian affairs?

William Burnley was the son of a British gentleman, Hardin Burnley, who went to Virginia in the 1760s to make his fortunes. When the US Revolutionary War broke out in 1775, Hardin Burnley took the Royalist side to the great astonishment of his brothers. As the war raged on, he fled to New York where William was born. In 1786 Hardin Burnley and his family returned to London where he became a successful businessman, an underwriter for Lloyds, and a director of the East India Company. In 1798 William visited Trinidad and liked what he saw. In 1802 he returned to the country where he stayed until his death, although he resided for short periods in London and Paris. Years later, Burnley testified that he spent most of the best years of his life in Trinidad.

When Burnley arrived in Trinidad, he was one of the most educated of its new immigrants having studied at Harrow, the famous boys' school that educated Winston Churchill, prime minister of England, and Jawaharlal Nehru, prime minister of India. In 1832, bewildered by the challenges Burnley was posing to British rule in the island, Lewis Grant, governor of the island, acknowledged that Burnley came to the island "with the advantage of birth, capital, and education superior to probably any other colonist" and certainly with his own objects in sight." 4 In 1807 he married Charlotte Brown, who gave birth to two children, William Frederick and Joseph Hume Burnley.

Shortly after his marriage Burnley became prominent in on the society. In 1810 he had the good fortune to meet George Smith, the chief oidor or chief justice of the island, with whom he became fast friends. Smith aided Burnley's rise to fame and fortune by allowing the latter to act as his despositario general whose function it was to protect the widows and orphans of the society. Together they used the office to fleece the widows and orphans of their property. All the property that became the subject of litigation was placed under Burnley's control and he received the revenues that were paid on them. No account of these transactions was ever kept and the rightful owners seldom received any payments. When things began to get out of hand, Smith fled the island. On July 12, 1810, Mr. Black, a member of the ruling Council of the island, sent a devastating letter to Mr. Joseph Marryat, Trinidad's agent in London. It read in part:

The governor has long seen, and with great regret and dissatisfaction, the imperiousness of this man, but he never expressed his feelings openly until now. An extraordinary meeting of the Cabildo is to be held this day at which the Governor will preside, and we are to have a full meeting of Council on Wednesday, both of which have for their object the illegal, arbitrary behavior of this man, and I suppose to take some steps for arresting the evil. His ambition is now entirely absorbed by one object-to throw into the hands of Burnley all the property he can find an excuse for laying hold of in the country, either from the death of the proprietors or from claims of creditors, and that the revenues of these properties shall be by him (after having good pickings out of them) remitted to his friend Mellish.

Burnley you see has the office of Depositario General of his Court, a place of immense responsibility according to the Spanish law and for which the holder is obliged to give real security to a very large amount. But nothing of the kind has been done. Burnley is Depositario at large and it is computed that by Biennes de defuntos alone which he will be in possession of by the judge's pleasure, in a short time he will have the amount of a million and-a-half dollars. 5

The next year Smith had fallen out of favor with Thomas Hislop, the new governor. He wanted to go to London to present his case to the secretary of state for the colonies. However, Governor Hislop himself was supposed to travel to London to see the secretary of state so he forbade Smith to leave the island during his (Hislop's) intended absence, since Smith was supposed to act as governor when he was away. However, leaving the country was no problem for Smith. Burnley helped him to leave surreptiously by disguising him as a sailor and getting him aboard a schooner at Macquerie Bay in the northwest of the island.

Needless to say, Black's suspicions turned out to be true. After Smith left the island, the Cabildo, the ruling council, named Samuel Span as the new depositario general. After he did the necessary inventory, he discovered that little of the money that was taken in by Burnley and Smith could be accounted for. At the end of the year he informed the governor that he could get no account of "judicial deposits" from Smith and therefore "humbly prays Your Excellency's interference to prevent any such departure of His Honor George Smith from this island, or of his deputed Receivers, W. H. Burnley or J. B. Littlepage, Esqrs., or any other receivers of deposits whom His Honor George Smith may have appointed." 6 The governor immediately convened the Cabildo to deal with the matter. They agreed that if Smith wished to leave the country, the governor should ask him to give a proper record of the monies he or any other parties had received in pursuance of his duty. Smith responded promptly with all the necessary courtesies: "I beg to state to Your Excellency that at this moment there is not, I believe, a deposit of any kind in the hands of any one under my authority." 7

