In Tribute to John Campbell

By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
January 23, 2018

Dr. Selwyn R. CudjoeI met John Campbell around 1990. I had just finished writing my book on V. S. Naipaul and was beginning another manuscript on Trinidad and Tobago Intellectual Thought of the nineteenth century. I needed to hire some research assistants to assist me in my work. I asked the history department of the University of the West Indies (UWI) if it could assist me in this endeavor. This search yielded three wonderful assistants of whom John was one. This was my first contact with this brilliant and engaging young man with whom I had the pleasure of seeing about a week before he passed away.

Our meeting was pleasant enough. As per usual, he was excited to see me as I was to see him. We talked about many things. He told me that he was feeling better and that he would be up and walking by October, ready to face any new challenges he may encounter. However, he revealed one distressing thing. He was having trouble breathing. I told him that he should see his doctor about it. We parted on that note, my kissing him on his head as I always did. He called me pops. I called him son. In fact, I saw him as my surrogate son. A friend of mine once said that he was the son I didn’t have.

I left for New York on Friday, January 5, having been delayed by that crippling snowstorm that struck New York. A few days later, that is last Wednesday, January 10, I left for Gambia, via London (I spent a day there) to participate in a literary affair in that West African nation. I arrived in Gambia on Friday afternoon (January 12) after a cramped trip on Thomas Cook Airlines.

Coming from the cold of London, the blazing sunshine of Gambia provided welcoming warmth. Once I arrived at my room at the Kairaba Beach Hotel I received the saddest news I had heard for a long time. My dearest niece had sent me a note to say that John had transitioned to another phase of life. He must have died while I was on the way to Gambia. I felt it my duty to return to Trinidad immediately and participate in his last rites with his wife and family. Alas, the trip was deemed too long for my physical well-being. Having traveled twelve hours the day before (from Boston to Gambia via London), I was advised that it would have been ruinous on my health to undertake another trip of eighteen hours that it would take to travel from Gambia to Trinidad via London.

I was forced to follow the dictates of my medical adviser and therefore I am not present to deliver these words in person. However, I trust that the person who reads these lines would deliver them with the same passion that I feel.

John was one of our shining lights, one of the most promising scholars and teachers of his generation. I shared many moments in his career. While John worked with me, I introduced him on to the works of Edward Said (he particularly like Edward Said’s Representations of the Intellectual), Hayden White (Tropics of Discourse), Michel Foucault, Archaeology of Knowledge, and other books in that theoretical vein. As faith would have it, I was asked to be an outside reader of his undergraduate thesis of which he received first class honors. I never told him that I was the reader of his thesis.

Having successfully completed his undergraduate degree, John went on to complete a M Phil at UWI. It has a rather elaborate title: “The Emergence of the Thinker Activist: An Exploration into the Nature of Caribbean Intellectual Thought and the Literary Dimension of the Historical Philosophy of C. L.R. James.” John and I spoke a lot about his thesis since I had just completed a book that was entitled C. L.R. James: His Intellectual Legacies.

Having completed his M Phil, the question arose, Where should he do his graduate degree? We (certainly I) had ruled out UWI. I was convinced that a scholar of his caliber would have been better served if he did his graduate degree at a school where he had done his undergraduate degree. John applied to several graduate schools. He was accepted at the University of Rochester in New York at which a famous scholar on slavery was teaching, and Cambridge University. Fortunately, my friend BJ (Biodun Jeyifo) of Harvard University was visiting Trinidad at the time. We agreed that John would be better served if he attended Cambridge University.

John did extreme well at Cambridge, having written a thesis entitled, “Managing Human Resources on a British West Indian Sugar Plantation, 1770-1834” for which he was awarded his doctorate in 1999. Some years later, his thesis was published as Beyond Massa: Sugar Management in the British Caribbean (2007). After leaving Cambridge, John traveled to Mona, Jamaica where he was appointed as a lecturer in history where I believe he came under the influence of Professor Verne Sheppard, if memory serves me correctly. At any rate, he admired her work enormously.

