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William Hardin Burnley and Caribbean slavery

William Hardin Burnley, the biggest slave owner in Trinidad, did everything in his power to prevent the emancipation of Africans in the colony. When slavery ended, he was convinced that only Africans who had tyrannical masters would benefit from emancipation. The rest, he opined, ‘Were too ignorant to understand the real position in which they were placed.’ This lecture examines Burnley’s participation in slavery, his attempts to prevent Africans from being emancipated, his subterfuge to keep them enslaved under another guise called apprenticeship and his energetic efforts to recruit workers from outside of Trinidad to undercut the gains that former slaves had made in the post-apprenticeship period.

Selwyn R Cudjoe is Professor of Africana Studies, Margaret E. Deffenbaugh and LeRoy T Carlson Professor in Comparative Literature at Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts, USA. He has researched the life of William Burnley at The National Archives.


Yes, first of all I wanted to thank Jerry for inviting me to make this presentation and to thank all my friends for coming, Nick, Nathan, Kaju and others. In a way this is a rather paradoxical moment. I’ll be speaking about ignorant negroes and tyrannical masters. As I speak right now, the very Savannah on which Mr Burnley’s house was built, is being trampled upon, smashed up to put on some concrete and clay. I have a little booklet on that that I’ll be putting out on Wednesday because we’re fighting to have that saved so I’ll talk a bit about that at the end but again as I said it’s rather paradoxical that should be happening.

I have entitled my talk ‘Ignorant Negroes, tyrannical Masters; William Burnley and the Caribbean Slave Experience.’ In the 1950s, when I was growing up in Tacarigua, Trinidad, West Indies, there existed a large faded mansion on the orange grove Savannah that had seen the last of its glories. It stood there as a colossal on the magnificent expanse of land which, at that time, was one of the biggest Savannahs in the country, second only to the Queen’s Park Savannah in Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad. It reminded one of the glorious days of the time past. I was a young boy then and could not have known that in this residence, there once lived one of the most important men in the West Indies during the first half of the 19th century and someone who was very much associated and connected with colonial affairs.

As a young boy, we all knew that the Orange Grove Savannah and the Orange Grove Estates was a plantation that was central in the lives of every person who lived in that district of Tacarigua. A century before, there were certainly several other such estates – Eldorado, Paradise, Laurel Hill, Garden City – and they all operated to do what they, at that time, to do sugar for the larger European Society. But in the 1950s only Orange Grove remained as the central sugar estate in the area around which all turned. At crop time (that is, from around January to May) the entire village came to life. It was the source from which all the villagers received the necessary cash to buy themselves things, such as kerosene or clothing.

Along with their meagre salaries they received from Orange Grove, they made ends meet by the cultivation of their provision gardens and tending their chickens, goats, pigs and cows. My grandfather (Robert James), my uncle (Niles), my brother (Winston), and even I for a short period, worked at that Estate during crop time. I was saved, I suspect, from that experience by becoming what then was called a Pupil Teacher. My family, aunts, uncles, and grandparents rented lands from the Estates until the 1960s when the sugar industry was dying and the Estate was forced to sell its lands to its tenants, the major portion going to a social developer called Home Construction Limited who again incidentally worked towards a member of the Prime Minister’s office.

In the late 1960s when Black Power and Marxist radicalism set in, I began to understand that these lands, the Orange Grove Sugar Estates, were owned by William Hardin Burnley, the biggest slave owner in the country who was responsible for shaping much of the island’s policy between 1810 and 1850, the year in which he died. In fact, I’d argue that Heath Burnley was, Eric Williams who was the Prime Minister of Trinbago. Caribbean slavery was the major shaping factor in the country from about 1955 till 1981, when he died. Then in the very first beginning, Burnley must have been the founder, and, of course, Woods in his book ‘Trin and Transition’ calls Burnley the founding father of Trinidad in those early years. But my brother got very angry when I said that some years ago. But anyhow, they are at the two ends of the same sort of spectrum.

