By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
October 31, 2022
Last Wednesday, I had lunch with Caroline Elkins, the author of the very important book, Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire. A founding director of Harvard’s Center for African Studies, Elkins is also a professor of history and African and African American studies at Harvard University. As a product of a colonial education, I was particularly impressed with the depth and thoroughness of her study.
Legacy of Violence is particularly important to Trinbagonians who see British people as the exemplar of civility and civic virtues. We called Britain “the mother colony” and tried to emulate her in our manners and constitutional practices. We have never considered Britain’s unrelenting brutality towards those subject people over whom she ruled.
Elkins chronicles the violence that Britain inflicted upon her subjects. She writes: “Violence was not just the British Empire’s midwife, it was endemic to the structures and systems of British rule. It was not just an occasional means to liberal imperialism’s end; it was a means and an end for as long as the British Empire remained alive. Without it, Britain could not have maintained its sovereign claims to its colonies.”
Britain did not hold on to its colonies by using physical force alone. It also consolidated its rule by imposing its culture and ideology on its subjects. Elkins reminds us: “School textbook publishers similarly peddled a civic pride in the empire and provided teachers with history and geography texts that extolled Britain’s civiling mission and reminded Britain’s youth of ‘native savagery’. Whether in or out of the classroom, generations of British schoolchildren were weaned on a triumphant imperial narrative that depicted their nation as waging a moral battle to defend civilisation while also bringing light to the world’s so-called savages.”
So that a part of Britain’s long rule was due to her ideological and cultural onslaught against native people. CLR James and George Padmore are two Trinidadians who responded to Britain’s attempt at ideological brainwashing. Both of them came out of cane fields of Tunapuna, Tacarigua and Arouca, which were located in the Ward of Tacarigua. Although Elkins recognised James’ contribution, she paid much more attention to Padmore, who is usually overlooked in these debates.
Elkins makes three important points about Padmore’s impact upon British imperialist rule. She says: “Even before his arrival in London, Padmore interrogated the white world’s system and zeroed in on European imperialism and the labour question.”
She also noted that “Padmore’s prodigious writing offered a singular clarity of language that gave life to thousands of fractured voices in Britain’s empire. The forcefulness and sheer volume of his prose were not mere rhetorical postures. Rather, facts infused his counter discourse”. She also noted Padmore’s influence on the Black World: “Padmore coined new phrases for the times: ‘fascist-imperialism’ and ‘colonial fascism’. This message spread across the Black world, as Trinidad’s The People and the NAACP’s The Crisis published extracts from his… writings and speeches.”
Padmore, named Malcolm Nurse at his birth, changed his name to George Padmore once he reached the United States and joined the Communist Party in 1927. He befriended revolutionary thinkers such as WEB Du Bois, Ralph Bunche, Alain Locke (USA), Jomo Kenyatta (Kenya), Nnamdi Azikiwe (Nigeria) Isaac Wallace-Johnson (Sierra Leone). In 1929 he moved to Moscow, where he headed the USSR Comintern’s International Trade Union’s Committee on Negro workers. He also deputised for Kwame Nkrumah (prime minister of Ghana) when Sir Stafford Cripps’ daughter, Peggy, married Joe Appiah, an important anti-colonialism Ghanaian leader. Anthony Appiah, the son of Peggy and Joe, is one of the more famous contemporary African and African American scholars.
The Nurses moved into the Tacarigua-Arouca area in 1894. His father, James Hubert Alfonso Nurse, taught both at Arouca Government and the Tacarigua EC School (the Cocoa House), where he eventually became headmaster. Apparently, he was an excellent teacher. When he left the school, the Trinidad Mirror carried the following report: “Never has there been such a heart-rending scene, such a flood of tears, as was witnessed at the Tacarigua Church of England School on Wednesday evening last, the occasion being the departure of Mr HA Nurse who has been the head teacher of this school for some time…
“Wednesday was his last day with his pupils and at the close of the day’s work the pupils were formed up and their head teacher in a short address announced his early departure. He thanked them for their excellent behaviour in the past and for the good work they had done.”
Mr O’Neil, his successor, noted in a somewhat sorrowful tone that Nurse’s departure left the district with “an irreparable loss”. He hoped that “better recognition will attend him in his new sphere [of activity]”. (May 3, 1902.)
Alfonso devoted himself to agricultural education after he left Tacarigua EC. He became an instructor of the Botanical Gardens and wrote many important articles on agriculture that appeared in the Trinidad newspapers at the time. He would’ve been proud of his son’s emergence from the peasant surroundings of Arouca and Tacarigua to international prominence.
In 1946, Peter Abrahams, the South African author of Tell Freedom, sent the following note to Richard Wright, the American author of Native Son, and personal friend of Eric Williams: “As a Negro, Padmore is the most completely political [person] I have ever met.”
Padmore was one of the foremost thinkers against imperialism and racial oppression. We should be more acquainted with his intellectual and political achievements. He would have been one of the foremost supporters of the village council movement from which he evolved. Legacy of Violence reminded us of this truth.