John and I lost contact while he was in Jamaica. He must have been there for about three years after which he was posted to UWI at St. Augustine. His colleagues at St. Augustine would certainly know more about his work there better than I do. I am told that he developed the course on Caribbean civilization that became a stable across the various branches of the University of the West Indies. It seems to be one of the more successful university courses that was offered on line. In this context, I must also thank John who invited me to participate in this magnificent journey by allowing me to deliver a few lectures on various occasions to his class.

I must also thank John and the history department for hosting me as I delivered a lecture to a filled UWI lecture hall (I don’t remember the name of the hall now) and his hosting of a luncheon seminar on William Hardin Burnley, the subject of my new book that will be published later this year. In a way, our careers dovetailed. I evaluated John’s undergraduate thesis while I was in Ibadan, Nigeria. I heard of his death while I was in Gambia, West Africa. What a wonderful coincidence. I don’t know if this testifies to how much we rooted our work in an African sensibility. It certainly shows in our love for Africa and the tremendous contribution that African people have made to world civilization.

I was scheduled to perform on January 13, the evening after I arrived. I attended my duties with a heavy heart. That evening Linton Kwesi Johnston, an original poetic voice that is rooted in the oral poetic tradition of Africa and the Caribbean, read from his Selected Poems. “Sonny’s Lettah,” one of the poems he read that evening touched me deeply. In it, he apologized to his mother for not taking care of Sonny, presumably his little brother that was placed under his care. The letter was written from Brixtan Prison, in South West England.

It read in part:
Dear Mama,
Good Day.
I hope dat wen
Deze few lines reach yu,
They may find yu in di best af helt.

I really don’t know how fi tell yu dis,
Cause I did mek a silim pramis
Fi tek care a likkle Jim
And try mi best fi look out fi him.

I really did try mi bes,
but nondiles
Mi sarry fi tell yu seh
Poor likkle Jim get arres.

As I heard these words, I felt a bit guilty. I had met John’s father several times at his home in San Fernando. He had worked on the Nation (PNM’s weekly paper) with C.L.R. James. I may be wrong but I thought that John’s father saw in John an embodiment of all the things that James had stood for. John certainly reciprocated by embracing James’s work. John’s father had told John that he should listen to me and follow my advice and I, in turn, promised John’s father that I would look after John in terms of his academic and spiritual growth. I don’t know if I failed John’s father and mother, but as Johnson read from his poem, I thought of John and his short life being cut down by forces over which none of us have any control.

In Johnson’s poem Jim was held in prison for acting in his own self-defense. For several years John seemed have been imprisoned in a disease that left him physically incapacitated but he kept on doing his work with the optimism and hope that one expects from a true scholar and teacher who is committed to the shaping and sharing knowledge about his people and their history. Future generations would note that he did an outstanding job in both of these enterprises. UWI, I am sure would be the less because of his loss.

Gillian Campbell, John’s wife, must be complimented for the years she devoted to his care. John spent about three weeks at my home in Wellesley when he was operated upon for his ailments. On another occasion he spent a similar amount of time as he came to check on his condition. I can only testify to how much she cared for her husband and her constant devotion to him at all times.

I know that his family, particularly his mother, is devastated by his loss. He was the eyeball of the family and for good reason. He treasured them and always looked out for their well-being. In this, he acted as the father to his brothers and sisters, filling in the void that his father left when he passed.

In moments such as these, we all turn to our belief in a higher power to assuage our grief. John was a good Catholic. He knows that his home lies elsewhere; a place or a state in which he would be free from all pain; or as my buddy BJ would say where all our spirits will meet one day. May God in his traveling mercies grant John the peace and comfort that he deserves.

Now he is gone. May his soul rest in peace as he joins our ancestors in a place or a space to which we all must go.

[Dr. John Campbell departed this life on January 9, 2018, at St. Augustine, Trinidad, W.I.]

2 thoughts on “In Tribute to John Campbell”

  1. Indeed I am deeply saddened by this but of news. I had reason to consult with Dr. Campbell while I was a part-time student at UWI(St. Augustine) He enthusiastically encouraged me to research a particular topic of Social History in which he was interested. He was a man of great compassion and sincerity, and together with Dr. Brereton provided “quiet assistance” in my endeavour.
    I was happy to read the poem presented by Linton Kwesi Johnson, for whom I have much respect and admiration.

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