Celebrating the Centenary of Dr. Williams’ Birth

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
September 28, 2011

Dr. Selwyn R. CudjoePerhaps it is one of those crazy though explicable Trinbagonian things. Dr. Eric Williams is undoubtedly one of the most distinguished citizens ever to have bestridden our country over the last two hundred years. Yet, there was not one official ceremony in Trinidad and Tobago to celebrate the centenary of his birth. I say, “one of the most distinguished citizens” because over its long history there have been many distinguished Trinbagonian men and women such a J. J. Thomas, Maxwell Philip, Captain Arthur Cipriani, Colon Adrian Renzi, Lionel Sukeran, Audrey Jeffers, Mother Gerald and Mac Donald Bailey. Sadly none of these names ever come to mind when we think of our achievements, access our social and cultural capital, and determine are our civic and spiritual values.

Given such a history, all of the men and women who strut upon our stage today with such an air of self-importance will be forgotten and consigned to irrelevance a year after they have left office and forgotten completely in ten years after they have died. Our Hindu compatriots may return at a higher level of existence, but our Christian and Muslim brothers will lay in some unforgotten grave or have their ashes strewn upon the earth to fertilize the next generation of citizens. This will be the destiny of our best scholars, our best sportsmen, our best everything.

Anybody remember Bertie Marshall????

As a society we do not remember or cultivate national memory. We remain averse to honoring our own. So we strut and fret; say nonsensical things no one remembers; and exit the stage of life as though we never existed; having done next to nothing, contributed little, trying as hard as we can to pull down anyone who seeks to do something. We privilege the here and the now and dance our dance of death oblivious of tomorrow and damned with the curse of amnesia. We say nothing or no one can be any good. This has been the fate of Dr. Williams in our country.

Just read Lenox Grant in Sunday’s Guardian (September 25) and one realizes what nonsense personified sounds like. Read Raffique Shah in the Sunday Express (September 25) and one sees a man who, in spite of his misgivings, is trying to come to terms with his present as well as his past; trying to understand Dr. Williams, warts and all, and seeking to situate himself and his actions vis-à-vis the mindlessness of much of what calls itself T&T.

So it is in keeping with our state of national amnesia that no significant function was held in Trinidad and Tobago, by the present government, the People’s National Movement (PNM) he founded, the University of West Indies (UWI, Trinidad) of which he was Pro Vice Chancellor; or the University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT) to honor Dr. Williams’ contribution to the country and the world. I don’t know why I thought that one of the functions of UTT, UWI (and even the PNM) is to preserve and promulgate knowledge of things Trinidad and Tobago.

While we did little to remember Dr. Williams gave his life to this society, distinguished international scholars (included several Trinidadian and Tobagonian scholars) gathered at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford University, to honor and to celebrate his contributions to capitalism, slavery and statesmanship. Necessarily, there was a bit of nostalgia (and perhaps reverence) since St Catherine was responsible in large part for Dr. Williams’ intellectual formation and the place where he wrote his doctoral dissertation about the slave trade, slavery and their impact on the development the Industrial Revolution.

In recognizing the importance of Capitalism and Slavery, the product of his dissertation, in shaping Caribbean historiography, Professor Franklin Knight of Johns Hopkins University, remarked: “Dr. Williams became the first [scholar] to fundamentally change the observation point of Caribbean history and to bring an entirely different set of cultural values to bear on his work.”

In contextualizing his scholarship, Professor Knight noted that “Dr. Williams was a typical product of his times-times that produced several distinguished individuals from many fields in the Caribbean…[he] may be compared to Christopher Columbus who brought the Americas into the intellectual and political consciousness of Europe….Columbus certainly catalyzed exploration in the way that Williams catalyzed Caribbean historical scholarship.”

Necessarily, international scholars were more interested in Capitalism and Slavery and its impact on Caribbean and international scholarship whereas a few of us, building up the rear, examined the statesmanship dimension of Dr. Williams’ career. Capitalism and Slavery signaled a watershed moment in Dr. Williams’ career; the half-way point between the academic Williams and the political Williams; an international Williams and a Trinidad and Tobago Williams; the dispassionate scholar and intellectual as opposed to the polemical and political Williams that we know.

Since scholars make their living examining the substance as well as the minutiae of a scholar’s intellectual output (much of it irrelevant sometimes) they tend to be more respectful of the facts. On the other hand many times the layman is guided by gossip and mauvais langue. They are willing to take fragments of conversation, generalize there from and arrive at absurd conclusions.

