Remembering Eric Williams

By Raffique Shah
September 24, 2011

Eric WilliamsTHIRTY-FIVE years ago yesterday, I became an MP in the first Parliament of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. It was an historic moment in many ways. I affirmed, meaning I did not take an oath using one of the holy books, which was not a first. But when I raised a clenched fist, symbol of the Black Power movement, as Clerk of the House Emmanuel Carter administered the affirmation, I glanced at Prime Minister Dr Eric Williams.

He was not looking in my direction: I imagined then that he did not want to witness the unthinkable.

Young and daring, I had gone to the House to make a statement, to ruffle conservative feathers. I wore a kakhi, militant-looking outfit, short sleeves, complete with epaulettes. I also wore my old army combat boots. Williams had never anticipated that moment—the arrival of Black Power in Parliament (Winston Murray of Tobago also affirmed with the clenched fist). His worst nightmare, an unrepentant mutineer taking a seat in what they saw as an august chamber, was playing out live before him.

As if to rub salt in Williams’ wound, the following day the Express chose that image to adorn its front page. At a time when there was no television coverage of parliamentary sittings, no cellphones-cum-cameras, no You Tube, newspapers were the main source of information for the public and the world.

People who disliked Williams and the People’s National Movement (PNM) in the wake of 1970 applauded my defiance. Others, Williams’ supporters—and they were many—were appalled at my stance, my breaking the conventions of the Warminster model of government. I should add that for the five years I remained an MP, I maintained my own dress code. And in the 41 years since 1970, I have never worn a tie or a suit.

This column is not about me, though. It is about Dr Williams, who, had he lived, would have marked his 100th birthday today. I know there are some functions to celebrate the occasion. But for a minor personal problem, I would have been in England (along with Raoul Pantin, Selwyn Ryan and Brinsley Samaroo), preparing for a one-day conference at the University of London on Tuesday on the life and legacies of Dr Williams. Today, a number of academics are at Oxford University winding up a two-day discourse on Williams’ contribution to history and to academia.

The centenary of the birth of a man who, as an individual, has had the greatest impact on the destiny of our nation, should have sparked much more interest than what we are not seeing. This is one of the tragedies of our time, of our country. We have no sense of history. We have succumbed to the fast-paced world of modern technology in which yesterday is history, last week never happened, and last year is not even a memory.

I am not suggesting that people come together to sing hallelujahs to Williams. Cuss him if you will for his sins of neglect of the “PNM constituency”—Laventille, Morvant, East Dry River—that wallows in misery 50-odd years after he first held the reins of government. Damn him for leaving us an incomplete education system that today churns out sub-standard material. Blame him for our crime woes, for not diversifying the economy, for leaving the country in a mess after 25 years as Prime Minister.

But recognise the man as one of the great leaders of his time, and possibly of all times, given that today, political pygmies crowd the global political stage. His contemporaries were giants like Norman Manley, Fidel Castro and Grantley Adams of the Caribbean, Jawaharlal Nehru, Gamal Nasser, Kwame Nkrumah, Ahmed Ben Bella of newly-independent ex-colonies, and Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, Nikita Kruschev, Willy Brandt and John Kennedy of the developed world. He knew most of these men. There was mutual respect among them.

Their names may mean nothing to today’s generations. In fact, even our politicians may not know of them, which is an indicator of our sense of history, or absence thereof.

Eric Williams was no saint. His arrogance knew no bounds. Last week, during a panel discussion on radio, Ferdie Ferreira, a foundation member of the PNM, described him as “unforgiving”. I saw him as a walking contradiction, someone who recognised the savagery of slavery, indentureship and colonialism, but who easily sacrificed the lofty ideals of liberation of his people on the altar of opportunism.

In other words, whatever it took to retain power, he did it. But isn’t that true of just about every politician? Only fools hold on to principles, which is why they never come close to the corridors of power.

Williams introduced an intellectual dimension to local politics at a time when running for office meant bad-mouthing one’s opponents and making promises one could never keep. He built the PNM on a strong foundation of party discipline, something that was absent in all the opposition parties.

Initially, he promoted development planning for the country, as distinct from governing “by vaps”. He would later eschew this, alienating the bright public servants who were architects of central planning.