Burnley used the monies he acquired to build up his business and to invest in real estate. At the end of his stint as depositario general he had acquired so much of the country's land that anyone who wanted to do business in the island had to deal with him. In the 1820s when the planters panicked at the possibility of the slaves being freed, they sold their estates under value. Burnley bought up many of those estates and became an even wealthier man. When the enslaved Africans were emancipated in 1834, Burnley received L48,283, 18s, 5d, which was most of the compensation that was paid to the Trinidad slave owners. Between 1835 and 1840, his profits from Orange Grove Estates alone totaled L28,275, which meant that he profited whether slavery existed or not. 8 He used his wealth to develop his international contacts and to consolidate his power. At his death he was the richest man in the island and its most prominent political figure.

Given his wealth, Burnley had to get into the political milieu to preserve his fortune. V. I. Lenin, in his polemic with Trotsky and Buhkarin on the correct role of trade unions intoned: "Politics is a concentrated expression of economics . . . . Politics must take precedence over economics." 9 Burnley was not a Marxist, but he knew where real power lay. When Sir Ralph Woodford, one of the more progressive governors of the island arrived in 1813, he named Burnley to His Majesty's Council of Trinidad; the Legislative Council served mostly in an advisory capacity.

One of Woodford's first tasks was to secure sufficient laborers for the island, Trinidad being notorious for not having sufficient laborers to till its soils. One year after he arrived, he asked each member of his Council to come up with suggestions to entice free laborers to settle in the country. Mr. Bigge, the chief judge of the island, favored the importation of European settlers. Lawrence Nihell, a member of His Majesty's Council, suggested that Africans be brought to the island as indentures for a period of ten years. Burnley rejected this idea. He felt that "although robust and hardy, they were so grossly ignorant that they required to be taught everything they were to do." He suggested that settlements of Asians, "a docile and intelligent class of laborers, already accustomed to agriculture, to whom the climate would present no drawbacks and whose very prejudices of caste would keep them from combining with the slaves, who, so long as slavery should exist, would be always more or less disposed to revolt. . . . Asiatic immigration would not only suffice to bring the whole island into cultivation but would eventually 'banish the baneful system of slavery.'" 10 From this early point of Trinidad's history the terms of engagement between the Indians and the Africans were established. The enslaved Africans, he thought, were nothing but "ignorant negroes" as he described them in another context.

As behooved his prominence, Burnley did not get on well with Woodford or any of the other governors of the island. As far as he was concerned they were merely "birds of passage." He remained the one constant presence in the island. As fate would have it, Burnley's power and prestige in the island increased when, in 1815, his sister Maria married Joseph Hume, a member of the House of Commons, self-appointed guardian of the public purse, and a friend of the English working people. However, he easily reversed his position when it came to supporting his brother-in-law's economic interest against his slaves. Hume was a friend of James Mill with whom he attended Montrose Academy, considered the best school in his region; he also developed a strong personal friendship with David Ricardo, the famous English economist. Hume would be of immense assistance to Burnley as he pursued his economic interest and engaged in quarrels with the Colonial Office.

Around 1820, in keeping with his new status, Burnley built a palatial mansion at Orange Grove, equal in status to the governor's residence. It was said to have contained one hundred and one windows, one more than the governor's residence in St. Anns. This was the building that I so admired as a young boy, the place where Burnley and his fellow planters gathered to strategize against any attempt to improve the condition of enslaved Africans.

In May 1823 when Thomas Fowell Buxton brought his first motion against slavery, he suggested certain reforms to ameliorate the conditions of the enslaved. Among other things, these reforms called for the abolition of female punishment; the reservation of certain days for the Negroes to labor on their own provision grounds; the discontinuance of working on Sundays; the abolition of the Sunday market; the abolition of urging the field slaves to their labor by the whip; and the introduction of religious instructions for the enslaved.