For example, one such absurdity has it come down to us as unvarnished truth that Dr. Williams called the Indian community a recalcitrant minority which proves unequivocally that he was a racist and hated the Indians. This is why UWI, UTT and the government refused to celebrate his centenary. It does not matter that this falsehood continues to inform the consciousness of many East Indians which determine their attitudes towards him and most Africans in the society. The Grants of the society certainly have their reasons for their ill-will towards the man.

One day Trinibagonians will raise their heads and their hearts and acknowledge Dr. Williams’ greatness. When we do we will have begun the tortuous journey of nationhood, hurling ourselves out of oblivion and locate ourselves in history as a people. Meanwhile we should thank Erica Williams, St. Catherine’s College and the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute of Harvard University for making this memory and evaluation of Dr. Williams possible.

16 thoughts on “Celebrating the Centenary of Dr. Williams’ Birth”

  1. Selwyn,I am so glad you were there. I have not seen my personal retrospective on him in any of the media, including Trinicenter.com, but I have long learned that the best way for ward is to do it all yourself. When you got a copy, Caribbean people in the US and CAnada got copies, and so did friends in Malawi, Cameroon, England and Nigeria.I shared it too with American friends of every ethnicity. If its ONE NAME the world knows from Trinidad and Tobago, its Eric William’s.

    The small PeePee people destined to be consigned to the dustbin of history, have no acknowledgement of the fact that their education made it possible for what Panday called “Fig Leaf Indians” referring to the use of banana leaves as plates in country weddings when I was a child, to sit in Parliament as EDUCATED people. I stress the educated because Bhadase Sagan Maharaj, and Chanka Marag were representatives of their people , in the 1950’s who were totally illiterate, and could lead the Indian popuation nowhere but forward in ignorance and bigotry.
    His scholarship set a standard for all, a benchmark, a watershed..
    That UWI did nothing is indeed a disgrace. I was proud to have gone there because he made it free.I was part of the program for laying the foundation stone of the College of Arts and Science, while he was vice-Chancellor.

    If he had played mass, I am sure there would have been celebrations of “Williams the mass-man” and quasi serious discussions on whether he could wine or not.
    Our shallowness is now on exhibition for all the world to see.
    I will not say a pity, but those who keep asking why I do not “Come home”, or live there full time,know the answer now.

    1. “If he had played mass,I am sure there would have been celebrations of Williams the mass-man and quasi serious discussions on whether he could wine or not”

      The above excerpt reminds me of a function which I attended several years ago.Someone said “swordfish are you a West Indian?;how is it that you don’t drink;and get drunk and enjoy yourself”

      I replied that I am a social drinker who does not require alcohol to enjoy myself.There is a phobia that people from the Caribbean and alcohol are synonymous.

      Meanwhile,there are some states(US)which do not celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday.My suggestion:declare Dr.Williams’birthday a National holiday.Even his enemies will enjoy the festivities.

      1. No, they will turn it into a rum party, and blame him for the killings and road accidents. Let us make his birthday National education Day, so that scholol children can participate. THEY NEED TO BE IN SCHOOL FOR THAT.

        1. Gracias,merci,thanks! Your words of wisdom should become A TOPIC FOR DISCUSSION WITHIN THE PRESENT ADMINISTRATION.

  2. Dr. Cudjoe, Dr. Eric Eustace Williams does not need to have his memory celebrated on a centennary.

    In fact, were he to be celebrated by today’s political boy scouts, his stature as the Scout-Master General while undiminished would nonetheless contribute by their association with him to with their increased lustre.

    Also, his memory was, and is being celebrated every day in the life of patriots like my mother and father.

    She had been a teacher who, on becoming pregnant with me, and in wedlock, because of the then attitudes to women could not continue teaching. This injustice, she resented to the end of her days as an eighty-five yer old woman.

    My father, may Yahweh bless his progeny, and hers, was a beke neige, the type of red-skin black man who would at that time have children with women my mother’s colour but not marry them.

    She was a woman of class, and so was he, to the end of their sixty-fifth wedding anniversary. The phrase by which we still most remember them is, ‘having decorum’.

    He honoured her all his life and as a man and father left an example followed by all his sons; born in Laventille and raised in the same Morvant now so decried and derided.

    It is in the context particularly of education in which my parents came to have the highest regard and fondness for Dr. Williams.

    His memory is best personified in the numbers of Black people–others, too, but ungrateful in extremis from cultural necessity–who, today have lives of pre-eminent performance, skill, and contributions all because Dr. Williams overturned the established colonial practice derived from slavery.