He introduced free education at selected secondary schools in 1959, which took a tremendous burden off parents of poor but bright students. I was among the thousands of students who benefitted from that.

Whatever one may think of Dr Williams, what is indisputable is that he was a foundation pillar of modern Trinidad and Tobago. No one can deny him that place of pride in the nation’s history.

25 thoughts on “Remembering Eric Williams”

  1. I see merit in your gratitude Uncle Shah, as the fact that you were able to evolve into a trade unionist turned MP, and 35 years later ,metamorphosed into a respected journalist , still alive , even as,you deemed yourself as a “unrepentant mutineer…,”is full testament to our solid democratic foundation,as laid by him.
    I dare anyone on the planet , to tell me of another country, where this would have occurred, or worst yet , the tragedy that took place in 1990 , by Lennox Phillip, aka Yasin Abu Bakr , and his criminal, over zealous bunch, as here ,another character, who once took a solemn oath as a law enforcement officer,with promise to serve his people ,eventually succumbed to greed,and self serving mania , and so evolved into a law abuser of the highest order -treason – while hiding behind his misunderstood , over politicized religion.
    As for Winston Murray? Well,sadly,Tobago 35 years later is worst off than it was on that special day, you reminded us of, where he too raised his fist.
    Not sure who to credit for that revolting state of affairs, Pappa Eric , de vindictive egomaniac, Winston Murray, ANR Robinson , Dr Rowley ,or Morgan Job, all Tobago betrayers,Patrick Manning, a lifetime Eric Williams ,wannabe,George Chambers a politically clueless tortured soul, or Basdeo Panday , and his numerous protégées , who allowed divisiveness , and selfish, neo tribalistic politics ,to ruin any chance of Tobago ,and by extension T&T ,achieving any semblance of sustainable development – in keeping with it’s vast resources.
    May our stellar democratic ideals be continually cherished -but not , as is the norm ,via lip service- and preserved by present regime, and any, that replace them down the road.
    We the few remaining patriots, wish our country well.

  2. “I saw him as a walking contradiction, someone who recognised the savagery of slavery, indentureship and colonialism, but who easily sacrificed the lofty ideals of liberation of his people on the altar of opportunism.”

    This statement perhaps best describe Eric. When he was in charge of the nation you knew everything was going to be alright. Shah was lucky to have escape his wrath.

  3. Well Mr Shah….you should be the one who will always remember the late Prime Minister Mr Williams..because you and your friend Lassalle tried to overthrow his government….by the way where is ur friend all should have been in prison today or even execute for that seventies

  4. I saw him as the arrogant professor. He knew his subject but was too involved with it to see the problems that the subject presented. He was unwilling or unable to step back and look at anything from a different angle. His was the way it should be and if you didn’t see it that way he gave you a bad grade and you failed the course.
    However, I disagree with you on the statement, “Cuss him if you will for his sins of neglect of the “PNM constituency”—Laventille, Morvant, East Dry River—that wallows in misery 50-odd years after he first held the reins of government.” There are many of us that came out of those neighbourhoods and did not want to have the government give us everything we wanted but went seeking and learning how to seek and provide for ourselves and later our families.
    My greatest peeve about him is he did not point to himself and try to instil in people that one does not have to cut off someone else’s legs to stand taller than them. One does not also have to climb on someone else’s back to be taller than them. One can look for one’s own mountain or hill and climb it and along the way there will always be people climbing the same mountain that will give you a hand if you stumble.
    I also put at his doorstep the fact that this country still has a great divide between African and Indian. And having looked at it this divide exist primarily at the bottom of the economic ladder. Why it is still happening I do not understand.

  5. Raffique you fail to mention one of the greatest orators of all times he Castro and another gentleman was once mentioned as the three greatest orators of all time. He is responsible for developing putting Trinidad nad Tobago on the world stage. His name and memory must never forgoten when the history of Trinidad and tobago is mentioned.One of the greatest politicians of all times.

