By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
August 24, 2009
In an interesting article, “The ‘Glorious Revolution’ of August 1, 1838” (Express, August 2nd 2009), Selwyn Ryan presents William Hardin Burnley (1780-1850), the largest slaveholder in Trinidad and Tobago, as one of the “more forward-looking” planters in terms of human resource management strategy. He suggests that after the emancipation of the enslaved Africans Burnley felt that “the extinction of slavery has created a mighty revolution, in that, in this island, the master was now the slave and the former slave the master.” He quotes Burnley as saying that “God and nature were conspiring to render the island of Trinidad ‘a little Terrestrial Paradise for the African race.’ He insisted that he was not guilty of hyperbole when he said that the African was like the ‘Midas of Greek Mythology.'”
Ryan’s essay raises many substantive issues with which I disagree. They involve context: how does one interpret the reported speech of Burnley as against his record as the major slaveholder in the country; the sudden move from an African terrestrial society to the opposition of blacks to a plural society “from which Indians would be ‘ethnically cleansed'” and a dense conclusion that bears unpacking. Moreover, it is difficult to reconcile the picture Ryan paints of Burnley with the record of his activities and utterances especially when Burnley believed that the emancipation of enslaved Africans was a mistake.
Born in New York in 1780, Burnley was educated in England before he took up residence in Trinidad in 1802. In 1809 he teamed up with Mr. George Smith, Chief Justice of the island, and ran amok with people’s properties and their money. Appointed Acting Depositor-General by Smith, he had access to many properties from which he made his own fortune “with Smith’s knowledge, if not connivance.” When he was finished he was worth a half a million dollars. Naipaul devoted some space to Smith and Burnley’s scampishness in The Loss of El Dorado.
The abolition of the slave trade in 1807 made the acquisition of laborers a major problem in the West Indies. In 1818, Governor Woodford asked his Council of which Burnley was a member for suggestions to attract labourers to Trinidad. Burnley felt that “if Trinidad could increase its labouring population sufficiently, it could supply the rest of the West Indian islands with cattle, rice and corn….Upon serious reflection I am fully convinced that from Asia alone is to be derived the population we require.” Those words made Burnley one of the first persons to advocate the bringing of East Indians to Trinidad to deal with the labour shortage. He was no friend of the African.
Burnley opposed every significant event along the road to African emancipation. In 1823 he and his colleagues held a secret meeting at his residence in Tacarigua to protest the British government’s initiative to stop the flogging of African female slaves and to prevent the overseers from carrying whips. Between 1829 and 1832 they opposed other initiatives that were designed to prevent the emancipation of enslaved Africans. He even went to London to present the planters’ case against emancipation.
In 1841 Burnley made a final attempt to derail the benefits of emancipation when the Agricultural and Immigration Society of which he was the chairman held hearings throughout the island to find out if “the great experiment of Negro emancipation succeeded.” He contended that “although slavery has ceased, the angry feelings occasioned by the struggle to effect it, have not yet subsided.” He was looking for a way to break the monopoly that the ex-slaves had over the market by recruiting new laborers from Africa or Asia.
One needs to access Ryan’s observations about Burnley’s laudatory efforts against this background. It is true that Burnley believed that the cultivation of one sixth of Trinidad’s soil would have satisfied the sugar demands of Great Britain. However, it does not follow that Burnley and his colleagues saw Trinidad as becoming a “prosperous African colony in the West Indies and a civilized one in Africa? (sic).” How Trinidad would have become a civilized state in Africa is another matter.
Ryan opens up a more controversial front when he argues that by1846 “the ‘Glorious Revolution’ was replaced by an aggressive racist reaction.” We are not told who practiced this aggressive racism and who suffered from it. If an “era of good feelings” prevailed why did Burnley contend that the emancipation experiment occasioned “angry feelings” between the Blacks and Whites? Why, indeed, did Burnley warn that the society would “degenerate into barbarism” if those negative feelings of distrust continued among the groups. It is difficult to say wherein lay this utopian paradise that Ryan discerned.
Ryan makes another disastrous error when he contends that the arrival of immigrants from India, four years after Burnley’s hearings, “also helped to bring to an end to the dream of creating the ‘African Terrestrial Paradise’ many had envisioned.” Such a notion was farthest from Burnley’s mind. Neither could the few Indians who were here precipitate such a condition.
But even if we grant Ryan’s position, the question remains: who among the labouring class (and they were the majority of the population) articulated this view. In other words, who is this “many” of whom Ryan speaks? Both the Mandingo’ representation of themselves that they revealed in their petition to the Secretary of State in 1838 and Rev. Hamilton’s description of they and the liberated Africans in Manzanilla present a different views of the same reality. At least the Mandingo’s petition allows us to hear how Africans felt about their condition.
At the end of his essay Ryan implicates Blacks further when he argues that what emerged after 1846 “was a plural society to which most blacks were unalterably opposed.” No evidence is given but it is assumed that most blacks were (or are) unalterably opposed to the formation of a plural society. We are not told when this plural society comes into being. It just emerged and we were opposed to it. In Ryan’s way of thinking Blacks go from being mute in their own deliverance to becoming perpetrators of the heinous crime of opposing a plural society.
Ryan is one of our most astute political and social observers. However, he did an injustice to Black people when he gave Burnley the leading role in the events that surrounded the Glorious Revolution and the events that transpired thereafter. The historical record has a way of reproducing the bad and sweeping the good under the rug especially in a place call Trinidad and Tobago. It is important that the historical record be presented in an accurate manner.