By Raffique Shah
August 02, 2019
A tragedy of our times is the absolute ignorance of the vast majority of our population of the nation’s history. And for once I cannot blame this void on information technology, on the electronic devices that most young people and many mature ones are glued to, in most instances day and night.
I have found my computer and tablet to be invaluable tools in researching information on just about any topic, once I bear in mind there is a minefield of misinformation, bogus data and fake news that I must navigate with caution lest I be made to look like a fool citing them as facts. But there is a wealth of history out there, much of which can be accessed for free, or through books that are available at reasonable prices.
As we mark another Emancipation Day on Thursday, and one month later the 57th anniversary of independence, realistically, what do these celebratory occasions mean to the average citizen? I should add that I am not targeting the young, for whom names such as Makandal Daaga and Eric Williams may mean nothing. The “millennials”, as those born in the 21st Century are labelled, can justifiably blame the generations ahead of them for having failed to document the history of our times.
Dr Williams was himself a historian by profession, and notwithstanding his virtual immersion in active politics for much of his adult life, he wrote several books on the history of Trinidad and Tobago and the wider Caribbean. As could be expected, while they provided a wealth of information by way of dates, occurrences and statistics on the economy and related matters, they were quite subjective when it came to assessing public figures who played pivotal roles in the development of the country.
As a columnist in a national newspaper, I understand how easy it is for writers and commentators on politics to slide into subjectivity, especially when one has been part of history, and when one is dealing with, say, politicians for whom one has or had little respect. Dr Williams in his book “The history of the people of Trinidad and Tobago”, savaged his immediate predecessor Albert Gomes thus: “…(Arthur) Cipriani, (Uriah) Butler and (Patrick) Solomon laboured, each in his own way in the vineyard, only to produce the barren fruit of Gomes.”
Big Bertie Gomes deserved a few clouts, based on what I have read of our pre-independence politics, over which he loomed large, literally. Under his watch as Chief Minister, several acts of corruption were said to have occurred that involved kickbacks. Gomes and his colleagues were also accused of squandering what little money there was available to them as a cabinet of sorts in a British colony.
But Gomes had also been at the forefront of the anti-colonial movement from as far back as the 1930s. He had campaigned for steelbands and other indigenous cultural and spiritual expressions to be recognised and enjoy freedoms. He was, too, editor of The Beacon magazine that featured anti-colonial articles and served as a forum for local writers to have their works published.
In any event, which political party that held power after Gomes’s short stint (1950-1956) was untainted by the brush of corruption? By comparison, Williams’s five consecutive terms in office—as Premier and Prime Minister—were dogged by allegations of wanton waste and unbridled corruption. And governments that followed his were swimming in the sewage of squander-mania and grand theft.
Whether these men were good or bad for the country, they were part of our history, and people ought to know about their lives and contributions. Emancipation Day and Independence Day will come and go, and none of them will be featured in any forum or film or theatre associated with the two events. They have both adopted formats that exclude recognition of some of the most notable nationals.
Take Cyril Lionel Robert James, fondly called “CLR” or “Nello”, as an example. He was arguably the greatest intellectual ever to have been born here. How many people know anything about this illustrious son of the soil who was a prolific writer, eminent historian, outstanding political thinker and social analyst, and more, much more?
CLR, who was born in Tunapuna in 1901, won an exhibition to enter QRC before he was 10. Shortly after he graduated from Sixth Form, he taught History and English at the then prestigious college. Among his students was one Eric Williams, with whom he would later link up as a mentor of sorts: it is said, but I have no confirmation of this, that CLR guided Williams when he worked on his doctoral thesis at Oxford University, which would later be expanded and published as Capitalism and Slavery. Its theme challenged the notion that slavery was abolished because of a campaign by a few good White men.
I cannot delve into CLR’s sterling and stunning achievements here. Suffice it to say that besides writing hundreds of essays and scores of pamphlets, many of them on socialism, Pan Africanism, West Indian independence and cricket (yes, cricket!), he was a tireless political activist who spoke and wrote critically about the Russian revolution (state capitalism, not communism, he insisted). He spent some time in Mexico exchanging ideas with Leon Trotsky who had fled from Lenin and Russia, rubbed shoulders with Britain’s Bertrand Russel, and working with another Trinidad-born Pan Africanist, George Padmore, helped mould many of the leaders of post-colonial Africa, chief among them Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah and Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta.
I think four of his books should be on the curricula of our education system: at the secondary schools level, Minty Alley and Beyond A Boundary, and at the tertiary level, Every Cook Can Govern and his magnum opus, Black Jacobins, which I first read thirty-or-more years ago, and re-read three years ago.
If, or hopefully when you read any or all of these books, you might join me in asking: why is CLR James a man without honour in his native land?