  6. Any alleged Father of a nation, that could destroy the career, and life of his own teacher in CLR James , ban fervent pan Afrikan , humanist , political activist ,Stokley Carmichael, a student of his , from his country of birth ,and to me personally ,allow his revengeful, distrustful, self opinionated mania , to turn the entire twin island of Tobago into a regional economic modern day Haiti (with a slight tweak) , and social garbage heap , simply due to his eventual contempt for the then young ,ambitious ANR Robinson ,should not be revered.
    As I said before ,I am quite aware as to why Uncle Shah ,looks at him with some subtle admiration, and why others-many of whom are today in the political drivers seat -should be grateful for his emergence.
    Eric Williams unfortunately, like most so called ,Afrikan educated ,neo imperialists ,globally , for all the empty adulations by a delusional few beneficiaries, have done more harm to their own race, ethnicities ,and kind, due to an ingrained sense of self loathing , and over exuberant adoration for others. In today’s parlance, we would refer to them as mere ‘community pimps,’ that would ride the backs of their people , trot out Massa exploitation when it suit their purposes ,while exploiting their people , at will.
    As for my country specifically, our East Indian brothers ,and sisters ,privileged old monied, Euro-Trinis, and similarly cuddled , economic minorities,in their lofty positions , would not be possible , had it not been for his stewardship , and the mentally deficient minions, that blindly followed his suspect ‘all aha we ah one family ,mantra,’ from 1956 , to 1981,and beyond.
    It is my fervent hope that new leaders can very soon emerge, to eradicate this sad Papa Eric legacy, and the unfortunate fall outs that accrued.
    In case you the readers were sleeping , or is still locked in some media drunken stupor, here it is. This includes divisive evils , as played out so well, by the political race baiter in chief, Basdeo Panday ,aka ‘de Caribbean Nehru incarnated,’ as he fought without much success to triumph politically ,blaming every thing but the sun and the moon for repeated failures…. until, yes until… and finally until.
    It likewise included, two large masses of people , both Indian , and Afrikans of course, stuck at the lower echelons, of our socio economic classes, and the few self serving grateful others, from both groups that have done quite well, but today ,at every opportunity,would do whatever feasible to stroke the fires of divisions ,they secretly wish could ignite , to stupidly prove that their assumptions were correct. They are the superior ones, and all the social failures,and degenerate criminals, are just that, savages, who deserves their lots in life, due solely to some inner deficiencies.
    A shout out to her Majesty Queen K. Hey, your royal highness , you have a year or two ,to prove that the people’s confidence in you were right, so don’t squander it.
    Get to work. Enough with the foreign Euro , fake experts, idle faith in incompetent fanlike policy wonks,and looking over the shoulder in similar fashion to Lot’s wife,for you know how this script would work out, and you’ll have no one to blame but yourself.
    We the socially conscious ,must not hesitate to remain vigilant ,expose this them when ever possible , as our national interest are ignored, democratic principles eroded , often in the name of security, and worst yet , our resources squandered, as the people who deserves it , are left wanting.
    Ah well, still attempting to peddle dis citizenship of mine, to an unsuspecting European, Asian, wider Caribbean ,Afrikan, Norte Americana , South American,wishing in desperation, for a better life, in la Trinity,T&T, aka Calaloo/ Jambalaya Nation.
    It,s a beautiful life, and yes , Eric Williams was a great man , – depending on who is ask. Erica Williams,or the common entrance , so called freely educated folks ,STILL unable to escape -through no fault of their own – the ecio economic quagmire.

  7. I personally liked Eric because under his stewardship I was able to get a Secondary School education. My brothers who were a few years older than me just missed out. I would go on to obtain my degree and live a fairly good life thanks to the opportunity given to me by Eric’s vision. Our current Prime Minister did something similarly when educational opportunities continued to expand under the UNC as she was Minister of Education. Despite severe criticism from Manning’s PNM.

    Coming from the rural area under Eric’s stewardship our roads were patched, grass on the side cut, drains cleared and truck borne supply of water during the dry season was a must. That would not happen under Manning’s PNM. Rural areas was neglected. At Christmas time my father recieved his “christmas bonus”, because of Eric’s generosity and we had a really good time.

    On the downside, racism was rampant and I do not blame Eric for it, it was simply the era of PNM badjonism. On the upside he gave black folks a strong party and the abilty to govern the nation for at least 4 decades. Good or bad the nation’s stability is owned much to Eric’s vision. It is fitting that these lectures continue because a few short years from now and those who carry the history of the Greatest Prime Minister T&T ever had would be gone forever.

