Love a Donkey: Besson’s Independence Fables – Pt 1

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
September 03, 2017

PART 1 – PART 2PART 3

Dr. Selwyn R. CudjoeI always marvel when relatively intelligent people say silly things about Africans and our past because of their color or class position. In “Independence Legacies” Gerard Besson offers a mishmash of information, which suffers from factual, interpretive, and definitional flaws. Besson is more concerned with trotting out an ideological position rather than with offering an analytical argument to support his contentions. It’s almost as though his “Creoleness” exempts him from treating his subject matter with the academic rigor it deserves.

Besson argues that “Dr. Williams’s personality was in many ways formed by 19th century notions, and his academic study of African slavery shaped his world view” (Express, August 31). It would be nice if Besson told us what 19th century notions shaped Dr. Williams’s “personality” (what its characteristics are) and whether this was a positive or a negative thing.

Dr. Williams defined his academic concerns in his autobiography. He says: “I persisted in relating economic concepts and their authors to the historical and economic development of society. I saw, for example, the ideas of Adam Smith and [David] Ricardo [18th and 19th century economists] as the weapons of one class against another, or one section of one class against another, which could not be taken out of the context of the American and Industrial Revolutions, the First Reform Bill, and the Repeal of the Corn Laws. I was the historian studying economics [my emphasis].

What is Besson’s objection to this formulation?

Dr. Williams did not study African history at Oxford University where he did his graduate and undergraduate degrees. As an undergraduate, he studied modern history. He says: “Three years after matriculation came the Final examination, a grueling ordeal of eleven papers lasting three hours each for five and a half days-three in English political history, one on general constitutional history of England and another on special texts and cases, one on a special period of European history” (Inward Hunger).

There is nothing here about African slavery, which should be referred to more accurately as European slavery or “the European slave trade” as Walter Rodney termed it. Rodney notes, “Africans did not participate in its making, and in many instances, African people were simply the victims, for the law recognized them only as transportable merchandise” (How Europe Underdeveloped Africa).

Dr. Williams earned First Class honors for his undergraduate work. He chose “the very beginnings of modern society in the West Indies, the abolition of the British West Indian slave system” as the themes for his graduate studies. His doctoral thesis was entitled, The Economic Aspect of the Abolition of the West Indian Slave Trade, which he expanded to Capitalism and Slavery.

Besson goes from academic inaccuracies to psychological speculation. He argues that Dr. Williams “appears to have had, personally, a heightened sense of victimhood.” It is difficult for Besson to prove this tenuous argument since he is not a psychologist.

Not content with amateur psychoanalyzing, Besson expands his thesis to read: “All this [his heightened sense of victimhood] he turned into the politics of entitlement, which were readily accepted [by whom, he does not say]. That, coupled with his belief that guilt could be inherited, served to alienate the European segment in general and the French Creole and off-white community, to which he was connected, in particular.”

As a historian studying economics, Dr. Williams saw the ideas of Smith and Ricardo as class weapons. Karl Marx drew on Ricardo’s labor theory of value to explain capitalism. It became a major pillar of Marxist economics. The alienation that one saw among the Europeans, French Creoles, and off whites when Dr. Williams began to fight against colonialism had more to do with the exploitation of Africans and Indians rather than a “politics of entitlement,” or a belief that “guilt could be inherited.”

Colonialism is an economic system in which two major classes are always in conflict: one wanting to make as much profit as possible, the other trying to extract a reasonable wage for their labor. Dr. Williams encountered a colonial economy when he returned to T&T. His was therefore an economic rather than a racial struggle for equality and justice.

In 1954, three quarters of the world’s population was waging nationalist struggles against colonialism. In the United States Martin Luther King and civil rights crusaders were fighting against American racism. In 1964 the black people in South African escalated their battle against apartheid when the South African government imprisoned Nelson Mandela. In 1990, he became an international hero when he was released from prison. That, too, was a part of the inter-nationalist struggle against colonialism.

It is erroneous, ahistorical, and dangerous to argue that the nationalist struggle against colonialism, led by Dr. Williams, replaced “one form of racism… with another.” This thinking poisons the national mind and sets one group—the Africans and Indians—against the privileged, exploiting group—the Europeans, the French Creoles, the off whites, and the Syrian/Lebanese community. This is even more unacceptable now that the one-percenters rule the roost.

