A Man of the Atlantic
Author Selwyn Cudjoe lectured at Marist College on Feb. 25 in Fusco Recital Hall. The lecture subject matter pertained to his book “The Slave Master of Trinidad: William Hardin Burnley and the Nineteenth Century Atlantic World”
This lecture is apart of the African Diaspora, an academic lecture series, and was sponsored by the World Affairs Council of the Hudson Valley and the Center for Multicultural Affairs.
Cudjoe’s talk kicked off the series and comes at the end of Black History Month, which has been full of various lectures and speakers.
Cudjoe is a frequently published author, as well as an accomplished professor at Cornell, Ithaca, Fordham, Harvard, etc. He has been serving as a faculty member at Wellesley College since 1986.
Having grown up on a sugar plantation in Trinidad, Cudjoe was curious about the history of the plantation in which William Hardin Burnley, the subject of his recent works, owned and operated centuries prior to his birth. “It [the plantation mansion] reminded me of a time gone past,” Cudjoe said.
Cudjoe opened the lecture with the history of a man who was faintly related to the main subject of his book, Andrew Haswell Green. Green as mentioned by Cudjoe was the “father of greater New York,” but before his work in N.Y. he was an overseer on the Burnley plantation.
While initially this seemed arbitrary, the undertone Cudjoe set with this unrelated man tied into the entire persona and legacy of the Trinidadian slave owner William Hardin Burnley.
Burnley at one point was, “one of the biggest slave owners at that time in the country,” Cudjoe said. Prior to the abolition of slavery by the British government, Cudjoe stated that Burnley had 14 sugar estates and nearly 980 slaves. He was compensated by the British government for up to $53 million USD in today’s conversion.
Throughout the lecture, Cudjoe kept referring to Burnley as, “a man of the atlantic,” meaning this slave owner in Trinidad had ties all over the Atlantic, whether it was British parliament or the American government, his influence was enormous.
Cudjoe was so accurately able to put dates and times on the events throughout the centuries prior to his birth, due to a journal his great grandfather had kept, who was born merely one year before slavery was ruled illegal by the British government.
While Cudjoe repeatedly acknowledged the racist ideals that frequented slave owners of the time, and especially Burnley, he did state the business ideal Burnley held was very intelligent. “We also understand the business practices of that time,” Cudjoe said. He went on to call him “slick” in his business dealings.
Cudjoe drew his comparisons of Burnley’s racist thoughts to that of Thomas Carlyle, the infamous author of the “Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question,” considered the most prominent piece of racist literature.
While Burnley was a racist, and a horrible man, Cudjoe acknowledges the importance that he had played in the history of not just Trinidad, but the atlantic world. “[Burnley’s] a very important man of the time,” Cudjoe said.
Members of Cudjoe’s family still reside in the area of the Burnley plantation, and the town he was born in.