Nonetheless, it turns around though that in the Caribbean and Latin America, he was one of the very important guys at the time. Even as slavery was coming to an end, Burnley made various trips around the Caribbean and…Latin America (quote) ‘for the sole purpose of observing and considering the state and efficiency of the labouring population in these various places under different aspects of slavery and freedom, to enable him to form a more correct opinion as to the probable results of the measures now in progress in the British colonies.’ In other words, now that slavery wasn’t coming in, he was going all around to find out what was, how well would free labour, which turned out to be a very important concept for him, would work at the end of slavery and apprenticeship.

Of course, when slavery ended, Burnley was also very active. He made a gallant effort to recruit labour from all around the world (including the United States) to ensure that freedom of the slaves, (that is, free labour) did not prevent his profits from flowing into his coffers, and to ensure that the planters of the island had the labour they needed to ensure the continued production of the lands. One tiny thing; I’m going to just probably work until Burnley up until 1834-35 when slavery ended even though he died in 1850. But the next intriguing part of it, the family he left in Virginia became very, very important. But of course, I am getting a bit ahead of my story.

Who exactly was William Burnley? When did he arrive in Trinidad? And how did he become such a powerful figure in Trinidad and West Indian affairs? William Burnley was the son of a British gentleman, Hardin Burnley, who went to Virginia in the 1760s to make his fortunes. When the US Revolutionary War broke out in 1775, Hardin Burnley, that is Burnley’s father, took the Royalist side to the great astonishment of his brothers. As the war raged on, he fled to New York where William was born in 1786. Burnley, then of course, and his family, had to leave the States. And in 1786 he and his family returned to London where he became a successful business man and an underwriter for Lloyds and a director of the East India Company.

In 1798, William visited Trinidad and liked what he saw. In 1802, he returned to the country where he stayed until his death, although he resided for short periods both in London and Paris, and of course, did a lot of work in that time. He testified though, in his writings, that he spent the better part of his life in Trinidad; of course, in a way he came a Trinidadian. When Burnley arrived in Trinidad, he was one of the most educated of its new immigrants, having studied at Harrow (the famous boy’s school that educated Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of England, and Jawaharlal Nehru, Prime Minister of India). In 1832, bewildered by the challenge Burnley was posing to the British rule in the island, Lewis Grant, Governor of the island, acknowledged that Burnley came to the island (quote, unquote) ‘with the advantage of birth, capital and education, superior to probably any other colonist and certainly with his own objects in sight.’

In 1807, he married Charlotte Brown who gave birth to two children, William Frederick and Joseph Hume Burnley. Shortly after his marriage, Burnley became very prominent in the society. He arrived as I said in 1802 and by 1810, he met George Smith, the chief justice of the island, with whom he became fast friends. Smith aided Burnley’s rise to fame and fortune by allowing the later to act as his despositario general whose function was to protect the widows and orphans of the society.

Together, they used the office to fleece the widows and orphans of their property. All the property that became the subject of litigation was placed under Burnley’s control and received the revenues that were paid to them. No account of these transactions was ever kept and the rightful owners seldom received any payments. In the process, however, Burnley became a very wealthy man. Burnley used the monies he acquired to build up his business and to invest in real estate.

At the end of his stint as the despositario general, he had acquired so much of the country’s land that anyone who wanted to do business in the island had to deal with him. In the 1820s when the planters panicked at the possibility of the slaves being freed, they sold their estates way under [their] value. Burnley bought up many of these plantations, these estates, and became an even wealthier man. When the enslaved Africans were emancipated in 1834, Burnley received something like £40,000 which was most of the compensation that was paid to Trinidad planters. Between 1835 and 1840, his profits from the Orange Grove Estate alone totalled £28,000 which meant that he profited whether slavery existed or not. He used his wealth to develop his international contacts and to consolidate his power. At his death, he was the richest man in the island and its most prominent, political figure and of course, he used that all to his advantage.