On June 26, 1823, when Woodford sent out the contents of this order to the members of Council (it came up for discussion in the Council on July 9th) Burnley and his fellow planters were decidedly against these measures. They met at Burnley's mansion at Orange Grove to formulate their plan of attack. They believed that the supporters of amelioration in the House of Commons were totally misguided and that enslaved Africans had not arrived at a state of civilization where they could appreciate the blessings of freedom.

At another level, Burnley and his fellow planters could not contemplate that Negroes could be brought to a higher state of civilization without the generous use of the whip. "Negroes," he argued, "are children of a larger growth, and the fear of punishment has now the effect, which under the regulation proposed, will require the application of it." 11 It was believed that they were ignorant and stupid. To refrain from whipping them was tantamount to allowing them to retain their savage ways. He insisted that the planters needed to exercise their "Domestic Jurisdiction by which a master is authorized to punish his Slave without the intervention of a Magistrate. This power is essential to the system. If taken away totally, or even partially repealed by the enactment of regulations prohibiting all corporal punishment, from that moment the fabric of Slavery is virtually destroyed, and the Negro, though not free will cease to be of any value to his master." 12

The most reprehensible part of the regulations was the suggestion that they cease to whip the female slaves. Such a regulation, Burnley argued, was "so monstrous and extraordinary, that I hardly know how to approach the subject. . . . The intention of such an order, we are told, is to elevate the females in the scale of society, whilst the men are left as they were before, establishing, in fact, a decided superiority in favor of the former." One wonders if this was a case of male social bonding or misogyny, particularly against those who were black.

It is no wonder then that in 1832 when it looked as though the British Parliament was contemplating the immediate abolition of slavery that Burnley and his fellow planters went into a tizzy. The principal source of their fear was an Order in Council of November 1831 (proclaimed in January 1832) which the planters felt had the potential to ruin their operations. To make matters worse, the Negroes refused to work; set fires to the plantations; and demonstrated total indifference to the destruction that was taking place around them. These actions led the Port of Spain Gazette to observe: "We learn, with much uneasiness and regret that the slaves on the Concord estate evinced by their conduct during the conflagration, a total want of any desire to save the property of their respectable human owner." 13 Malcolm X would have called them the "field negroes" who were determined to obtain their freedom by any means necessary.

Even as the enslaved were making their wishes known—the Mighty Shadow, a Trinidadian calypsonian, would have said, "Dey feeling the feeling, baby,"—the white inhabitants were intent on asserting their inviolable rights to their property (the enslaved) and resisting efforts of the Colonial Office to ameliorate the conditions of the enslaved. With this in mind, the white inhabitants met on Monday June 25, 1832, to select a deputy to represent their cause in England. They agreed that Burnley was "the fit person to represent the Inhabitants of Trinidad in England, and to act as their Deputy. Owing to talent, high character, and great practical experience of this gentleman, we may look forward to the best results to our just cause from his gratuitous executions in our favor." 14 For the next five years (between 1832 and 1837),Burnley spent most of his time in Europe representing the cause of his fellow planters and looking out for his own best interest.

While he was in London, Burnley met with several members of the Colonial Office. He did his best to thwart the drive toward emancipation but was unsuccessful. On October 18, he met with Lord Goderich to discuss an Order in Council that might have given the enslaved greater freedoms. He said that this order "might pave the way for more general substituting of hire service for free labor and a slave who during part of the year had been accustomed to work two or three hours daily for wages, would be rapidly preparing for the transition into the condition of a free laborer." 15

Even as he met with officials from the Colonial Office, signals were being sent that the emancipation day was close at hand. Seeing the ferocity of the enslaved in Jamaica under the leadership of Samuel Sharp, in the summer of 1832, Lord Howick, the parliamentary undersecretary of the Colonial Office, wrote to the Jamaican governor to say: "The present state of things cannot go on much longer . . . every hour that it does so, is full of the most appalling danger. . . . Emancipation alone will effectually avert the danger." 16 This was true for Trinidad as well. Trinidadians also believed that the king had sent their "freepaper" in the form of an Order in Council of 2nd November 1831. No man or woman had a right to withhold freedom from them. To paraphrase Jean-Paul Sartre from another but related context, emancipation had begun; all that the hired soldiers could do was delay its completion. 17

