Emancipation Foibles - Part 3
By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
August 09, 2023
On Tuesday, July 18, as per usual, I was researching my present project at the National Archives when Jacqueline Charles, the permanent secretary in the Office of the Prime Minister, walked in. I presumed she was doing what every conscientious permanent secretary does: she was visiting one of the departments under her purview.
She stopped at my table and asked what topic I was researching. I told her, but went on to mention my book on William Hardin Burnley and that I had asked Kwasi Robinson, chairman of the Tunapuna/Piarco Corporation, to assist in putting a plaque under the only tree from the grounds of Burnley's mansion that still remains in the Orange Grove savannah.
Robinson, a fantastically warm brother, was excited by the project. I hoped Ms. Charles could assist him/us in this endeavor.. Surprisingly, one of her assistants called me about five minutes after our conversation and the next day (Wednesday) Sheyna Weston, one of Ms. Charles's officers, visited the savannah to see where the tree was located. We call it a "Coolie Pistash Tree" but I am sure there is a scientific name for it.
The following day (Thursday) I left the country since Gerald Horne, a professor at the University of Houston in Texas and respected public intellectual, was supposed to interview me on KPFK-FM/Los Angeles about my book. I have contacted the Office of the Prime Minister without any effect but I am sure that Ms. Charles will honor her word and assist us in getting a plaque placed under that tree. Such gestures keep our history ever green in the national mind.
I told Ms. Charles about another matter that has bothered me for the past five years since The Slave Master of Trinidad was published in 2018. My book is available at over 1,000 libraries worldwide, according to WorldCat, a global catalog of library materials, but NALIS, our national library, does not have one copy in its library.
I have encouraged Neil Pasanlal, chairman of NALIS, to remedy this oversight, without any success. It is not as though buying a few copies of the book and making them available to readers at our libraries will bring me a fortune. The point is that this kind of information is indispensable in developing a national consciousness.
Last weekend Timothy Snyder, a professor of history at Yale University and an expert on Ukraine, was interviewed by the Financial Times. He calls February 2022, the month Russia invaded Ukraine, a "second 1938 moment" referring to the Munich conference of that year when Britain and France "fatally caved in to Hitler's threats of Czechoslovakia," an act that led to the Second World War. He argues that this time around the "West's lack of historical clarity on Russia has been a deadly mistake" (FT, July 29).
He seeks to impress upon his audience "the urgency of putting more historical context in our public debate….Maybe if we all had a little more knowledge of history, we'd be better equipped to read the present." Moreover, he sees history "as having been this amazing liberatory form of education."
He says, "You can't really deal with first-rate political problems without history" which is why our politicians ceaselessly attack the personal shortcomings of one another rather than seeking to find solutions to our problems by looking at our past.
Karl Marx, one of the founders of sociology, says that history is nothing more than a struggle between the working class and the employer class or, as in our context, the struggle between the masters and the slaves. He puts it more graphically in The Communist Manifesto (1848): "The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggle. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebian, lord and serf, guild master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes."
Some people might want to know why Burnley dug a tunnel between his mansion and his manager's residence. However, it is more important to examine what happened to the thousands of people who were caught in such an inhumane situation and how their lives oscillate with our own.
History is never a static phenomenon of deeds done and undone. It is always an attempt to know why things were fought over and what we can discern from them. When an occasional gem arises to pique our interest, it should only urge us to find the deeper meaning it has for our lives.
Ecclesiastes takes a similar position in the Holy Bible when the writer reminds us: "I returned and considered all the oppressions that are done under the sun: and behold the tears of such as were oppressed, and they had no comforter; and on the side of the oppressors there was power; but they had no comforter."
Similarly, in The Holy Family, Marx and Engels remind us: "The class of the proletariat feels annihilated in estrangement; it sees in its own powerlessness and the reality of an inhuman existence." This is how our ancestors may have felt under the burden of slavery.
We may be talking about a tunnel and how a slave master who described himself as "a capitalist" treated his slaves or a people whom C. L.R. James defines as "the first proletarians in the world."
Yet the real question remains: How do we resolve this ongoing "estrangement" that the children of the enslaved still feel today in this society?
Former masters and slaves need to develop a new perspective as we tackle this existential question that still plagues our mind.
—Prof Cudjoe's e-mail address is email@example.com. He can be reached @ProfessorCudjoe.
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The Slave Master of Trinidad by Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe