By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
July 23, 2010
Gerard Besson’s The Cult of the Will seeks to challenge the historical orthodoxy that undergirds Dr. Eric Williams’s analysis of the causes of the abolition of slavery and the slave trade and the cruelty he perpetuated against the entire society although whites seems to come out worse in the bargain. According to Besson, Williams sought “to facilitate the stigmatization of Caribbean people of European descent, or those who appear so, through the projection of negative concepts of ‘slave master’ or ‘colonial master,’ to modern-day individuals for political and ideological purposes.”
In spite of its scholarly pretensions and Besson’s thoroughly misunderstood historical concepts and dubious psychological theories, The Cult of the Will turns out to be nothing more than an attempt to defend European (and more specifically, his family’s) privilege by debunking Dr. Williams’s academic and political work. In the process he asks us to accept the British representation of themselves as being concerned only with justice, humanity, and fairness toward enslaved Africans when they ended slavery and the slave trade.
To achieve this end, Besson makes extraordinary claims and fantastical mental leaps. His first claim is that Dr. Williams, a scion of the Besson family, acted as he did because he was cheated of a legacy that was rightfully his and hence Williams’s indulgence in what the author calls “inherited victimhood.” He argues that “the political personality of Dr. Williams was shaped by the 18th century Afro-French Creole plantation experience and the manner in which this was lived in and expressed in the 19th century by the coloured middle class of which he and his extended family were a part.”
Not content with this dubious proposition, he goes on to argue that Dr. Williams “may have been influenced, perhaps even manipulated, by C. L. R. James and other ideologues, who may have had knowledge of his personal circumstances and psychological weaknesses,” the supposition being that James and the other ideologues knew what Besson discovered only recently about Williams’s family history. Besson believes that James and Williams inflicted this tortured legacy upon an unwitting population of political nincompoops.
The book is short on evidence and long on speculation. In fact, it is inundated with so many “mays” and “maybes,” “may have been,” and “may have developed” that one is forced to conclude that speculation is substituted for evidence; bastard psychologizing replaces the logical causation of phenomena; and a jig-saw putting together of historical episodes stands in place of a solid methodological procedure. Such speculative thinking allows Besson to argue that Williams “may have developed the mulatto’s or red man’s complex: the so called ‘chip on the shoulder,’ a sense of racial inferiority; social as well as other inhibitions; and maybe he developed a pathologically suspicious and cynical attitude with regard to Europeans and even perhaps a strong animosity, a rage, against the French Creole community, the colonial establishment of his day, along with a distrust of the legal system that had not supported the family at redress” (my italics).
In the first place, it seems highly irregular that a political personality, or any personality, can be shaped and/or defined by a century prior to the one in which he lived. And while it is true that men’s actions are determined by the weight of the past, they do not make history in any way they choose. So that while Williams’s political activities were determined by 19th century Trinidad (it couldn’t be otherwise), it is difficult to see how his personality was shaped by a previous century in which the social and cultural imperatives were so different.
Such a preamble brings me to the central thrust of Besson’s argument against Williams’s contention that the primary cause for the demise of slavery and the slave trade was economic rather than humanitarian. Whatever one gives primacy to, economic or humanitarian forces, as the ultimately determining factor in history, one cannot ascribe purely subjective motives to Williams’s argument, something that Besson does throughout his book. Dr. Williams could not have written Capitalism and Slavery (1944) without the pioneering work that James did in Black Jacobins (1938), as James could not have written his work without the pioneering effort of Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution (1930). None of these works could have been written before the advent of Marxist dialectics or a materialist conception of history.
It is also of interest to note that Williams dedicated Capitalism and Slavery to Lowell Joseph Ragatz, the author of The Fall of the Planter Class in the British Caribbean, 1763-1833 (1928), a pioneering study that traced the social and economic forces that shaped the Caribbean during that period. Ragatz was the first person Williams wanted to meet when he arrived at Howard University in 1939. Both James and Williams saw The Fall of the Planter Class as a model of scholarship. Ragatz, white and racist, made the following observations in his book: “The West Indian negro had all the characteristics of his race. He stole, he lied, he was simple, suspicious, inefficient, irresponsible, lazy, superstitious, and loose in his sex relations.” In spite of this, Williams could say that Ragatz’s “monumental labours in this field may be amplified and developed but can never be superseded.” This must have been quite a feat for racist Williams, his anti-white views, and his French Creole antipathies.
Besson has a different story to tell. According to his reading of history, Williams and James spoke in forked tongue that misled the natives. The world would have been such a better place if only we had dismissed James’s and Williams’s wrong-headed notions and accepted that the British had spoken “the truth in their rendering of history.” If we had done so, we would not have become the “victims of a conspiracy that withheld the truth about the abolition of slavery and the slave trade” that made us “suffer from colonial injustice and racial prejudice.”
How could Williams and James be so cruel to us?
Single-Mindedly Williams Transformed Our Lives
By Dr. Selwyn R Cudjoe
July 24, 2010
It is Besson’s contention that Williams and James lied to us about the role Africans played in the slave trade. Besson feels that it is only when one understands the magnitude of black (read African) culpability in the slave trade that one can understand how all the blame for the evil system of slavery should not be placed on European shoulders alone.