Given his wealth, Burnley had to get into the political milieu to preserve the fortune, his fortune. When therefore, Sir Ralph Woodford, one of the most progressive Governors of the island, arrived in 1813; he named Burnley to his Majesty’s Council of Trinidad which of course would then have been the legislative Council in the society, which though at the time served mostly as an advisory body. But the fact of the matter from 1813 right until his death, he was a member of the legislative Council of Trinidad and Tobago.

One of Woodford’s first tasks was to secure sufficient labourers for the island. Trinidad being notorious for not having sufficient labourers to till its soil. One year after he arrived, that’d be 1814, he asked each member of his council to come up with suggestions to entice free labourers to settle in the country. Mr Badge, the chief judge of the island, favoured the importation of European settlers; Laurence Nihell, a member of his Majesty’s Council suggested that Africans be brought to the islands as indentures for a period of time. Burnley, however, rejected that idea. He felt (quote) ‘that although robust and hardy, these, the Africans were so grossly ignorant’ (hence my title) ‘that they required to be taught everything they were to do’ (end of quote). After emancipation, he’d probably take a different tact.

As beholds his prominence then, Burnley did not get on well with Woodford. Of course, it was at that time suggested that the Indians, the East Indians, from India would have been better labourers even as early as 1814. Even though, of course, that didn’t happen until 1845 when the first Indians came to Trinidad. They’d gone to Guyana in 1838 before then. But as beholds his prominence, Burnley did not get on well with Woodford or any of the other governors of the islands. As far as he was concerned, they were merely (quote, unquote) ‘birds of passage’. He remained the one constant presence on the island and as fate would have it, Burnley’s power and prestige in the island increased when in 1815 his sister Maria married Joseph Hume, a member of the House of Commons, who you know as one of your great big radicals but who certainly in terms of his brothers fortune in the Caribbean, decidedly conservative in terms of supporting his brother-in-law’s wealth.

But anyhow, he became much more and had greater access to the Colonial Office when his sister, Maria, married Joseph Hume as this self-appointed guardian of the public purse and a friend of the English working people, certainly in England, of course. As I said, his role in the Caribbean is quite different. However, he easily, this is Mr Hume, easily reversed his position when it came to supporting his brother-in-law’s economic interest against his slaves. Hume was a friend of James Mill with whom he attended Montrose Academy, considered the best school in the region. He also developed a strong personal friendship [with] David Ricardo, the economist who of course was very important, I think, in libertarian values if I’m not correct.

Hume, however, would be of immense assistance to Burnley as he pursued his economic interest and engaged in the quarrels with the Colonial Office. The one point I want to mention as I keep on toward Burnley is to begin to understand his immense influence in terms of the Colonial Office and in terms of carrying forward his own kinds of projects.

Around 1821, certainly in 1821, in keeping with his new status, Burnley built a palatial mansion on the Orange Grove Savannah which is what I was talking about which is now being mashed up and turned into some sort of sporting complex but he built a palatial mansion at Orange Grove equal in status to the governor’s residence. It was said to have contained 101 windows; one more than the governor’s residence in St Anns. And if you don’t think that’s a big thing, you ought to be a colonial person and you don’t have more windows than the governor’s residence; Burnley had one more.

This was the building that I so admired; this building was built on the Savannah that had 101 windows. This was the building that I so admired as a young boy, the place where Burnley and his planters gathered to strategise against any attempt to improve the condition of enslaved Africans. In other words, I was really born right inside where the action was taking place.

In May 1823 when Thomas Fowell Buxton brought his first motion against slavery, he suggested certain reforms to ameliorate the conditions of the enslaved. Among other things, these reforms called for: the abolition of female punishment. The reservation of certain days for Negroes to labour on their own provision grounds which, of course, turned out to be very important; the discontinuance of working on Sundays; the abolition of the Sunday market; the abolition of urging the field slaves to their labour by the whip; and the introduction of religious instructions for the enslaved.