Once the Emancipation Bill passed, Burnley changed his focus to deal with issues of compensation and apprenticeship, the new form of labor. Having spent much time in London, Burnley was better positioned to present his views to the colonial authorities. He was most intent on trying to shape the terms of apprenticeship and how the slave owners were to be compensated. Nicholas Drapper has observed that once the Slave Compensation Commission was established, the feeding frenzy began, and claimants who were close enough to the metropolitan centers had the best chance of shaping the new system and getting the most out of the system. This is one reason why Burnley remained in London for almost four years after the Emancipation Bill was passed.

Burnley, it seems, was most worried by the idea of a free labor class that would evolve as a result of emancipation. On January 24 he wrote a sixteen-page letter to Secretary Stanley in which the words "deepest anxiety," "fear," "dismay, "impending ruin," "injurious results," "valueless" and other such emotive terms inundated the first three pages of his text. It was almost as though, in their "microscopic, quantum way," 18 these emanations of consciousness revealed an unknowing and unknowable future-what perhaps Albert Camus would call "the Absurd"-where everything was about to be thrown into inevitable chaos. Burnley was not sure how things were going to turn out or how the evolving situation would affect the wealth he had gathered over the thirty years he had spent in Trinidad but he was concerned. This was a significant existentialist crisis for him.

Apart from (or perhaps, together with) this intense anxiety, Burnley was riddled with four major concerns: a) the fear of a limited African work force; b) a large, fertile land which, as he said, "possessed the richest soil on the most favored part of the globe," and which he feared the apprentices would use to undercut his dominance and control; c) an increase in the cost of production that was likely to render his machinery "inactive and valueless," and d) the ability of the workers to command whatever price they wanted for their labor thus raising the labor cost; a situation that would be disastrous for him and other planters; or, as he wrote "would bring them to ruin."

Burnley's fear of being ruined also revealed a deep-seated racism. He called for the introduction of white immigrants, not to work in the factories, but to superintend the manufactory occupations for which they were "considerably qualified." He notes: "In every industrious department where skilled manipulation is more required than hard labor, their superiority over the African race would be manifest." 19 He agreed with "the experts" who argued that there are "some generic [in today's language he would have said "genetic'] differences in the African race, rendering them more prone to idleness and vagrancy than Europeans; which not a few [persons] have boldly asserted." 20 Burnley was not unique in his opinion. Europeans such as William Cobbett believed that Africans were "dull, easily excitable and disposed to laziness." 21 One hundred and thirty years later Jean-Paul Sartre, in his preface to Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, proclaimed that "for with us [Europeans] there is nothing more consistent than a racist humanism since the European has only been able to become a man only through creating slaves and monsters." 22

Having been away for a long time-that is, since 1832-Burnley returned to the island in June 1834 in time to see the response of the newly manumitted slaves to their formal freedom. Two letters he wrote to Nassau W. Senior, a famous Oxford scholar who worked on the Poor Laws, reflected just how he saw the Negroes. On August 9 he wrote the following letter to Senior:

I have sent you one of our newspapers (the only one published since the 1st August) to show you the particulars of the strike. The Negroes will not comprehend the system of apprenticeship, which when fairly explained present generally no great advantage to them. These principally benefited on the few that had hard and tyrannical masters, but throughout the island their treatment was humane and their work moderate. As such they do not hesitate to abuse the king for making any law at present on the subject. "If no free for six years, better let we tand as before till that time come." They show themselves excellent lawyers-all who have come before me plead as a defense for deserting their estates, that the managers called them together some time and read them a paper saying "All we free on the 1st of August" but when questioned as to the restrictions and reservations explained at the same time, and they will give no answer. 23