Such posturing is not conducive to developing healthy social relations at a time when we celebrate our 55th anniversary.

I will examine other aspects of Besson’s article next week.

20 Responses to “Love a Donkey: Besson’s Independence Fables – Pt 1”


  • Fifty five years has gone by with a nation that has been incredibly blessed or cursed with natural resources.

    The celebration is locked in with the haves versus the have nots. Despite having enormous wealth, the true wealth of a nation is its people. Genius does not reside in barrels of oil or billions of dollars. Genius resides in a heart of compassion. Are we losing our compassion or is now all are for themselves.

    Williams was a paradoxical character whose tenure can be surmise differently by all who live during his Primeministership. The growth or decline of this nation is all based on the foundation he laid. He was an astute leader who surrounded himself with the likes of Errol Mahabir, Kamal Mohammed and John OHallaran. But the burden of the balisier was shaped in ethnocentric demagoguery that still plagues this nation and ever returns to remind us of the insecurities that exist between the races.

    The future cannot be locked in past, TNT need to get rid of its built in burden of suspicion and instead create a new Dente if it is to survive. A divided nation will soon collapse.

    That future requires leaders whose passion for nationhood beams like the distant sun kissing the face of this dry, dark, cold planet and causing life to arise in the most unlikely places. Yet presently it is not happening. The sun is not kissing the faces of all the nation’s children. There are those who now live in the darkness created by the barrel of a gun and a misdirected bullet. Their silent sobbing tears streaming down their cheeks at their loss. No one seems to care.

    When Gandhi returned to India he embarked on a yatra travelling the nation, the villages, quietly observing and learning. A lesson not found in books but etched in the face of an oppressed people. There he mentally took note of the arduous task ahead perhaps wondering at times if he could even undertake such a bold venture. Would people be willing to follow his leadership. He had to develop compassion for people. It was the only definitive characteristics of his leadership that they would understand.
    For what is a leader who cannot weap for his people.

    Today’s symbols of politics remain, people, party and power. It is the road travelled since independence. Can it be changed to nation, economy and compassionate leadership? Under this model if they are not serving the nation they are fired…..

  • All the family had to do upon leaving Syria/Lebanon, was to adopt christian names,so Habib, became Besson, not French creoles, but masquerading as one. Eric Williams’ greatest opposition came from the Creoles, with the Trinidad Guardian as their mouth piece. we have no right whatsoever to let the enemy write our history, especially those with refugee status, willing to hide behind the curtain as they continue to spread and write trash that no body reads but their inner circle.

  • I found several powerful themes from this article win which Dr. Cudjoe continues to link our present with our past. At this time of our fifty fish year of Independence, it is always good to reflect on where we came from with a grave sigh of wondering “where we are going”. The tone of most of our communications on this forum, is normally the charges and counter charges of racism, pitting the African against the Indian and vice versa.

    Dr. Cudjoe introduced an in interesting term in this version of his work, in which he studies Gerard Besson’s view of what Dr. Williams accomplished or failed to accomplish – vis a vis colonialism and how it affected those who were brought here to work the plantations (Africans and Indians). The term “inherited quilt” is a powerful one and it connotes many aspects of the African and Indian behavior in post independence Trinidad and Tobago.

    Our “guilt” or lack of it comes from the very past that we are addressing because our nation was engineered to operate as a colonial entity with a race/class/color mentality that is at the base of our current problems in this country. What Gerarad Besson, a descendant of European extraction needs to recognize, is that when one is sitting at the bottom, the burdens of the weight on those on top is heavy and suffocating. There is no easy way to eradicate that burden without turning and shifting the loads our fore-parents had to drop off and the one that we still have to understand how to take off. To find the answers on how to alleviate these burdens, we need more interpreters of the past and more psychologists to lead us into more livable future.

    Mamoo’s concern is:”Today’s symbols of politics remain, people, party and power. It is the road travelled since independence. Can it be changed to nation, economy and compassionate leadership?”
    Cooper’s concern is:”….with the Trinidad Guardian as their mouth piece. we have no right whatsoever to let the enemy write our history, especially those with refugee status….”. Are these symptomatic of our “inherited guilt”? Only a psychologist can explain this because our future is tied into our past and it is extremely difficult say whether it is “inherited guilt” or merely the effects of colonialism.

