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Whose History Anyhow?

By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
December 11, 2018

On Thursday and Friday of this week I will launch my new book, The Slave Master of Trinidad, at the Central Bank of Trinidad and Tobago and the University of The University of the West Indies respectively. The first is private affair, under the auspices of the Hon. Keith Rowley, Prime Minister; the later is a public affair, "featuring a review (of the book) by Sir Hilary Beckles, the Vice Chancellor of the University of the West Indies." No one could think of a more auspicious way to introduce this book to the reading public of Trinidad and Tobago.

The book tells the story of William Hardin Burnley, Trinidad's largest slave owner and the biggest resident slave owner in the Anglophone Caribbean during the first part of the nineteenth century. Born in the United States to English parents in 1780, Burnley was taken to London in 1786, where he was educated at Harrow School for Boys, an exclusive public school.

In 1798 left London and came to Trinidad to explore his life chances. In 1802, he settled in the island where he spent the rest of his life. He died in Port of Spain in 1850. Burnley's story is essentially a Trinidad story that belongs to all of us. It is an indispensable part of who we are.

We are the products of our past. Bridget Brereton says the history of modern Trinidad began in 1783. Burnley arrived on our shores fifteen years later. From 1802 to 1850, he was instrumental in shaping the political and social counters of this island. In fact, such was his influence that Donald Wood, an English historian, called him "a founding father of British Trinidad."

Burnley had the good fortune to know and work with the first twelve British governors personally, beginning with Thomas Picton, the first governor, to Lord Harris, the twelfth governor of the island. He was the mainstay of the island in those early days.

Trinidad has been the home of varied peoples and races. Trinidadians come from all over the globe. Some came earlier, others arrived later. However, they all annealed into one people and one country, a process that continues as I write. The present influx of people from Venezuela is a process that gained momentum at the end of the eighteenth century.

No Trinidadian can pick and choose what part of our history he or she will honor. We cannot say that the history of slavery belongs to Africans or that the history of indenture belongs to Indians. These are aspects of one continuous historical movement that belong to all of us.

Some historians, philosophers, and linguists talk about a diachronic as opposed to synchronic moments in a people's history. These first moment refers to the on-going events that occur in a nation from the time of its recognizable beginnings; the latter to discrete events that are deposited momentarily in the evolutionary flow of a nation's history.

That is to say, that while the history of a society flows on like a river; at different moments, each group pours into that river its own experience to enrichen that mix called nation-building. At the end there is a continuous mixing and changing and hopefully a richer society.

Even if a particular group arrives at the end of that process of nation-building, he s/he is part of that phenomenon called Trinidadian and Tobagonian which suggest that one (or one's offspring) is made by all the historical events that preceded him or her. This means that one cannot be a Trinbagonian unless one knows and imbibes the totality of one's heritage.

Burnley was a racist. He believed in the inferiority of the black man. He opposed the abolition of slavery and even fought to prevent enslaved Africans from becoming free. As early as 1817, he recommended bringing East Indians to work on the sugar plantations. When slavery ended, he traveled to the U.S. to recruit freed African-Americans to work on our plantations. He also advocated recruiting Sierra Leoneans to replace Africans on the plantations.

By the beginnings of the 1840s, freed Africans began to agitate for their freedom. They began to challenge Burnley's racist doctrines and demanded the right to represent themselves and their interest.

In 1848, black and colored (the colored described themselves as "People of African descent") established their own newspaper, The Trinidadian, and became advocates in their own cause. George Des Sources was foremost in this cause.

The philosophies of French and American thinkers aided them in shaping their views about freedom. In this context, the views of Frederick Douglass and some of the French Enlightenment thinkers were instrumental in buttressing their claims to freedom. The Trinidadian even serialized Douglass's Narrative in its newspaper.

I try to recapture the laborers' rebellion of 1849 that was led by women who dared their men folk to rise up for their own freedom. That story has never been fully told. We should know about the valiance of these women.

Burnley's story and our people's response to his cruelty belong to all of us. We are diminished as a people if we do not know and understand the people and circumstances that made us who we are.

Burnley's story is our story. We should claim it as a part of our own history.

Professor Cudjoe's email address is He can be reached @ProfessorCudjoe.

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The Slave Master of Trinidad by Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
The Slave Master of Trinidad by Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe