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LAND SETTLEMENT PART II by Dr. Godfrey Vincent

posted 3 Jun 2013, 19:07 by Gerry Kangalee
In 2011, there was an interesting discourse between Professor Selwyn Ryan and Selwyn Cudjoe on the role played by William Hardin Burnley (1780-1850) in the politics of Colonial Trinidad from 1802 until his death (See Trinidad Express, February 5, 2011).


From this discourse, the vast majority of Trinidadians and Tobagonians, for the first time, were introduced to William H. Burnley, who became a rich landowner in Trinidad and an exploiter of African and East Indian labour.


This important piece of historical information fits nicely into the second part of my instalment of Land Settlement.  In Part I, I examined landownership under Spanish rule. In this instalment, I will discuss landownership under British rule.


In 1797, using military force, Britain seized Trinidad from Spain and officially made the island part of the British Empire in 1802 by way of a formal treaty signed with Spain. Tobago, on the other hand, a former French colony, became a British possession in 1803. By 1889, the British created one colony, Trinidad and Tobago.  


In terms of Trinidad, according to Historian Bridget Brereton, the British did not change must of the status quo that existed under Spanish rule and allowed the continuation of Spanish law to continue until the abolition of Slavery in 1838 (See An Introduction to the History of Trinidad and Tobago).  


This meant that the French planters who came to the island under the Cedula of Population continued to dominate the island’s economics.  However, over a period of time, this dominance was challenged when British planters purchased lands from French and Spanish landowners and created large sugar plantations.


Moreover, from 1797 to 1802, Historian James Epstein noted that British merchants and shopkeepers began to dominate the entrepot trade that developed Port of Spain into a commercial centre for the West Indies and the Spanish Main (See Scandal of Colonial Rule: Power and subversion in the British Atlantic during the Age of Revolution).  


This British “invasion” became all the more interesting with the arrival of William Hardin Burnley to the island of Trinidad in 1802. Originally from New York, this son of a prominent member of the Virginia elite became a dominant figure in Trinidad’s society when he became an aide to George Smith, the Chief Justice of the island.


According to Selwyn Cudjoe, “Smith aided Burnley's rise to fame and fortune by allowing the latter to act as his despositario general whose function it 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 he received the revenues that were paid on them.”


Moreover, Professor Cudjoe noted: “Burnley used the monies he acquired to build up his business and to invest in real estate. At the end of his stint as depositario 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 under value. Burnley bought up many of those estates and became an even wealthier man.


When the enslaved Africans were emancipated in 1834, Burnley received £48,283, 18s, 5d, which was most of the compensation that was paid to the Trinidad slave owners. Between 1835 and 1840, his profits from Orange Grove Estates alone totalled £28,275, 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.” (See “Ignorant Negroes/Tyrannical Masters: William Burnley and the Caribbean Slave Experience).


This revealing information showed how a member of the elite class used the state to acquire wealth and influence the politics of the island. While Burnley was one such glaring example of nepotism and corruption, it calls into question how other powerful figures obtained property in Trinidad and Tobago.  This legacy of nepotism and corruption has remained part of the fabric of Trinidad and Tobago


In the post emancipation and indentureship period, some Africans and East Indians, Chinese, and Portuguese became property owners; however, the majority of the large estates remained in the control of British, French, and other White Europeans who enjoyed the powers and privileges of the “Crown.” In Part Three, I will examine the ownership of Trinidad when oil was discovered in 1857.