By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
July 16, 2019
On Monday I presented a paper, “Writing the Slave Master of Trinidad,” at an important conference “Slavery and Its Afterlives: Blackness, Representation, Social Justice, Vision,” at the National Maritime Museum in London. The conference aimed “to extend our understanding of diaspora, to connect diaspora and, in the process, to forge new critical directions.”
It also examined the entanglement of UK’s prestigious institutions with “the profits of racial slavery, to question practices that served to inhibit such necessary intellectual labor” and to determine how these institutions can “use their knowledge of the past in a program of restorative justice.” It also sought to connect “related theorizing and practice,” that is taking place in the Caribbean, North America, Africa and Europe.
Professor Joan Anim-Addo, chairman of the Centre for Caribbean and Diasporic Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London, set the tone for our discussion. She announced that the conference was organized by descendants of enslaved people in the UK, particularly those whose institutions such as hers that are located on the periphery of power in the academy.
Ironically, the conference was held at the Maritime Museum, a space that celebrates Britain’s maritime achievements, including the exploitation of Caribbean people and the maintenance of Britain’s glory. Opened by King George in 1937, the Museum’s name was suggested by Rudyard Kipling, whose poem, “The White Man’s Burden” became a euphemism for imperialism.
True to its genealogy, the Museum displays the uniform that Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson wore when he was fatally wounded at Trafalgar. This is one of the Museum’s “most famous objects.”
Reflecting on my primary school education, I realized that we learned more about Lord Admiral Nelson and Sir John Moore and their exploits—their stories were in our West Indian Readers—than we learned about West Indian heroes. The persistent silence/omission of our national heroes in our schools’ curriculum still remains a challenge for our educators.
Nicholas Draper, the director of the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slave-Ownership at the University College of London, delivered the keynote address, “Legacies of British Slave Ownership.” He used Eric Williams’s Capitalism and Slavery as the point of departure for his speech, claiming that Dr. Williams had gone over a lot of this territory before the scholars at UCL did.
Draper noted that the history of modern Britain will have to be rewritten to place slavery at the center of that experience. “Slavery,” he said,” was central to Britain’s modernity.” He hoped the work his centre is doing will “make it impossible to write the history of Britain without an acknowledgement of the history of slavery.”
I had profited much from Draper’s work as a professorial fellow at the Institute of the Americas (Spring 2013) and the years thereafter. We remain friends. I knew his arguments. Capitalism and Slavery was mostly about the exploitation of slave labor to build British capitalism. C. L. R. James, in The Black Jacobins, did a similar thing for French capitalism. The Slave Master of Trinidad is merely an extension of those works.
The conference organizers wanted me to explain how I wrote my book and how painful it was psychologically to recount those experiences.
I started my book with two essential documents: Sir Norman Lamont’s Burnley of Orange Grove, a 17-page lecture he delivered at the Trinidad Historical Society in 1947, and “My Grandfather’s Notebook” an Exercise Book of 1917 in which he kept a record of his family’s births and deaths, his sister leaving for the United States at an early age, how many pigs were in his litters, and other such information. Thereafter, I scoured many local and international libraries and archives to gather information on Burnley.
Binyavanga Wainaina’s One Day I Will Write About My People gave me a window into defining my method. He wrote: “In a way writing keeps me close to people. I feel comfortable taking huge leaps of perception, and knowing that I can come back to what I have written, and build it into a defendable shape.”
Writing keeps me close to my people. It’s enormously cleansing and uplifting. It has everything to do with my participating in the making of my people.
I considered writing about Burnley an “unbearable privilege,” but I experienced no psychological pain occurred doing so. It allowed me to examine a horrible aspect of my people’s past and transform it into a vehicle of personal liberation.
Brent Leggs, executive director of the African-American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, noted: “Most of the narrative about the black experience is about a painful past, but we have an opportunity today to uncover the hidden stories of activism and resistance and black agency rooted in slavery” (New York Times, July 11). I can totally relate to this position.
Two months after my book was published, Stephen Greenblatt, a distinguished professor at Harvard University, sent me the following note: “I have just finished reading your remarkable book. There is something extraordinary about the way in which you give this enormously wealthy monster—for such he was, in many ways—his due as a leader who commanded respect. You have greatly enriched my understanding of the Caribbean world.”
In writing my book I wanted to keep an emotional distance from the subject of my study even as I informed the world, in a scholarly manner, about the depravities which slavery produce.
I also wanted my readers to know the conditions under which my forebears labored and the impact that period had upon the making of this scholar in the African diaspora.