William Hardin Burnley and the Glorious Revolution

By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
August 24, 2009


EmancipationIn 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.


4 thoughts on “William Hardin Burnley and the Glorious Revolution”

  1. On December 10, 1948 the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.Following this historic act the Assembly called upon all Member countries to publicize the text of the Declaration and “to cause it to be disseminated, displayed, read and expounded principally in schools and other educational institutions, without distinction based on the political status of countries or territories.”
    One of the more prominent articles ,that unfortunately is being daily neglected today by many like T&T for example ,that are still proports to be democratic is

    Article 19.It states as follows :-
    “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

  2. Ok, now that Dr. Ryan has been found guilty of glorifing T&T’s own Willie Lynch…One has to ask, what are his motives? Dr. Ryan should know better.
    Burnley protested the mericans entry into Trinidad… How can he now say that Burnley proposed importing blacks from the US.
    Maybe age has caught up with Dr. Ryan.. As ole time people used to say, “he doting?”.

  3. Excellent and informative historical analysis Dr. Cudjo. It is surely the necessary type of piece we need at this juncture , and beats the usual diatribes that we are daily subjected to by the usual suspects of the greedy , selfish ‘gimmie, gimmie gangs,’ that would scream like lascivious cats into the night while stuffing the pockets of families with national fortunes ,or solidifying and elevating themselves into position of power- if you catch my drift.
    As I said not so subtly on another piece recently, I’ll throw up if I have to read about how great our Yardee Jamaicans are again due to the fact that a few motivated athletes were successful in escaping the ever expanding ghetto of that ghastly country. Good for them ,but enough already of the folks with the biggest egos and inferiority complex in the world -outside of the French that is. Who regionally broke up the Federation and why? Who in Europe once tried to keep the Brits out of the EU, and today pretends to hate Mc Donald and Disney, and why? Wasn’t it Peter Tosh , the stupid ,weed smoking fool that described our pan as old noise , while he still came here and performed before a sell out crowd? Today with the help of Byron Lee – the cultural thief – Yardee girls might be able to gyrate like a real Trini in 2050 , and might boast that hey too invented whining , steel ban , and Soca. Well , I might be mistaken , but “me thinks,” I am on solid grounds when I say that , our ‘Afrocentric’ local athletes can be as selfish , and confuse ,as most of their global partners across the African Diaspora . Speaking of that , where is cousin Brian Lara the Prince these days when he is not too busy partying with another European flower , and our cricketing fortunes continue to falters? How about our Yankeee gerrycurl friend Ato B , when he can spare the time to stop kissing the butts of a Yardee, or Yankee sprinter on international TV? Isn’t Dwight York a bit long in the tooth for still trying to be a starter in competitive European leagues? Then why is he not trying to give back something meaningful to young nationals soccer aspirants ,as opposed to attempting to outshine Sir V.S. Naipaul in efforts to prove who is more British , with a more authentic Queens English? My only wish for my beloved country and it’s 1.3 million glorious people is to see if we too can develop the ability to capitalize on successes wherever we see it , as the benefits might be tremendous.
    This leads me to my major point. When I saw this commentary of yours today , and reflected on yesterday’s strong critical response by the good Dr. Ryan to your ‘African deficient doctor void’ in our country , I mumbled to my self – “Lord , not again.! What are we in for now ? Please not another Afro Trini intellectual genocidal beat down by these two respected educational luminaries.” I said , “wait a minute , Trini Arabs , Persian, and Jews can co exist in my country, make millions and laugh while pretending to still care about the political nonsense in the Middle East, and our guys are going for each other’s jugglers?” Many may not realize but, more Hindus and Muslims have been murdered in South Asia since Queen Elizabeth was a toddler in the House of Winsor , but you won’t know it in Sweet T&T aka Rainbow country where they are working peacefully together to control the entire country since Africans were kicked off the lands – as you‘ve so eloquently mentioned. El Secorro Kamal Mohammed with his Mastana Bahar camp , co existed quite well with Errol Mahabir and his Japanese Garden and oil fiefdom from the South under the guidance of the ‘Father of the Nation,’ our self opinionated Doc W , and no one was the wiser – especially as their interest thrived within the Agricultural Development Bank , vital Farming , important Health , and lucrative Oil sectors.
    What do we have in contrast , I thought -historical peon as I am- unlike some of our occasional amnesiac blogging experts? Dr Williams nearly destroyed the Tobago upstart ANR for daring to challenge him and -according to legends sat on his chair ,when he thought the Doc was absence . Thanks to Uncle Badeo , Robbie was saved from political obscurity , and the PNM ‘goat mouth brigade,’ led by a certain astute former UWI geologist. Robbie did fine mind you , but the majority African people of Tobago ? Not so lucky , as you historians seems to forget conveniently- one day to your peril. Manning would not hesitate to let loose every deadly snake from the Cumuto forest on the Mason Hall kid Dr. Rowley ,for thinking much less trying to oust him as political leader , when in his own view obviously, Hazel his wife is seen as a more worthy successor. Once more, Tobago suffers , as Chaguanas , Fyzabad, Arima ,and Sando , do fine.
    Now what lesson we can extract from the neighboring running geniuses? Powell was once the Yardee running giant , and although a new Sherriff is in town in Usain, ‘it’s still all good,’ for these guys and Jamaica. Like you ,I respect Dr. Ryan myself , but as the new buck on the scene you would understand what that can mean in terms of ‘man rat shenanigans,’ and missing the big picture etc. Let’s stay focus my friends . Yes Europeans have done an excellent job in keeping us divided from the lowest echelon inner city gang bangers , to high end political and economic rivals. However , the few of us that have invested time , money, and energies in the acquisition of lofty education should rise about the fray and stay fixated on the grand prize- the true emancipation of our perennially neglected and confused people ,building a cohesive national identity like Yardeees, Bajans , and racially divided Yankees. I would enjoy seeing the elevation of our present underachieving nation , so as to ensure that it lives up to the full tenets of our beautiful anthem – “where each and every race ,find an equal place,” in concrete and sustainable social , economic and political development.
    Keep them honest.
    Warm Regards.

  4. I dont get – you are blaming imdian immigrants for failure of the black paradise. and Why then are you teaching in the white mans country and taking his money..er when last I checked its not a black college…

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