On September 3 Burnley reported to Senior that the "grand appointment of apprenticeship," in the colony was "politically . . . perfectly successful." He meant, as he had said in communication with Hume, that apprenticeship had changed nothing. In spite of this success, he still disparaged the strike action of the apprentices. He notes:

The bribe of 20 million has effectively neutralized the opposition of the upper classes and the Negroes are too ignorant to understand the real position in which they are placed. They made a strike to obtain what they considered to be freedom, but being promptly met by force, they have relapsed into their former obedience and terror of their masters; and incapable of nice distinctions are satisfied now that slavery exists for them until 1840, whatever may be the term given to their existing condition. It is the impetus of past slavery [a term that he used previously] therefore which now carries apprenticeship onward in this colony at a smooth and steady pace. But as intelligence spreads, will the impetus slacken, and the system in my opinion work less efficiently every day?

Burley believed apprenticeship was a failure; just another form of slavery in a different guise, as he had written to Hume. Its demise, he said, would be "slow and gradual" although its promoters would proclaim its success to the world. "The further experiment in Antigua," he says, "will soon show us what is to be expected from African free labor under the most favorable circumstances of density of population." He says that if the Antiguan results were favorable, "then it would be of concern in this colony, where without a considerable influx of population we shall find but few hands to cultivate our estates after 1840. And whether we can even cultivate them up to that period will altogether depend upon the fiscal measures pushed in Great Britain with respect to foreign sugars."

Burnley would devote the next sixteen years of his life looking for foreign laborers to undercut the gains made by Africans in the island and to insure that his profits kept on flowing. But as for the progress of the island in the proximate future-that is, until 1840 when apprenticeship was suppose to end officially--he would have to depend on the ignorant Negroes and tyrannical masters to see the island through. He never believed that the ignorant Negroes could amount to anything unless they were guided by their tyrannical masters.


  1. A lecture delivered on Wednesday, February 20, 2013, at the Institute of the Americas, University College of London, where Professor Cudjoe is a professorial fellow for Spring 2013.
  2. Selwyn R. Cudjoe is the Margaret E. Deffenburgh and LeRoy T. Carlson Professor in Comparative Literature and Professor Africana Studies at Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts.
  3. CO 295/109, 1835.
  4. Lewis Grant to Viscount Goderich, CO 295/93, 1832.
  5. Lionel Mordaunt Fraser, History of Trinidad, Vol. 1 (Port of Spain: Government Printing Office, 1891, 347.
  6. Ibid., 349.
  7. Ibid., 350.
  8. See Selwyn R. Cudjoe, "Slavery, Colonialism, Independence, 'Same Khaki Pants," The Exploitation of the Working People Continues,'" In Selwyn R. Cudjoe, Movement of the People (Ithaca: Calaloux Publications, 1983), for a discussion of this point.
  9. V. I. Lenin, "Once Again on the Trade Unions: The Current Situation and Mistakes of Trotsky and Buhkarin," in Lenin Collected Works, 1st English Edition (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1965), Vol. 32.
  10. Fraser, History of Trinidad, Vol. 2, 16.
  11. William H. Burnley, Opinions on Slavery & Emancipation in 1828 (London: James Ridgway, Piccadilly, 1833), 38.
  12. Letter to His Excellency Sir Ralph Woodford, Tacarigua, August 1823.
  13. Gazette Extraordinary, March 25, 1832.
  14. Port of Spain Gazette, June 27, 1832.
  15. CO 295/96, 1832.
  16. Quoted in Adam Hochschild, Bury the Chains (London: Pan Books, 2006), 344.
  17. See Jean-Paul Sartre, "Preface," Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (London: Penguin, 1967), 23.
  18. This language is taken from Andy Martin, The Boxer and the Goalkeeper (London: Simon & Schuster, 2012), 42.
  19. CO 295/105, 1834.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Richard S. Reddie, Abolition (Oxford: Lion, 2007), 207.
  22. Sartre, "Preface," Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 22.
  23. Special Archives, University of Bristol.

Professor Cudjoe is a professor Africana Studies at Wellesley College.

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