    Good and bad was Eric’s rule, you could swing it either way. For me being the optimist I prefer to see the good.

    1. I see the somewhat “great full” Indo forgot Mr Manning’s “Free University” program complete with two brand new Universities for ALL the citizens of T&T. black ppl should remember those you help will turn on you in the end.(no good deed goes UNPUNISHED!)

  8. “We have succumbed to the fast-paced world of modern technology in which yesterday is history, last week never happened, and last year is not even a memory.” – Raffique Shah. Another great article by one of our most honest and patriotic journalists who sees his past, present and future as being a loyal citizen of Trinidad & Tobago. I applaud you for the clarity and fortrightness in which you examine the issues that face us as a nation and people. I too came from a poor background and had to pay for secondary and post secondary education until Dr. Williams came on the scene. He was the first to push education as a means to upward mobility for the citizens of this country and by all means we should cherish his leadership and commemorate his stewardship of government for the people and by the people. I saw Dr. Williams as a great teacher and public servant never mind a politician. My criticism of him (Dr. Williams) lies in his politics and his inability to advance the cause of the very people he represented in parliament. No one man can be everything to everybody and whereas Dr. Williams is heralded for taking us through the period of colonialism to independence, he made some serious political mistakes along the way and we are seeing the results of those mistakes as problems in our society today. He also made some political master stokes which helped in making our society more integrated. In reading most of the postings on this blog one gets the impression that our society began yesterday or when the last government took office. This is so because there is a pattern discontinuance of convention with each change of government. Most countries advance their standings by continuing what is working and discarding what does’nt, but we have become a nation of personalities where one can hardly discern (based on our blogging) that we all expect and care for the same necessities in order to live. For example crime such as kidnapping, is something which most reasonable citizens abhor and detest, yet when the subject is articulated in the media one gets the impression that it is only a particular segment is victimized by it. When one is kidnapped we all become victim whether real or imagined, there is serious fear and insecurity placed in us when a fellow citizen is taken for such criminal behaviour against his or her will and money demanded as ransome. We should have no difficulty in expressing our disgust for such criminal behaviour whether we are black, brown, white, yellow or otherwise.

  9. Those who never held the reins of government, never was the primary person responsible for anything, will continue to know Eric Williams for his percieved failings. Let me, as an Eric Williams Scholar, say a few things he did, on the day when Dr. Selwyn cudjoe is reading poetry in his honour, at his Alma MAter, Oxford University.

    He made education available to all, regardless of economic class, by expanding the College Exhibition Exams. fron giving one hundred free places, to free places for everyone.No longer would the child of a fruit vendor at the side of the road, or a single parent holding a stall at the market, be denied an education.

    Free secondary and tertiary education is still not available in ANY developed country. True the areas on studies were restricted, but one could get the advanced degree in an ara that the nation needed, then branch out an d study something else.

    He forbad the sale of large chunks of our country to foreigners, by passing The ALiens LAndholding Ordinance, after three readins in one night of PArliament. When day broke, we had a new law, and the Englishman who had come to buy up all three car dealerships, was stoppd dead in his tracks. This law lso made it possible for Trinis to walk on lall the beaches of their country, any time the tides permitted. There were no privatebeaches in his time.
    He stood up to the Americans on the Chaguaramus issue, and they had to leave. Further, when they wanted to dump fruit from the Tucker VAlley onto our institutions, we did not understand how that would negatively affect the small farmer, but he showed us what dumping does. The fruit in Tucker VAlley was left to rot. He was not an economistfor nothing.

    Under his eadership, the Unit Trust Corportion was founded. Its still one of our best institutions.Unlike Clico and the Hindu Credit Union, it remains bastion of economic stability.

    He opened up the possibility of good relations with Africa and India, and had heads of state from both countinents come to visit, after he first travelled to Africa.
    He tried to establish a concordat with religious institutions in terms of the control of their schools, which they fought tooth and claw against. He opened up public secondary schools to religious instructions for those who wanted it.WE continue to have a system where the state pays the salaries of teeachers in Denominational Schools, while they reserve the right to exclude some children from their institutions.Nowhere else in the world is this unheard of situation existing.

