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Eric Williams, 100 years later
On September 25, 1911, the child Eric Williams was born to middle-class parents in Port-of-Spain. His father, Henry, was a civil servant, his mother, Elisa, an unmonied descendant of the wealthy de Boissiere family. The family was large, their circumstances financially tight. The young Williams boy was smart, however, and attended Queen’s Royal College, where he was torn between his love of football and an aptitude for academics. The young student’s only chance for furthering his education was with a scholarship, and he had to work hard at it, finally winning an opportunity to study at Oxford. While there, he found himself a lesser subject of the British Empire, and the slights he suffered might have provided the engine for his specific focus on the history of the Caribbean, his appetite for understanding whetted by the circumstances he found himself in. He worked hard at continuing his studies at a level that would justify continued scholarship money and finally published his doctoral thesis, The Economic Aspects of the Abolition of the Slave Trade and West Indian Slavery, a work that stood in stark contrast to the prevailing wisdom that slavery had been abolished on humanitarian instead of on economic grounds.
This theory was later fully expanded in his seminal work, Capitalism and Slavery, a book so outrageous to British sensibilities that would not be published in the UK until 1964. This work, and indeed Williams’ entire career as a scholar and politician, would be challenged and re-examined by later scholars, a practice that continues to this day. This is unsurprising. There is so much about modern Trinidad and Tobago, and the Caribbean, that found its genesis in the ideas, political career and modus operandi of Dr Eric Williams that such dissection continues to be rewarding 40 years after his death. It’s notable that after his squabbles with the Anglo-American Caribbean Commission, his employers from 1944 through 1955, his first move was not into politics but into public education as he proceeded to give a series of public lectures at Woodford Square, which he colourfully christened a “university,” on a wide range of scholarly subjects. These talks and a famous public debate with Catholic monk and noted intellectual Dom Basil Matthews sparked an enthusiasm and ambition to craft the histories of the future through political intervention.
Any evaluation of the sweep of Eric Williams’ work as a politician would exceed the space and there are expansive manuscripts and publications on the subject that explore that phase of his life with admirable thoroughness. Worthy of note, however, are two key elements of his decades-long tenure as Prime Minister of T&T and the political leader of the party he founded, the PNM. The first was his response to the boldest challenge to his authority as Prime Minister, the Black Power Revolution of 1970, which Williams first quelled with firmness of hand and then co-opted into his political agenda with deftness of thought.
The other was the introduction of the Development and Environmental Works Division, an attempt at creating make-work employment for the angry, violent young men who had begun to incite gang violence in the steelband movement.
That programme would find echoes throughout this country’s political history, in LIDP, URP and now in Cepep, all of which advertised their positive effect while glossing over the troubling and unresolved underpinnings implicit in their existence. It’s impossible to summarise Williams’ quarter-century-long ownership of the post of first Premier and then Prime Minister with even two notable examples and in this year, which would have marked his 100th birthday, there are several projects and celebrations which seek to bring new understanding to his life, his triumphs and his failures. Joining the remarkable Eric Williams collection at UWI and scholarly works by many distinguished authors, including Dr Kirk Meighoo and Dr Selwyn Ryan, is a new documentary on Williams by Mariel Brown, Inward Hunger (the title of Williams’ own evaluation of his youth), which seeks to tell the often tragic story of the man, who, for better and for worse, made post-independence T&T.
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