On June 26 1823 when Woodford sent out the contents of this order to the members of the council – it came up for discussion at the council at some other point – Burnley and his fellow planters were decidedly against these measures. They met at Burnley’s mansion at Orange Grove to formulate their plan of attack. They believed that the supporters of amelioration in the House of Commons were totally misguided and that enslaved Africans had not arrived at the state of civilisation where they could appreciate the blessings of freedom. At another level, Burnley and his fellow planters could not contemplate that Negroes could be brought to a higher state of civilisation without the generous use of the whip. In fact the whip as a metaphor is very important in Caribbean intellectual thought and Caribbean history.

‘Negroes’, Burnley argued ‘are children’ (and this was the prevailing wisdom of the time; it would come, I suspect, a few years before the nigger questioned by Mr Carlyle). ‘The Negro’, he argued, ‘are children of a larger growth and the fear of punishment has now the effect which under the regulation proposed will require the application of it.’ It was believed that they were ignorant – that was the dominant belief – that they were ignorant and stupid. To refrain from whipping them was tantamount to allowing them to retain their savage ways. Burnley insisted that the planters needed to exercise their (quote, unquote) ‘their domestic jurisdiction by which a master is authorised to punish his slave without the intervention of a magistrate. ‘This power’, he says, ‘is essential to the system. If taken away totally, or even partially repealed by the enactment of regulations prohibiting all corporal punishment, from that moment, the fabric of slavery is virtually destroyed and the Negro, though not free, will cease to be of any value to his master’ (end of quote). That was the power and importance of the whip.

The most reprehensible part of the regulations though was the suggestion that to cease to whip the female slaves was really the tragedy. Such a regulation, Burnley argued, was (quote, unquote) ‘so monstrous’ (not to whip the female slaves) ‘was so monstrous and extraordinary that I hardly know how to approach the subject. The intention of such an order, we are told, is to elevate the females in the scale of society whilst the men are left as they were before, established in fact a decided superiority in favour of the former’ (end of quote). One wonders if this was the case of male social bonding or misogyny, particularly, against those who were black.

It is no wonder then that in 1832 when it looked as though the British Parliament was contemplating the immediate abolition of slavery that Burnley and his fellow planters went into a literal tizzy; they got mad. The principle source of the affair was an Order in Council of November 1831 which the planters felt had the potential to ruin their operations. To make matters worse, the Negroes refused to work. Well I guess they probably ought not to be working. They began to set fires to the plantations and demonstrated total indifference to the destruction that was taking place around them. These actions, according to the Port of Spain Gazette, which of course was the planter’s chief mouthpiece, observe as follows (quote):

‘We learn with much uneasiness and regret that the slaves on the Concord estate evinced by their conduct during the conflagration, that is the burning of these places, a total want of any desire to save the property of their respectable human owners’ (end of quote).

Malcolm X though would have called them (quote, unquote) ‘field Negroes’ who were determined to obtain their freedom by any means necessary. Let the houses burn; let the fires keep on conflagrating. Even as the enslaved were making their wishes known, the white inhabitants were intent on asserting their inviolable rights to their property and resisting efforts of the Colonial Office to ameliorate the conditions of the enslaved.

Of course, you remember at that time Trinidad, of course, is one of those colonies, which is a Crown colony, an experimental colony and so therefore, the Colonial Office had much more say in Trinidad than some of the other colonial countries.

With this in mind, the white inhabitants met on Monday 25 June 1832 to select a deputy to represent their cause in England. They agreed that Burnley (quote, unquote) ‘was the fit person to represent the inhabitants of Trinidad in England and to act as their deputy owning to his talent, high character’ (this is their words); ‘owing to his talent, high character and great practical experience of this gentleman, we may look forward to the best results to our just cause for his gratuitous execution in our favour.’ In other words, he was the guy selected to go and argue against the freedom of the enslaved.

For the next five years though, that’s between 1832 and 1837, Burnley spent most of his time in Europe representing the cause of his fellow planters and looking out for his own best interest. Of course, he was not as successful and indeed what happened he was not of course, slavery still was brought to an end. While he was in London, Burnley met with several members of the Colonial Office. He did his best to thwart the drive towards emancipation but was unsuccessful. On October 18th, he met with Lord Goderich to discuss an Order in Council that might have given the enslaved greater freedom. He said that this order (quote, unquote) ‘might pave the way for more general substituting of higher service for free labour and a slave who during part of the year had been accustomed to work two or three hours daily for wages would rapidly be preparing for the transition into the condition of free labour’ (end of quote).