    Here is an excerpt from a blog I wrote on July 25, 2010, it reads in part ……”
    …….The Colonial master’s point of view was what mattered. Even in the locals there was division in class and skin complexion and yes it mattered greatly because those of the darker hue could not be found working in a bank or corporate office. Yes all of this was before and after the year 1962. Much of what we believe we experience today had it’s foundations in the practices of our colonial masters who passed their ‘prejudices’ to the succeeding generations of locals who believe that ‘making it’ means that they had to practice the inherited traits of those who controlled our behaviour, thoughts, values and yes psyche. Today, there is an overly sensitisation with the word
    ‘discrimination’ because what may appear to be practised by a member of let’s say the African race against an Indian may also be practised against fellow Africans because that is how the ‘African’ has learnt to exhibit his powers.”

    • Thought provoking commentary. After 55 years, this nation still grapples with it self. Forward thinkers are needed. As you rightly said there are too many linkages to the past. This is past post colonial era, a time for a nation to find itself and understand its rhythms. A time to accept the past but don’t allow it to shape the future. Can we grasp what is good and right for all???

      • This is by far the most intelligent comment you have advanced and I applaud you for that. IN order for us to know where we want to go, we must have knowledge, be aware and understand where we come from. We must work to avoid the pitfalls that we experienced and we must have a sense of the future tat we want to build. Anything short of that will certainly lead us to a more dangerous precipice.

  • Look People.!! It’s time to remove these Colored Lenses that we peep thru. Black , Brown ,White or Multicolored, and let the Sunshine in, so we can see clearer now.For one who is Apolitical,and not being a racist nor bigot, i try to stay on the Long and Winding Narrow road,always Wary of the Abyss on all sides……..Seems to me that we cant be stuck with which Party Leaders did What in the Past, but focus on the now. there were Two times in our recent past when Mr Shah’s 30% grew to levels enough to make unexpected changes in our Governance [UNC @ NAR }.Our Peoples were looking for a new Direction, but ALAS it was not to be…same ole same ole…………..SO to get down to the subject ah the morning {Agitation}, i want to say that all these WRITERS AND BLOGGERS WITH A “Dr” in front their Names, whether they went to Big Institution, or Homegrown,only creating a deeper Divide.What % of us really re ad their Opinions??…Less than Shah’s 30% I Fear !!! If is Political Science they want to Write about, I suggest a crash course on the biggest DR in that field…..DR LEROY CALISTE..He does reach 110% ah we without being a “Mr Divider”…..Thanks for bearing with my “Kionesk” writing but the time for Change is surely NOW NOW…The Past is the Past..Cyar cum bak!!…How come we cyar unite 1.3 million ?????????

  • Selwyn R. Cudjoe, Professor, Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts

    I am thankful for the responses from Mamoo and Cooper. I just wanted to remind Mamoo that like Gandhi, Eric Williams introduced his “Meet the People Tour” and “Meet the Farmers Tour,” among his many encounters with his society. It ought not to be forgotten that between January 24 and June 14, 1956 Dr. Williams “launched the new movement in fifty-two different meetings all over the country” (Inward Hunger.) In “Eric Williams as a Man of Culture” that i wrote in Colin Palmer, ed. “The Legacy of Eric Williams” [2015]) I demonstrate the influence that Gandhi, Nehru and Tagore had on Williams’s philosophical development. I hope that Mamoo reads it.

    I wholly appreciate Cooper’s notion that if we wish to be free ourselves we must write our own history from our own point of view. A person who does not know his or her history is like a leave blowing aimlessly in the wind. Marcus Garvey said: “History is the land-mark by which we are directed into the true course of life. The history of a movement, the history of a nation, the the history of the race is the guide-post of that movement’s destiny. What you do to-day that is worthwhile, inspires other to act at some future time” (“The Philosophy & Opinions of Marcus Garvey”). Bob Marley also reminded us: “I’ll never forget no way, they sold Marcus Garvey for rice/I’ll never forget no way they turned their back on Paul Bogle/ So don’t forget no way your youth/[or] Who you are and where you stand in the struggle..”(“So Many Things to Say.”)

    Marley was a great artist, educator and philosopher because he understood his story from where he was located in the society…

    It’s a lesson that all of us should learn….This is why we should condemn Besson’s non-sense. He is trying to impose his story impose on us.

