Selwyn Ryan and T&T’s intellectual tradition

By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
March 28, 2022

“Death is not an interruption of Being, but a necessary part of it, and the condition of our immortality… We shall die, but we shall not perish.”

—Charles W Warner, “The Fear of Death”

Dr. Selwyn R. CudjoeIn the preface to his semi-autobiographical Beyond a Boundary (1963), CLR James informs his readers that his book poses the question, “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know? To answer involves ideas as well as facts.” (James’ italics.)

I have always interpreted this injunction to mean that the significance of cricket to West Indian people lies in our over-standing (to use a Rastafarian idiom) of the social and cultural milieu out of which this inspiring game comes, and how well it speaks to our possibilities as a people.

This profound insight was not original to James. He adopted it from Aucher Warner, the author of Sir Thomas Warner: Pioneer of the West Indies (1933), who made a similar observation about Charles W Warner, a former attorney general and one of the most brilliant men of 19th-century Trinidad. In trying to get his compatriots in England to understand Charles Warner’s intellectual brilliance, Aucher Warner wrote: “To many in this country, ‘How little ye know of England / Who only England know,’ it will come as a surprise that an address of such scholarly charm and attraction should ema­nate from so remote a corner of Empire, and from one who, save for occasional visits to England, spent his life far away from the centres of literary thought.”

Aucher was referring to a lecture, “On the Fear of Death”, that Charles delivered to the Trinidad Young Men’s Christian Association on January 21, 1873. James had read Aucher’s work, spoke of the family’s association with cricket in Beyond a Boundary, and reminisced about when “a brother of Sir Pelham Warner, congratulated me on my bowling”.

More than any other Trinidadian of his time, James was aware of the weight that T&T and the Caribbean intellectual tradition had on shaping the scholars of the region. He wrote with gusto and intelligence about Maxwell Phillip, the Trinidad Solicitor General, who was equally as brilliant as Charles Warner; JJ Thomas’ response to James Anthony Froude’s attack on West Indians in The English in the West Indies (1887); as he did about Justice Conrad Reeves of Barbados, Toussaint Louverture of Haiti, and Frederick Douglass of the United States.

Speaking of Thomas’ intellectual superiority over Froude, James said: “All these questions that are being discussed, he [JJ Thomas] says, will not be understood unless we have a profound historical conception of where the African people are going and where they have come from. That is the ocean of thought and feeling from which emerge historical manifestations as Marcus Garvey, Aime Cesaire, George Padmore, Frantz Fanon—I confine myself for the moment to Thomas’ descendants.”

James concludes this marvellous essay, “The West Indian Intellectual”, by saying: “I have long believed that there is something in the West Indian past, something in the West Indian environment, something in the West Indian historical development, which compels the West Indian intellectual, when he gets involved with subjects of the kind, to deal with them from a fundamental point of view, to place ourselves in history.” (James’ italics.)

In his tribute to Ryan, UWI Vice Chancellor Sir Hilary Beckles spoke for many of us when he said, “We recognise and celebrate his intellectual and scholastic contribution to The UWI as it continues on a journey of service to the Caribbean people… He was a brilliant research empiricist. Theorising was not his preference. His primary commitment was to enable society to clearly understand the issues at hand for purposes of shaping political policy and practice.” (Jamaica Observer, March 25.)

In this context, we can see Ryan as a direct product of the empiricist tradition that shaped Eric Williams at Oxford University and his pragmatic American experience at Howard University. It is a methodology Williams used in History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago and From Columbus to Castro. Necessarily, one can interpret Ryan’s work as falling within a tendency of which Williams’ work was a part.

St Augustine UWI principal Brian Copeland, reflecting on Ryan’s work, wished that younger scholars “pick up where he [Ryan] left off and continue to write and record the history of T&T. Students and graduates will continue—as succeeding generations have done for the last 75 years—to advance learning, create knowledge, and foster innovation of this region and, indeed, the wider world.” (Newsday, March 14.)

To achieve this objective, our students, graduates and scholars must help us understand what the totality of Ryan’s work means within the context of his immediate society. However, they must also examine Ryan’s scholarship within the larger corpus of Caribbean scholarship and how this 20th-century man helped us to better understand ourselves.

Trinidad and Tobago has had a long line of distinguished scholars beginning with LB Tronchin, superintendent of the Boy’s Model School in Port of Spain from 1847 to 1877, up to and including the illustrious Selwyn Ryan. But scholarship involves getting the funds to do the necessary research, and this is where the major challenge lies.

Although Ryan has left us, we should not allow his work to perish. Continuing his work ensures his immortality. Yet, the question remains: who will offer the necessary funds to see that his work continues?

Perhaps, we should ask, what do we know of Ryan who only Ryan know? The answer to this question might involve an examination of ideas as well as facts about the man and how we place him in the ever-evolving intellectual order of our society.