Even as he met with the officials from the Colonial Office, signals were being sent that the emancipation day was close at hand. Seeing the ferocity of the enslaved in Jamaica under the leadership of Samuel Sharp in the Summer of 1832, Lord Howick, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of the Colonial Office wrote to the Jamaican government to say the following. He said (quote): ‘The present state of things cannot go on much longer,’ (that is the half-free, half-slave nature that apprenticeship offered). He said that ‘the present state of things cannot go on much longer. Every hour that it does so is full of the most appalling danger. Emancipation alone will effectually avert the danger’ (end of quote).

This was true for Trinidad as well. Trinidadians also believed that the King had sent (quote, unquote) ‘their free paper’ in the form of an Order in Council on the 2nd November and of course, no man or woman had a right to withhold freedom after it had been given them by the King.

Once the emancipation bill passed, Burnley changed his focus to deal with the issues of compensation and apprenticeship, the new form of labour. Having spent much time in London, Burnley was better positioned to present his views to the Colonial authorities. He was most intent on trying to shape the terms of apprenticeship and how the slave owners were to be compensated.

Nicholas Draper, who is in the audience today, has observed that once the slave compensation commission was established, the feeding frenzy began. And the claimants who were close enough to the metropolitan centres had the best chance of shaping the new system and getting [the] most out of it. This is one reason why, of course, Burnley remained in London for almost four years after the emancipation bill was passed.

Burnley, it seems, was most worried by the idea of a free labour class that would evolve as a result of the emancipation. He was also riddled…of course intriguing enough and that’s a paradox indeed. After slavery ended, he became one of the most vocal fellows for free labour; that’s a second paper, not this paper. But the second half of this paper from 1835 until when he died, he became one of the chief advocates of free labour and made all kinds of arguments for it. Burnley, it seems, was most worried by the idea of a free labour class that would evolve as a result of emancipation. He was also riddled with four major concerns. These were his concerns after emancipation:

A. The fear of a limited African workforce that there would not be enough …workers

B. A large fertile land which he said (quote, unquote) ‘possessed the richness, the richest soil on the most favoured part of the globe’ and which he feared the apprenticeship would use to undercut the dominance and control of the planters

C. An increase in the course of production that was likely to render his machinery (quote, unquote) ‘inactive and valueless’ as he says

D. The ability of the workers to command whatever price they wanted for their labour thus raising the labour cost. A situation that would become disastrous for him and other planters or as he wrote ‘would bring them all to ruin’. In fact the prices in labour in Trin became the highest in the entire Caribbean, of course, Trinidad and Guyana, of course, the new plantations and up until today remain, of course, underpopulated, certainly Guyana

Burnley’s fear of being ruined also revealed a deep seated racism. He called for the introduction of white immigrants, not to work in the factories, but to superintend the manufacturing occupations for which they were (quote, unquote) ‘considerably’ (he says) ‘qualified’. He notes and I quote, he says: ‘In every industrious department where skilled manipulation is more required than hard labour, their superiority over the African race would be manifest’ (end of quote).

He agreed with the expert (quote, unquote) who argued that ‘there are some generic (that’s the word he used then but in today’s terms, it would mean, he would probably have said genetic). He said ‘there are some generic differences in the African race rendering them more prone to idleness (hello) and vagrancy than Europeans which not a few persons have boldly asserted.’ I mean the few persons being of course those of European descent who were concerned about the idleness and the degeneracy, seemingly, of their Southerners.