    He expanded teacer training ,both through additional teacher training coleges, and through scholarships of teachers to UWI.

    He gave us pride in who we are, Trinidadians. We stopped looking to Mother England for everythingg we were able to stand on our own, make treaties with other countries, and for co-operative alliances.

    Like all briliant people, he could not find many others who encompassed his vision for Trinidad and Tobago. A pity.
    On this 100th anniversary of his birth, I know that every person in our land sixty years and younger, who di not just get off a boat from some stow away place, benefitted from his being our lader.

    I know an immigrant from one of the other islands, who cannot read, and so is a domestic servant. Her daughter is tops in ghher class at secondary school, her son, is UWI senior year stuudent.Her husband, a Trin born is a plumber. Their children’s future would be so much brighter.

    Eric Williams laid the framework for the success of the two children.In the islands of the eastern CAribbea, in Guyana and India, the places where illegal immigrants flock to Trinidad from, education is still the reserve of the privileged. Williams saved us from that.

    1. Sorry Ms Edwards Dr Williams was NOT an economist! He was a Historian a Dr of History. He began his career quoting Lenin & ended it quoting right wing Milton Friedman the man that helped General Pinochet in Chile turn that country into a FIRST World country. I wish Dr Williams had followed the Guardian’s advice back in 1975 and COPY Singapore.(he REFUSED and that’s why YOU & I are living in North America)

  10. What I particularly remember is the Times obituary. It said – I cannot quote it exactly – that perhaps his greatest legacy was to have created the institutions needed for a peaceful succession. Not so long before I had returned from studies abroad, and I was struck by the numbers of displaced people I met. Survivors of the Holocaust, survivors of Stalin’s work camps. Refugees from Uganda, Angola and the Far East. Eric Williams gave us a reasonably stable government and a fair chance at self sufficiency. For that we should forgive him much.

  11. Yes he has had the greatest impact on the destiny of T&T.Re name the airport “Dr Eric Williams Int Airport” or short “The Dew”.Give the man the credit that he is due,it”s about time Trini.

    1. You cannot name something for Dr. Williams that has a set of mismatched tiles all or the place. Obviously the tileman contractor did not know that you could order quality tiles, even a million, and get them in precisely the same color. Everytime I walk through our airport, I think of a dog with mange. No No No No, do not dishonor him with this monstrosity.

  12. No Da King, that honor is reserved for Queen K’s mentor, Basdeo Panday, and it would be a fitting reminder of what a conniving crook he was, and the corruption he encouraged as leader of this country for a short period. Just maybe , dis really shows subliminally, what you truly feels about your former PM , and father of de nation, dat you wish to pay tribute to him, with such a relic , and symbol of thievery ,and politico/economic , non transparency, and blatant corruption ,that would make anything in Lagos,or Bombay , pail in comparison, eeeeh Da king?

    1. Yes Neal.I understand your sentiment however you are going too deep with the subliminally stuff.On the the surface it would be a wonderful symbol to the vision the man had for us and he pursued that vision with a determined fervor.Throughout the Carribean there are several islands that name their Airport after the leader the fought for their Independence.

  13. Occasionally,I thank God for many blessings,amongst them wisdom and the acquisition of memory.It is virtually impossible to forget my only encounter with Dr.Eric Williams.Born and raised in Mon Repos San Fernando;it was a delight to hear the sound of a megaphone as a fourteen year old:”burgesses of the North-eastern ward tonight at the police station.”

    My blessed mother together with other parents informed us that “there will be a political meeting tonight.”On the stairs of an unfinished government building we assembled ourselves to listen.While the keynote speaker rambled on;this well dressed gentleman gently made his way through the crowd,and sat next to me with a “hello and a smile” I have never forgotten.

    This is true:whether you love or dis-like him;once you have met him “you know you have met a very distinguished gentleman”Immediately three things about him became noticeable.1)I had never(1956)seen anyone wear tinted/dark glasses at night.2)He wore an apparatus in one ear which I learnt later was “a hearing aid” 3)He revealed a pack of “anchor special” cigarettes;and with all my travels in North America I have never met anyone who “chain smoke” like the late Dr.Eric Williams.

    Several people spoke that evening.I am still un-aware as to who is the gentleman next to me.Then,the late Dr.Winston Mahabir (aka “silver tongue”) took the microphone;and delivered a masterpiece.Arguably,one of the best orators I have heard.