The Africans were just as guilty as the Europeans. Such realities lead Besson to conclude that Dr Williams’s “revisionist narrative pilloried the European population in Trinidad and Tobago as not only descended from slave-owners, but also inheriting their guilt, while ignoring the complicity of the Africans who sold their fellow Africans in exchange for trade goods.” Such an omission did not happen by chance. It was a part of Williams’s “cynical outlook” that was meant to enhance his “shrewd use of black nationalism” which forced his followers to “reject the existence of any truth in the moral impulse of the late 18th century English people, as expressed in ideas such as ‘justice and humanity.'”
It was the humanity that Rev James Phillippo, residing in Jamaica from 1823 to 1843, saw at first glance when he reported that the entire history of the colonies was “one revolting scene of infamy, bloodshed, and unmitigated woe, of insecure peace and open disturbance, of the abuse of power, and of the reaction of misery against oppression…slavery has been the curse of the West Indies.” (From James Phillippo Jamaica: Its past and present state, published in 1843.)
Moreover, if we accept Besson’s contention about British concern for justice and humanity, it forces us to reiterate the quizzical observation that James made of Sir Reginald Coupland, Oxford scholar and the chief proponent of the humanitarian thesis about the abolition of slavery, “Those who see in abolition the gradual awakening conscience of mankind should spend a few minutes asking themselves why it is man’s conscience, which had slept peacefully for so many centuries, should awake just at the time that men began to see the unprofitableness of slavery as a method of production in the West Indian colonies.” (From the 1938 edition of The Black Jacobins by CLR James). But things get worse. Williams, he says, misled the public because he “may [again the may] have harboured a deeply felt sense of injustice and deprivation due to his family’s unique circumstances.” This condition led Williams to indulge in “obsessive behaviour and phobias, deprivation and victimhood,” a condition so strong that “it may have become an obsession, perhaps a form of mental disorder, impairing contact to some degree with external reality, which is the definition of neurosis”.
This is Besson’s most audacious charge. Dr Williams was a mad man whose contact with external reality was skewed. No substantive evidence is provided; none is needed. All it takes is a sufficient repetition of “maybes” and “perhaps” and he is on the road to proving his case. All that is left to be said is that those of us (myself included) who followed Williams shared in his madness and his neurotic behaviour. It was in the political vineyard of T&T that Williams found his ignoble measure. Williams, he tells us, was one of the “vote manipulators” of the Third World who “may have originated racist attitudes and the scapegoating of present-day Trinidadians of European and particularly French descent” when he wrote History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago in which he “exile[d] half of the island’s population [the East Indians] from his narrative.”
“Massa Day Done” is Besson’s cause célèbre. He argues that in this 1961 address Williams expressed “the dislike and deep-seated prejudices felt by most Afro-Creoles towards Indians.” The “bitter words” in “Massa Day Done” indicated the “pathological changes associated with a neurosis” and that changed T&T’s racial history and inaugurated what he called racial stereotypes and scapegoats. One wished that Besson had read Yogendra Malik’s East Indians in Trinidad and VS Naipaul’s Middle Passage critically. He would have come away with a different view. But herein lies “the smoking gun” that Besson has been working toward to nail Williams to the psychological cross of deprivation and loss. It is revealed in two words, “frustration and inhibitions.” They are the keys that unlock Williams’s “frustrated black French Creole” identity; the link that takes him back to his displaced family relationships. It is these delusions that lead Williams to inflict his poisonous insecurities upon his people, a point that Ramesh Deosaran endorses in his blurb on the black cover of the book and in his correspondences with the author.
When I reviewed Deosaran’s Eric Williams, His Ideas and His Politics in 1981, I pointed out that his study would have yielded better results if he had used the tools of psychoanalysis rather than psychology when he tried to explain the complex drives that informed Dr Williams’s life and work. While it is true that a man liberates himself through his speech (or more specifically his discourses), Besson does not probe deeply into the gaps and lacunae of Williams’s texts to explore the contradictions in Williams’s behaviour. It is only through rigorous rethinking of Williams’s texts and what Antoine Vergote, a French scholar in psychoanalysis, calls “analytic listening,” that one can arrive at the psychic complexities that drive Williams.
In spite of the derogatory comments that Besson makes about Williams, he is not likely to erode Williams seminal role in the shaping of T&T’s politics in the second half of the 20th century and his magisterial contribution to the study of slavery and the slave trade. Many more studies will be done about Williams, but for the time being I prefer to rely on Arnold Rampersad’s judgment about Williams’s impact on T&T when he said: “Single-handedly and single-mindedly, Eric Williams transformed our lives. He swept away the old and inaugurated the new. He made us proud to be who we were, and optimistic as never before about what we were going to be, or could be. ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,’ and nothing that has transpired since in Trinidad can negate Williams’s gift to his people, or his triumph of intellect and spirit.”
In the years to come, someone will write the history of blacks in Trinidad. It might prove to be a worthy refutation of the half-truths that Besson propagated in this work, particularly in the last chapter, “The Afro-French Creole Narrative.” In the meantime, black people stand convicted by the slanderous twisting of their social and political activities during the last fifty years of their existence. May God have mercy on their souls as they continue to live in a state of delusion and perpetual victimhood.