    It was that a Black person was either incapable of being educated, or being educated was inherently public enemy number one.

    It was for this reason why in Barbados there was a well-established practice by plantation owners. If a slave was caught who could read, gunpowder was rammed up his rect*m, and a fuse lit. It was called, ‘blowin’ away the arse of a nig*er’.

    Today, the many Black people, my younger brothers and sisters included, personify the turning of history in guaranteeing the education of Black children, the offspring of slaves systematically forced earlier away from being educated.

    The offspring of these slaves were also the ones who educated indentures and their children. At Osmond High School, opened by a Black man, Mr. Murray, Black children and Indians were equally educated.

    If anything today that brings shame to Dr. Williams name is the fact that successive Black men and women have supervised a political system in which while every other race has increased their children’s desire for education and excellence, Black children, in too many instances have not fulfilled their people’s destiny.

    If Dr. Williams has a point of departure between himself and today’s Black leaders it is that he was not afraid of anyone, and especially not afraid of himself. He was a Black man, if not one who made a large point of it.

    Today’s Black leadership are essentially craven, malleable, and running scared of being accused of being anti-Indian. In fact, one of the blackest Black man in the PNM hierarchy today is Colm Imbert–the other is Dr. Browne.

    A White man, Colm Imbert is unafraid of being challenged racially. He is equally unafraid of publicly associating himself with the agonies of Black youth and Black communities. Where Dr. Rowley and others equivocate and dither, he is clear, explicit and unambiguous.

    Today, if the leaders do not see it fit to honour Dr. Williams, they, by so doing only dishonour themselves.

    Dr. Williams then, is like another scholar and Black man so treated.

    When President Obama spoke before the Indian Parliament earlier this year, he mentioned there a name preferably left unmentioned. It was the name of the Dalit leader, and an untouchable, Dr. Ambdker, the Dalit who the British chose to write the Indian Independence constitution.

    Dr. Ambdker and Dr. Williams if they ever meet will instantly recognize each other as historic figures who became thus, not from self-aggrandizement, but from the innate desire as Black men and scholars unafraid of their heritage, who sought with whatever tools they had, to set the world right.

    And, unapolegetic, did so with notorious aplomb!

    They both recognize a fact that escapes too may of us. It is that the Creator made each of us in His image and likeness.
    Thus, he placed in each of us, the ability to change the world.

    These two extraordinary men did this, setting by their example, the possibilities inherent in all of us, in even the most ordinary of mortals.

  3. The world from the days of Dr. Williams have changed completely, hence the lack of great celebration. A nation celebrates when it can remember, however, this generation is so overwhelmed with information that celebrating the past becomes a tedious job.
    Information is such that we do not pause. To celebrate one must pause for reflection. There is no doubt that Dr. Williams influence on T&T changed the course of it’s history. He was indeed a multi-dimensional human being. There are parts that was arrogant, conniving and manipulating. If that was all he was then his leadership influence would have ended immediately following his death. Instead he being an intellectual gave birth to many intellectuals and generated a hunger for knowlege in the citizens of T&T. His greatest influence was the education system.

    But who exactly was Williams, was he a black man, a dougla, a British with a Trini heart, a man who wanted to salvage a nation. These are some of the profound questions that no one sees to dwell on and therefore remains unanswered. There is still a mystery about Williams, perhaps it was the dark shades he wore and the hearing aid that adds to this mystery. Was he really blind and deaf as my father used to say, or did he want the people to believe that he was that way. That is why the cloud of mystery remains. Nobody really knew Eric. Despite growing up in the Eric Williams era, I never really knew him. And maybe it is better left that way….Cheers to all.

    1. If indeed Dr. Williams had any doubt about his ancestry Moomoo, they most definitely would have been removed during his sojourn at Oxford in the U.K. and Howard in the U.S. So don’t you worry you little head about his ethnicity.

      1. You tell him, woman. When someone is not theirs, they spend a lot of time picking the person apart. I never heard so much about Derek Walcott’s white ancestors until he won the Nobel for Literature in 1992. They could find no white people in the blood of the West African laureates however.

