By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
November 07, 2022
On June 27 I received the following e-mail from Margaret Heath, a relative of William Hardin Burnley (WHB). It read: “I thought you might be interested to know that my brother, as executor of my mother’s estate, has just informed me he has consigned a trunkful of extensive family papers that belonged to William Burnley and his son, Frederick Burnley, to Paul Laidlow, Auctioneers, Carlisle, to be included in their sale of July 1st/2nd.”
I was excited. Although Norman Lamont, the grandnephew of John Lamont, the second largest slave owner in Trinidad, had written a 20-page biography of Burnley, my book, The Slave Master of Trinidad, was the first full-length biography on WHB.
Margaret’s e-mail continued: “My mother inherited the box and contents from her mother, Daisy Burnley Campbell, who inherited it from her father, Hardin Burnley Campbell, who was Frederick’s son. As this archive has remained private until now, I believe the contents may fill in a lot of gaps in the public record concerning William Burnley’s financial and personal affairs which will likely be of particular interest to you and anyone else interested in William Burnley and the history of Trinidad.”
I thanked Margaret for sending me the information although I only had three days to bid for it. She agreed to assist me in this endeavour. Even her sister Belinda hoped I would be successful. Margaret wrote: “I talked to my sister Belinda, who agreed with me that she also had a lot of conversations with my mother about which archives would be the best place for the Burnley papers, and Belinda wanted to tell you how glad she is that you are interested and the arrangement we have made. We can only hope that no one else has spotted these papers are on sale.”
Belinda was correct. Someone else spotted the papers and outbid us on them. I thanked Margaret for her efforts and gave up all hope of ever seeing those papers again.
But faith was kind to me and my country. On July 21, I got an e-mail from Adam Langlands, a rare book and manuscript dealer, who lives in Connecticut. Adam had worked at Christie’s Auction House in London as a cataloguer before he settled in the United States. He wrote to me as follows: “Recently, I bought a collection of manuscript materials, a good portion of which relates to the life and business of William Frederick Burnley. I wondered if it was something that you and/or Wellesley might be interested in acquiring.”
Adam had guessed correctly. I was very interested in securing those papers. I never thought I would acquire the archive of one of the most important people of 19th-century Trinidad. Here was I, born in Tacarigua, living on land that Burnley once owned, seeing the glorious mansion in which he once lived, and was now on the cusp of owning the papers that revealed important insights into his life.
I thanked Adam for getting in touch with me and asked him how much it would cost to acquire the papers. We agreed on a price and on October 20, a glorious fall day, I travelled to Adam’s home in the Berkshires to pick up my material. Nature, it seems, was intent on revealing its full beauty, in a part of the country whose foliage is at its best at that time of year.
Wellesley, Massachusetts, is about 130 miles northeast of Lakeville, Connecticut, where Adam lives. After travelling about 110 miles on the Massachusetts Turnpike, I went through a series of small towns before I got to Adam’s home. However, on my way to Adam’s house I passed through Great Barrington, the village where WEB Du Bois, the great African American intellectual and civil rights activist, was born. There, on Egremont Road, I came upon Du Bois’s boyhood home, a US National Historic Site, that is maintained by the University of Massachusetts. I got out of my car and visited that site for about an hour. I had seen Du Bois’s papers at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. I took it as an important omen that I came upon that site as I was on my way to pick up the archives of one of the most obnoxious men in Trinidad’s history.
The papers themselves were a revelation. Adam did a good job at cataloguing the material in the collection. The archive, contained in one “Japanned” tin trunk (19 x 14 x 8 inches), consisted of “over 1,000 pages, manuscript, typescript, printed and manuscript. Some bound volumes. [It] starts with the Burnley correspondence against the background of Emancipation; then bankruptcy and the death of William Hardin Burnley [WHB] and business difficulties that it caused the family; followed by some reports of how the estates were doing including four very rare (unique) images of the main residences on the Orange Grove Estates. It finishes with documents and letters about William Frederick Burnley’s company and William Frederick’s distribution of his much reduced fortune”.
When I began this series about Buggy Haynes and the cane fields of Tacarigua, I did not know I would own the archives on one of the most important personages of Tacarigua and T&T early history; someone who owned many cane fields in Trinidad. Like the Cazabon painting which was bought from the same auction house, this archive fills important lacunae in our journey which we are just beginning to understand.
Although I acquired these papers, they ultimately belong to the people of T&T. This is why I wish to thank Peter George for assisting me in acquiring them and the assistance that he has given over the years.