    Finally,”ladies and gentlemen our leader Dr.Eric Williams” He rose turned to me;and very politely remarked “excuse me” I remained speechless for what seemed like eternity;as my gaze followed him to the microphone.On that historic evening very eloquently,he addressed children,young,old,and retired people.What I admired most about him was his ability to include Asian people,African people,Caucasian people,and those of mixed races.History will record that people of all races,and religion,were members of his “Peoples National Movement” “Morality in public affairs.” God rest his soul.

    1. Dr Williams wore dark glasses to HIDE his BLUE EYES! His mother was a white member of the French creole class, his grand parents used to sell slaves in Port of Spain.

      1. Dr. Williams was a diabetic who needed to protect his eyes from glaring sunlight. There are pictures of him in glasses, looking rather myopic, but his eyes were definitely not blue. This is scurrilous silliness at its worst! You should be ashamed. My grandmother was white, but my eyes are brown. Blue eyes on dark skinned people is a rare genetic abberation.

        1. I had read that in Dr Job’s “Think Again” book, but Dr Job is correct that Williams did NOT understand economics that’s why we are living in North America instead of T&T!

  14. Thank you, Swordfish, for that memoir. He electrified the country with political meetings, and educated us in Woodford Square. No matter what the present government says or does with respect to last Sunday, we know that he was the founder of the nation. Recognizing his leadership, they quickly found Dr. Rudranath Capildeo to run their party as Bhadase was illiterate.(My father used to sign for his paychek for him, when he worked as a grass cutter in Waller Field).Poor Dr. Capildeo was a fish out of water, but he did what his people wanted. Williams knew his transforming effect on our society, and that is why he did not want a single memorial at a gravesite. If the people could not honor him by their attitude and achievements in education, he wanted no stone or statue.
    I was so pleased to hear from Selwyn Cudjoe that he was reading poetry at Oxford University on Sunday last, in the Doc’s honor.

    1. Ms Edwards Dr Williams family background has a part to play in his attitude towards us lesser beings and to certain policies adopted by him. Dr Williams French creole background gave us this “Do not name anything after me” comes from French President Charles De Gaulle after he died in 1970 his Will was published in the newspapers this is where Dr Williams got the idea from. Dr Williams was clearly a “Francophile” also kicking out the US Navy was copied from France after De Gaulle did this in the 1950’s in France with the US Military.(Nato headquarters was in Paris until 1960)

  15. “if they know they didn’t want federation,
    and if they know they didn’t want to unite as one,
    tell the doctor you not in favor…”

  16. Good Mention for a great leader,you always shoot straight.You were so precise in Parliament,you reffered to the man as father of PNM,Not TnT.You knew the floors of the Country in those days.You went thru all Raff.
    Today your knowledge should be spread to youths,who dont know better,but will not get the respect you deserve.
    Eric was a mastermind of a professor.I guess a great Chess Player.He walked around with,UNDATED LETTERS of his Parliamentarians.And called Names to Even his female MPs.FatArse Brigade.Eric saw the writing on the wall after all Corruptions of his Good Ministers Johnny O,Padmore,and the rest.Karl was his great opponent.Remember when Karl wanted to take over.For Kamal to lead.Eric hugged the front seat again.If Eric was around the PNM today,Manning would have never have his wife as a Minister.Rowley could not have done what he is doing today.PNM Today only Professes to like Eric,but They dont.
    Panday and you like goes in goes out of Leadership in Opposition.This was disgraceful.Eric used these as stepping stones to hold on to power.Today much have not changed,Panday goes around Critercising the PM,when he could not even ACCEPT the beating he got from her.He went to Sealots etc,He should Call Patrick Manning and Rebuild a Party to RUIN TNT as they BOTH DID.Ken Gordon could make lots of reccomendations now,He kept the Mirror from Printing Materials.He wanted no Competition from Mirror.Today these People help Bring down TNT .Raff,you do what you do best REPORT REPORE REPORT,

  17. Thank you, Raff, for another great article. Continue to inform the public with your crisp and clear writing.
    I wish to thank Linda Edwards and Mamoo for their sensible and informative responses.

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