    We should reject it.

    • Thanks Prof. I will take a look. A leader ability to govern stems from his understanding of those whom he governs. I believe in given credit where credit is due. When Williams was in charge we always received 2 barrels of water from WASA every two days. The roads were patch via county council, the drains were cleared and rivers cleared of grass just before the start of the rainy season.

      After he died all of that stopped because Port of Spain based politicians did not travel into rural communities. They didn’t understand the idea of nationalistic thinking. We need to get back to that …

      • Mr. Mamoo, this is the most Honest and Hearthfelt Post I have read on this blog.My Father was not the best, but he was THE BEST FOR US,given the Context in our young Nation’s History.Mr Panday labled me a “Town Indian “and i have no problems with that.People don’t quite comprehend the Complexity of what Mr. Williams Inherited and how he tried to chart a course.Look around the Leaders of the newly independent countries worlwide at the time and then you can judge him.He wes not Perfect, but he wes Perfect for US……I thank you for your Honesty.Many best Regards.

  • Sometimes AH really ha to wonder you know……IF we can call Mr Besson’s Opinion Fables, will we take Umbrage if we call other’s..Nancy Stories…?????

  • What are these opinions, blogs, articles, political analyses doing for the transformation of TT. The country is over run with corrupt officials, drug dealers, crooked Doctors, lawyers, teachers (endless private classes; no taxes paid on these earnings), police, army, etc. The rank and file Trinidadian are looking and seeing these people rape and pillage the country and enriching themselves. Driving around in fancy cars (Range Rovers) and literally spiting on the average Trinidadian. These are the real problems of the country. The men who run the police for and other arms of the security agencies are incompetent, lazy or just do not care for the country. Question! How to solve the problems of this country. Witness the spate of killing of older citizens. Where are the politicians- Opposition or government. Living the high life?

  • Mr Observer, I concur.I could not have said it better myself.

  • Ah lil Humor called “NOBODY CARES”……..Dey always sey “Better days r coming” and “we cud mek it ef we try”. but “wait Dorathy wait”, look ” Vampire passing”.Maybe is time to “Bun Dem”and doh b no “suffers”.”Dis Marraige” ent wokin, ah bussing it from all yuh “Ism Schims”…….A lil play on Mr. Caliste Works.

  • did Williams really get Trinidad its independence or was it given to us because the island was no longer a profitable entity for its owner and sugar demand was dropping all over the world?

  • Selwyn R. Cudjoe, Professor, Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts

    Dear Raymond: Independence just happened. The British woke up one morning and said, “Let us give, Trinidad, Jamaica, Ghana, India, and Nigeria their independence.” Why did they do this in the 1960 (India became independent in 1947 and Ghana got its independence in 1957)? Well, because 1960, as Frank Sinatra says: “it was a very good year.” We sell ourselves short if we believe in the beneficent mercies of the the British and fail to acknowledge the work of Caribbean, African and Indian statespeople such as Dr. Williams, Kwame Nkrumah and Ghandi.

    • From my knowledge and speaking about Trinidad and Mr. Williams only, it was not as if he fought a battle like the image being displayed by other they keep forgetting the financial issue at the time facing the British.. Mr. William was an opportunist people keep forgetting his dark side his dictatorship tendencies

    • Raymond, I’m not sure how relevant this is to the debate at hand.

      If by ‘dictatorship tendencies’ you mean setting a firm course for the nation and making changes happen, in contrast to today’s uninvested ‘democratic’ politicians, then perhaps we could do with more of them!

      • Dictatorship is a form of government in which a country or a group of countries is ruled by one person (a dictator) or by a polity, and power (social and political) is exercised through various mechanisms to ensure that the entity’s power remains strong.[1][2]

        A dictatorship is a type of authoritarianism, in which politicians regulate nearly every aspect of the public and private behavior of citizens. Dictatorship and totalitarian societies generally employ political propaganda to decrease the influence of proponents of alternative governing systems. In the past, different religious tactics were used by dictators to maintain their rule, such as the monarchical system in the west.

        In the 19th and 20th centuries, traditional monarchies gradually declined and disappeared. Dictatorship and constitutional democracy emerged as the world’s two major forms of government.[

      • We can always do with more dictators unless you are not in the good books of the dictator. Check all the people that were advised to leave T&T and those that were jailed or put in the mad house.

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