Our Living Past

By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
March 28, 2019

Dr. Selwyn R. CudjoeTony Barber, Oxford scholar and European editor of the Financial Times, recalls an interesting occurrence when the European Union sought to write a European history book. “One historian from each EU member state was commissioned to write a chapter. The project was abandoned after the British complained that a Spanish historian had dismissed Sir Francis Drake, the Elizabethan maritime hero and victor over the Spanish Armada in 1588, as a mere ‘pirate'” (Financial Times, March 16).

English people revere Drake who began his career as a slave trader. Non-English people associate him, together with his cousin John Hawkins, with initiating a process that brought millions of Africans to the New World. We also remember that Queen Elizabeth I invested financially in Drake’s piracy adventures and made money from it.

Last week at the Weston Library of Oxford University, I discovered an interesting report by T. Barbados, Anglican bishop of the Diocese of Barbados, about his trip to Trinidad, a part of his diocese. An excerpt of the report, written on June 1, 1844, read:

“I arrived [in Trinidad] on May 4, just in time to take part in the services of Sunday 5, including Holy Communion, at the well-known church of Holy Trinity of Port of Spain-a building much and justly admired….

“On Saturday 10 I went out accompanied by the Rural Dean (Mr. Chamberlain) in the windward direction, with the view of spending Sunday at St. Mary’s, one of the churches I had consecrated last year [1843].

“During the day I examined with some satisfaction the schools at Tacarigua and Arouca, under Messrs. Benning and Osborne, the clerk and the sexton of St. Mary’s Church and should have proceeded on to Arouca but for the swollen state of the Arouca river.

“I was disappointed in the congregation at St. Mary’s which, though respectable in number, I should have expected from what I knew of the neighborhood, to find it much larger….

“The clergyman at present at St. Mary’s [Rev. John Hamilton] lives at the school house but a parsonage is about to be erected at the expense of the colony, near the Church.

“I was very kindly received at the house of the Honorable W. H. Burnley, and found in his family an excellent feeling towards the Church which has manifested itself in various ways, more particularly in a donation from Mr. [W. H.] Burnley himself of £75 to provide vessels for communion, and another from his niece (Mrs. Farquhar) of ten guineas for altar tablets, not to mention the personal exertions of other members of the family, especially Mr. Hume, son of Joseph Hume, Esq., M.P., in assisting the clergyman in placing his church and everything about it in a becoming state.”

My family has always worshiped at St. Mary’s.

On Wednesday, I gave a lecture at the University of Glasgow (UG) on Burnley’s activities in the Black Atlantic. I spoke in the university’s beautifully austere Memorial Chapel, famous for its “jewel-like interior decoration” that is located within the main Gilmorehill building where the university holds its grand academic affairs.

Little did I know that Burnley’s funds assisted in the erection of this building. In 1870, Burnley’s son, William Frederick, who married a Scottish woman, Rosina Eccles, and settled in Glasgow, contributed £1,100 (which is worth about £1.75 million in today’s currency) to the construction of the Gilmorehill building. This is one example in which monies generated by our people enhanced the wellbeing of others.

Three years ago, the Scottish people voted overwhelmingly to remain within the EU although a majority of UK citizens voted, by a slight margin, to leave the union. The evening I spoke, British PM Theresa May requested another three months to leave the Union. The EU granted her until April 12 to make up her mind.

John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons, drawing on British parliamentary precedent of over 400 years ruled that Mrs. May could not present a similar motion (to withdraw from the EU) to the House for a third time. Such a ruling threw a spoke in Mrs. May’s parliamentary maneuvering that forced her to look for another strategy to carry forward her proposal.

A few people were angry at Bercow’s activist posture. Gregory Shenkman, reminding Bercow of his obligation to be neutral, drew on the wisdom of William Lenthall, a former Speaker of the House, who, in 1642, assured Charles I: “I have neither eyes to see, nor tongue to speak, in this place, but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here” (FT, March 20).

Historical events should not always act as an albatross around the necks of the present generation. However, they were all around me this week. William Faulkner, the American novelist, proclaimed in Requiem for a Nun: “The past is never dead. It is not even past.” This week the past felt so palpably present.

After my lecture, Dr. Julia McClure, UG’s Global historian of the Spanish Empire, tweeted: “Privileged to hear Professor Cudjoe exposing Glasgow’s role in the slave trade and showing ways of approaching the history of slavery and challenging epistemic privilege.”

I am not sure I did all of that but it felt good to reflect on our mutual past in that French Gothic building with its beautiful open spire. Sometimes a careful perusal of our past help us to understand and savor our present.

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