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Sunday, July 30, 2006 

In-depth look at a Caribbean giant
published: Sunday | July 30, 2006

Eric Williams and the Making of the Modern Caribbean

Author: Colin A. Palmer

Publisher: Ian Randle

Reviewer: Barbara Nelson

Drawing from extensive archival sources, including newly available British documents, Colin A. Palmer provides the first scholarly biography of Eric Eustace Williams, the man who founded Trinidad and Tobago's first modern political party in 1956 and became that nation's first Prime Minister.

Palmer says the study is not intended to be a full-scale biography of Williams, although it does have biographical attributes.

It is, however, a political history because it examines Williams' role in shaping the political development of the Anglophone Caribbean between 1956 and 1970.

The book is conceived as an intellectual history as Williams, a prolific scholar, was more than any other British West Indian politician of his time committed to the life of the mind and the world of books.

Early years

Palmer describes Williams, "the child of economically challenged parents," as an avid reader who attended Queens Royal College as a youngster, and "a dominant, haunting and polarising presence" in the life of Trinidad and Tobago.

Born in September, 1911, in a small house on Oxford Street in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, Williams lived outside of his homeland during the years 1931-48. He completed undergraduate and postgraduate studies at Oxford and between 1939 and 1948 served on the faculty of Howard University in Washington, D.C.

Later, he served on the Anglo-American Caribbean Commission and its successor, the Caribbean Commission. He, however, used Trinidad as his base.

After he left the Caribbean Commission in June 1955, Williams began to give a series of lectures at the Trinidad Public Library to educate the people about their history and to promote a sense of West Indian nationalism. Soon, he moved out to Woodford Square in Port-of-Spain (which he renamed the University of Woodford Square) and lectured thousands about their history, topical matters and other issues.

Eric Williams, who always boasted of the ethnic diversity of Trinidad and Tobago, saw the opportunity in 1956 to establish a political party. With his supporters, he formally started the People's National Movement (PNM), Trinidad and Tobago's first modern political party. This was in preparation for the general elections scheduled for later that year.

In less than one year after the party was formed, the PNM candidates won 13 of 25 seats in the general elections that September. Eric Williams was sworn in as Chief Minister in October, and for the next 25 years dominated not only the PNM, but also the political life of his country.

This absorbing book about the indefatigable and charismatic Williams has eight chapters:

Chapter 1: Intellectual Decolonisation sets the context for understanding Williams' positions and actions regarding the West Indies Federation.

Chapter 2: The Challenge of Political and Economic Integration.

Chapter 3: The Struggle for Chaguaramas.

Chapter 4: Eric Williams and the Golden Handshake - that is the parting gift on the occasion of the nation's independence. This chapter also discusses Eric Williams the human being.

Chapter 5: Courting Grenada. When Williams undertook the futile task of integrating Grenada into unitary statehood with Trinidad and Tobago.

Chapter 6: Bleeding Guiana. Williams tried to mediate the racially-inspired internecine warfare in British Guiana.

Chapter 7: Eric Williams, Africa and Africans. Looks at his attitudes to these.

Chapter 8: The Economics and Politics of Race. Here, the author looks at the racial question in Trinidad and Tobago and shows how the language of race became a metaphor for the society's ills.

The study ends in 1970 with a look at the suppression of the Black-Power inspired February Revolution. This was a horrible, personal and political crisis for the controversial Williams.

Eric Williams wrote Capitalism and Slavery, considered by the author to be his most important and enduring book. He knew first-hand the psychological damage experienced by colonised peoples and that forced him to assume the burden of helping to make the people of Trinidad and Tobago whole again.

A place in history

I found the word pictures of the ambitious and brilliant Williams very intriguing - he was "possessed of a caustic tongue", "spoke the language of the intellectual" but "drew his strength from ordinary citizens" and was "never ambivalent about the necessity for a Federal Union."

Palmer demonstrates very clearly how the development of the Caribbean was interwoven with the evolution of a regional anti-colonial consciousness, and affirms that the capacity to imagine a different and better future for a people and the possession of the will to challenge and lead them to achieve their possibilities has secured for Williams a central place in the history of the modern Caribbean.

Colin A. Palmer is Dodge Professor of History at Princeton University and author, editor, and co-editor of numerous books, including The Modern Caribbean.

(Williams) knew first-hand the psychological damage experienced by colonised peoples and ... assume(d) the burden of helping to make the people of Trinidad and Tobago whole again.

© Copyright 1997-2006 Gleaner Company Ltd.

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