Burnley was not unique in his opinion. Europeans such as William Cobbett believed that Africans were (quote, unquote) ‘dull, easily excitable and disposed to laziness’ (end of quote). Having been away for a long time, Burnley returned to the island in June 1834 in time to see the response of the newly manumitted slaves to their formal freedom. On August 9th he wrote the following letter to Nassau W Senior, another theorist and major scholar, I think, at Oxford. This is what he said; this is Burnley’s sort of summary what emancipation meant. He wrote and I quote, he says:

‘The Negros will not comprehend the system of apprenticeship which when fairly explained present generally no great advantage to them. These principally benefited on the few that had hard and tyrannical masters’. In other words, the reason why they do well because they had very hard and tyrannical masters, hence the other part of my title. ‘These…principally benefited on the few that had hard and tyrannical masters but throughout the island, their treatment was humane and their work moderate. As such, they do not hesitate to abuse the King for making any law at present on the subject, and as they say “if no free for six years, better…leave us as we were before.” They show themselves excellent lawyers’ (this was Burnley’s summary of the Africans) ‘they show themselves to be excellent lawyers. All who’ve come before me pleaded defence for deserting their estates’ (well, why not) ‘that the managers call them together sometime and read them a paper saying (quote, unquote) “All we free on the 1st of August” but when questioned as to the restrictions and reservations, explain at the same time, they will give no answer. The one thing, of course, they knew is that they were free.’

On September 3rd 1834, Burnley reported to Senior again writing to him in London, that (quote, unquote) ‘the grand appointment of apprenticeship in the Colonies was politically, perfectly successful.’ He meant as he said in his communications with his brother-in-law, Hume, that apprenticeship had changed nothing as far as he was concerned. It was just another form of slavery. It was one reason why people like Samuel Sharp and Dagger and others continued to fight. They understood that apprenticeship really changed very little.

But Burnley was famous for another important…back in Trinidad. He was the first person to argue that bringing East Indians to the Caribbean would certainly undercut the gains of the Africans and change its economic circumstance in the island. In 1813 when asked by Sir Ralph Woodford if Trinidad should look for more new labourers, implying that a settlement of the Indians was a good step in that direction because the Indians (quote, unquote) ‘was a docile, an intelligent class of labourisms whose prejudice of caste would keep them from combining with the slaves who in the long run…who so long as slavery still exists, would always more or less be disposed to revolt’ which, of course, is what they did. From this early period, then, of course, you had the attempt to separate both groups. However, what we find is that at the end of slavery…Burnley began to change his tune. That’s the source of another paper because he made some remarkable transformations and what he talked about, the importance…of black people.

Today, however, and I want to end on this note, is that that struggle continues in a different way against different tyrannical masters. I have in my presence here, a book called ‘Preserving the Tacarigua Savannah and Respecting our Heritage’. One of the unfortunate things is that we never really quite respect our own heritage.

And today the last bit of that Savannah on which Burnley in fact had his mansion which represent the centre of the island, the centre of the community on which, of course, we have a lot of water tables etc is being now proposed to be a sporting complex, which will mean the complete destruction of the island, of the community. I had the good fortune of going up to Scotland a few days ago, a few weeks ago and going up to the second largest planter in Trinidad; it was a fellow called James Lemont, and he was also from Scotland and he went up to Benmore. I’ve got a picture of his mansion here and built a wonderful mansion. Of course, again another example of others reaping the rewards until today; a wonderful picture of Benmore which I could show you here but what happens there of course, Benmore has now become the centre of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Scotland, and so where the product of one slave holder, James Lemont, has become the product of fruitful educational resources etc and the Centre of their part of their gardens.

In Trinidad, Burnley’s house is no more. All we’ve got left of Burnley’s house, which I’ve got in fact, a painting (I will end in two minutes), a painting by a fellow called Kasaban of his mansion is still there. There is one thing called a Kuli Pistache [?] tree. That Kuli Pistache tree is the only thing that’s left of Burnley’s mansion. And of course if we do not stop the destruction of this Savannah, even that would be gone. Part of our plea has to be how to represent…how to respect our history, cherish our memories and of course deal with the kinds of problems that are posed by new tyrannical masters who now have taken on the form of the governors of the land.

I thank you very much.

Transcribed by Joy Omorogbe as part of a volunteer project, March 2015

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