2 thoughts on “Selwyn Ryan and T&T’s intellectual tradition”

  1. What’s lacking in public discourse is showcasing the intellectual capacity of those who are considered ‘learned’ in our society. It is evident that the only topics that generate conversations are those that are close to our basic instincts such as race, religion, party politics, law and entitlements. Seldom do we have conversations on topics that matters on how we deal with policy,
    nationhood, constitutional responsibilities, civility, welfare, health, growth, economic stability and future developments. If we are to have a future as a nation, it matters less on what our leaders look like and more on the leaders who accentuate the visions of the latter.

    It is nice to have academics and intellectuals who inform. But equally important are those who vigorously engage in the development of ideas and encourage citizen participation in those ideas. It is safe to say that we have not had such a leader since Eric Williams. Those who do so in our society today, are not necessarily informants, but people whose intent is to weigh in on what side of the conversations that fit their future aspirations. In the past (prior to independence) media was the vehicle to inform and educate. Today, the media is just another form of advertisement to elevate their brand of politics and affiliation.

    As a student of Eric Williams, Selwyn Ryan was an adherent to very much the same ideas to which Eric Williams dedicated his life’s work to but the vehicles (media) to sustain the transmission has changed (not for the better). Today, we are attracted to ‘sound bites’ that can be easily translated to politics or party preferences rather than elevate into teaching moments. True leaders transform ideas into aspirational goals. Leaders such as Nasser, Nehru, NKrumah, Mandela and others advanced their ideas that motivated national goals and development. Selwyn had hoped we could have adopted these methods to advance our politics and developments in the same manner, but that was not to be because in our society today facts are submerged for bites that are quicker to generate outrage or hysteria.

  2. Another way of describing ‘media’ is the gathering and promulgating of news that editors and directors believe is important for public consumption. Such delivery may come in the form of voice, print, video or propaganda. In an enlightened society such as ours, INTENT is always purposeful in the delivery of news. So, depending on content, information supplied generates purpose. Fulfilling purpose is dependent on the nature of the topic and the target of the audience to whom purpose was intended. In a general sense, most media houses
    advertise their product as “news fit to print” – meaning the news that they publish are what they think their intended target should be interested in knowing. That being said, it is fair game to question what media proposes as “news fit to print”.

    In a recent publication from one of our media house, I was drawn to the headline that stated: “Kamla: Carom, world leaders ignoring Trinidad and Tobago because of Rowley”. In that story the points made were the following:
    1. Trinidad and Tobago is a non-player in Carom and world leaders.
    2. Keith Rowley lacks diplomatic skills.
    3. In reference to the visit to the Caribbean by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge Trinidad and Tobago was left out.
    4. There is a greater reverence to Mia Motley thank Rowley.

    From a diplomatic standpoint, there are no countries I know of (except Guyana), that has a problem with Trinidad and Tobago.
    The former U.S Ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago under Donald Trump’s presidency, in a TV interview in the United States had praises for Prime Minister Rowley, even though he did not agree with their contrasting views on the Venezuelan leadership question. The best accolade one can receive is from an adversary who shows respect to your competence. And the ambassador offered this praise to the Prime Minister.

    “Keith Rowley lacks diplomatic skills?”
    Wow, one just need to go back to the Venezuelan question where Rowley adopted a skillful diplomatic idiom of having
    “no permanent friends and no permanent enemies”, where he took a neutral stance about the presidency of Guido or Maduro.
    With the United States seeking the cooperation of Maduro helping with the sanctions against Putin. The result shows the wisdom of Rowley NOT taking sides between Maduro and Guido.
    With reference to the visit of the Royal family to other Caribbean countries and NOT Trinidad and Tobago, it seems as Kamla is the ONLY one upset by that. Trinidad and Tobago got it’s independence from Britain over sixty two years ago and I know of no one who wishes that we are no longer honoring praises to the anthem of “GOD SAVE THE QUEEN” (maybe Kamla misses the adoration but I can assure you that given a chance of the Royal family visiting Trinidad and Tobago and Nikki Minaj visiting Trinidad and Tobago, the majority of our citizens will want to see
    the rapper instead of the maligned royals. It is unfortunate that only on this did the media printed what Kamla would have done and did not seek her her facts on the others.

    There is no question that Mia Motley has emerged as one of the most sought after Caribbean politicians on the scene today and I commend Kamla for mentioning her as such. Mia espouses Caribbean aspirations on every stage on which she appears and every Caribbean person should be proud of her. The real question is where is Kamla in comparison to Mia. When Kamla speaks of Caribbean integration, she is speaking of Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and Suriname (period). I wonder why?
    If her reference to “world leaders” means Jagdeo of Guyana, then we should question that. In earlier times when Guyana was in serious financial trouble, who came to her rescue with financial assistance? – Trinidad and Tobago. Now that Guyana has entered the Oil supply field with a smaller population and larger land mass than Trinidad and Tobago, Jagdeo is being superlative in his disagreement with Rowley (and doing Kamla’s bidding).
    Sensible readers should ignore ignorance, even when it comes from leaders they follow.

    In summary, it seems obvious that this publication was not meant to inform, educate or enlighten. One can draw their own conclusion about this publication, but from my understanding of its significance, mere criticism without affirmation of a better view from the accuser leaves us asking the question – what is the purpose of this story?

Comments are closed.