Whose History Anyhow?

By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
December 11, 2018

Dr. Selwyn R. CudjoeOn 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 a 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 he 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.

3 Responses to “Whose History Anyhow?”


  • No Dr Cujoe, are you trying to Humanize the greatest injustice to a people the last 500yrs? are you serious ? what would Eric Williams say about the topic you are perpetrating ? Dr Cujoe , this is not my History , it may be yours , your years of University work , instead of being an intellectual radical , you have allied with the ARCHONS, while wanting to play both sides of the fence . Like Dr Beckles, you Dr Cujoe should have been on the frontline seeking justice for the wrongs of the past . Had it been a writer from the French Creoles serenading while publishing this part of their history , i’m sure the Professor would have been the first to call him/she out . I sense honorary white status , its the same with the black collaborators in every place and space , they always tend to write about their masters past.No wonder my people is in disarray .

  • Congratulations in advance Professor Cudjoe I am sure it will be an interesting read. It is good to see other writers emerging, I think of the late Angelo Bissessarsingh and the books he has written.

    It is snapshot into the past the colonial past and all that relates to it. As we move into the future much of our past is disappearing simply because we live in a totally diffrent world. A nation cannot be so absorbed in the present that the past become irrelevant! Yet it can be so.

    Trinidad has produced some great writers, I remember as a boy the great impression “Miguel St” had on me. The year in San Fernando Stimulated my young mind. Hopefully others will be inspired to write and capture the historical time clock.

    On a personal note I think it would be nice for UWI to undertake a project to ditigitilize the indentureship records and place it on the internet for anyone to access. Paper can go easily over time…. Historical documents are an important part of our glimpse into the past!

  • The purpose of history is to provide enlightenment for those living in the present. It is a disservice to better understanding when the accounts of history is doctored just to appease or to inject a false doctrine, using “historical” data as a backdrop. I sense that the doctor is implying that his approach to the Burnley period of hatred towards black people, is being handled objectively and not emotionally. Academics sometimes, for the sake of objectivity, dismiss the emotional effect of cruelty. While Burnley’s actions punished our forefathers of that era, the effects of his cruelty still remain in our (African descendants) psyche today. It is not by chance that our African peoples of this island are still unable to be an integral part of the trading, manufacturing and financial sectors in this country.

    Because of our color, we have been stigmatized in all sorts of negative ways that are mostly mythical and misconstrued in reality. When Jack Johnson appeared on the boxing scene, he was too black, too dumb and not strong enough to beat his white rival. When Jesse Owens entered the 1936 olympics in Germany, the myth that he could not beat the fastest white athletes was also diminished. Inventions like the traffic light, blood transfusions, the cell phone and even the GPS system have were made possible by the intellect of Africans. Yet, today we are being challenged in Europe and America especially as being lazy and unintellectual.

    While we in Trinidad have been fortunate to have had the existence of people like Dr. Eric Williams, C.L.R James, Learie Constantine, Stokely Carmichael, Uriah Butler and a host of Africans who were instrumental in making this society what it is today, we are now at a cross road in trying to path our way towards a brighter future. Who, amongst our African population will follow Dr. Rowley? From my viewpoint there is none, unless one of our young African leaders emerge (from nowhere) to enter the political or intellectual scene. Young Africans are complacent in understanding the value they should place on their existence towards the benefit of our society. There is no continuity in the leadership and furtherance of historical African cultures in this island. It is further complicated by the assault on the political war advanced towards the destruction of Dr. Rowley, because there is none on the horizon if he were to be destroyed. His political enemies are verdantly aware of this fact and as such, are hastily compliant in executing his demise.

    History, written or conceived is not kind towards African development. The African has done much for Trinidad but the enemies of African development remain skeptical that we are capable of rising towards a better world. The new African museum have now been opened in Senegal and it is with joy and hope I urge people like Dr. Cudjoe to make is a point of will to visit and make a contribution towards this development.

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