By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
May 02, 2022
PART I — PART II
The general election of 1946 ushered in a new phase in Trinidad and Tobago’s political development, in that it was the year in which universal suffrage was introduced into the island. In that year, Patrick Solomon formed the West Indian National Party with Dr David Pitt, which later became the Caribbean Socialist Party.
Between 1950 and 1956, Albert Gomes, who considered himself “the logical successor to Captain Cipriani”, formed the Party of Political Progress Groups to contest the 1956 election. Owen Mathurin argues, “Gomes’s outstanding ambition was to outdo Cipriani and replace him as the hero in the hearts of the black working class.” Although the Colonial Office saw Gomes as their “blue-eyed boy”, he was not regarded as the champion of the working class, as he had seen himself.
In 1956, the People’s National Movement (PNM) came onto the political stage, with Dr Eric Williams as the political leader and Learie Nicholas Constantine as its chairman. The party offered a coherent programme that resembled the People’s National Party of Jamaica, which led in part to its electoral success in 1956. In 1962, in the aftermath of the collapse of the West Indian Federation, T&T became an independent country.
Besides outlining the political development of the island, I now wish to give five personal examples to demonstrate how ordinary people responded to these events.
My mother, who was born in 1908, always spoke of her grandfather’s alarm when he heard Cipriani had proposed to offer an old-age pension to the citizens. He said to his wife, “Rose, you ever hear such stupidness in your life? You ent working, but yet the government would give you money.” My great-grandfather couldn’t understand that Cipriani was proposing a new social concept in government.
The second example recounts an exchange between my former principal, Cecil Ifill, and Constantine, who ran against Pat Mathura for the Tunapuna seat in 1956. After Constantine offered an illuminating dissertation of how Williams and the PNM were bringing self-government to the island, Ifill insisted that we always had self-governmentsince our parents had to control their lives and do the best they could with the little finances they had, “PNM did not bring us self-government; it is something we had practised in our homes, in our village councils, and in our mothers’ unions long before PNM arrived.”
A third example revolves around my neighbour Victor Bailey, an employee of the Trinidad Sugar Estates, or “OG”, as we called it. It was owned initially by William Hardin Burnley, the largest slave owner in the island. Taking the initiative, Bailey was bold enough to introduce Williams when he spoke at the Tacarigua EC School. The meeting was a success and all ended well, or so Bailey thought.
When Bailey reported back to work the next morning, his boss, Mr Howard, the manager of the estate, called him into the office and told him that if he ever appeared on another PNM platform, he would be fired immediately. In those days, the OG Estate was one of the few places that provided villagers with jobs. We also rented land from that company on which we built our houses. Bailey only bowed his head and walked away, but he remained a dedicated member of the PNM and devoted himself to the party. Threat or not, he knew his political saviour had arrived.
I was also at Dinsley Junction in 1956 when Gomes sought to address us at a political meeting. He never got a word out, so stringent was the heckling. He was dismissed as “a big-belly man” who was simply a relic of the past. He was defeated by Ulric Lee, a 28-year-old young man, the most unlikely person to defeat Gomes. who had said at a regional meeting in Barbados, “I am the Government of Trinidad”.
My last example is an incident that took place in the early ’60s in Eddie Hart’s gallery. We were liming there when George Jordan, in an argument with the other guys, proclaimed vociferously: “There are three people ah could kill for—my mother, Eric Williams and Garfield Sobers.” This was his declaration of devotion to the new party.
Growing up in that little village, I was an integral part of the politics taking place there. I attended PNM meetings, marched in the rain from Chaguaramas to Woodford Square, and was one of the young delegates from my village who offered a short comment when Williams had his constitutional hearings at Queen’s Hall. It was such an honour to be in the presence of Williams and to say a few words to him.
My earliest education came under the tutelage of Williams, Constantine, James and the other PNM stalwarts in the various public spaces that they deemed colleges and universities. That’s why I include these personal experiences in this trajectory of events that was so instrumental in my personal formation and in that of so many other citizens. We are products of those who did the preparatory work for our political independence.
Romila Thapper, an Indian historian, says history is very important in building one’s identity, which is why she immersed herself in learning about the early years of India’s independence. “You have to get your history right, otherwise your nationalism doesn’t work.” (Financial Times, April 23.)
T&T’s independence has brought us many challenges, including fusing the many ethnic groups together, bridging the increasing gap between the rich and poor, and the spectre of corruption in our midst. This is why we need to pay attention to our past—there are lessons there that can teach us about our future.