  4. In the Great HAll of the kingdom of Benin, located today within the Republic of Nigeria, the funeral masks of their dead kings once hung around the walls as a living history book. Children were taught to recite the history of their people thus: This is King —. In his reign our people achieved thus and thus and thus.” The British did not care for this arrogance of knowing and celebrating Benin history. They trumped up a war, packed up all the Benin masks and took them to London, where they are still, more than a hundred years later. So they could now tell the people of Benin that they have no history- the Kingdon was founded in the thirteenth century. Now, the people of Benin drill their history into their children, without the masks to help. but they do not forget.Every year they petition the British Museum to return their treasure.
    My little great niece, who is bright, and pretty, would not know who our great leader was, if his legacy is not taught in schools. To stand as a man,or woman, in your own name, and unafraid, is a magnificient thing. Eric Williams had that. He did for our people what Pres. Obama did for young people worldwide. Electrified them into getting involed.We need in every school, portraits of all our Prime Minister, and a hall of memory in which we memorialize people like Eric Williams.
    I take no back seat to anyone, regardless of ethnicity. Wherever I go, I am respected because of how I hold myself. Williams taught us to stand tall as Trinbagonians, though he was only about 5’2″ or 3″.
    Our children know the lyrics of all kinds of music stars. They are involved in the lives of Hollywood, Bollywood and Nollywood as if these people were their personal friends, but of our history they know nothing. JAck Warner is talking about teaching patriotism. He benefitted from the scholarship he got to Mausica Teachers College in the early 1960’s. He should contribute to the movement to recognize and celebrate our national founder.They do not know who freed them,through eucation, to BE. Thus, ingratitude.

  5. Eric Williams was the father of racism,ethnic strife and corruption all of which the PNM still stands for today.The legacy of Williams despite his historical acumen is one of ethnic division.The recalcitrant minority which Williams spoke of is today a leading majority,Williams will be astounded today looking at the major accomplishments of indians to all sectors of our society.Williams is not deserving of any praise since he did not contribute to nationhood but started a tortuous journey of destroying Trinidad by creating the PNM.

  6. Ms. Linda Edwards, during his life, and now in his death, Dr. Williams was unanswerable.

    His wit, whimsical at times and at others, scathing was unequalled. His stature as a scholar, personality and politician was peerless. And remains even moreso despite ineffectual efforts then and since to diminish him.

    For example, two occurrences in Parliament remain indelible.

    On one occasion in Parliament, he’d spoken making reference to some matter or other by citing the philosopher, Plato.

    One opposition member, transcendant in glee, returned the following day and in debate made reference to Dr. Williams quote as having cited Plato in error.

    The opposition member, in his words, had “researched” the statement, discovering that it had been made, not by Plato but by Aristotle.

    Dr. Williams’ response?

    ‘I am surprised that the honourable member had to go home and do “research” on something already known every school boy.’

    On another matter, his decision to open once and for all, the halls of academia to children of all races raised the ire of the religious leadership in places like Fatima and Bishop Anstey.

    Their supporters in Parliament attacked Dr. Williams as being an agnostic and athiest.

    Dr. Williams’ responded, reciting the Lord’s Prayer … in Latin.

    In the era when to be a Black man was, regardless of one’s level of education, to either be somebody’s fool and puppet, or to be a threat to the established colonial order, Dr. Williams walked the land unanswerable.

    Two of his scathing descriptions then of local politicians remain eerily prophetic.

    They were, he said, “a band of obscurantist politicians … an unholy alliance of egregious individualists…”

    Another prophet, Yeshua Hamaschia, millenia before him, had earlier said, “a prophet is without honour in his own country.”

    If an Independent Trinidad & Tobago today does not belong in memoriam and in honour to Dr. Williams, yet another descendant of slaves who by dint of their ubiquitous rebellion against oppression, imperialism and colonialism eventually brought Independence, to whom can and does it in freedom and honour belong?

  7. Talk about a twisted, disingenuous soul ,in cuz mammoo , aka ,de reincarnated comedian ,John Agitation. He appears to be in something of a quandary, and needs help in solving some opaque mystery, dat is perplexing only to him , and so he enquire, as to ….. “who exactly was Williams, was he a black man, a dougla, a British with a Trini heart, a man who wanted to salvage a nation?”
    One thing we could be assured of folks , is that he mammoo,and the thousands of other alleged citizens ,would have no such confusions,when it comes to who, or what ,the respective leaders , from within de tribal enclaves were , as they have proven themselves ,in no uncertain terms ,during the past 49 years of our country’s existence.
    I am of course,referring to political honchos, such as Basdeo Panday, Raffique Shah, Kamaludin Mohammed,Errol Mahabir, Winston Dookeran, and now we can include Queen K, de eventual head of his UNC ,turned PP party.

    Ain’t this a testament of the Eric William legacy also, as today a tiny segment of dem Trini , self serving triumphalist ,flap their gums, and or wings , while naively assuming that all their economic gains/ political successes , were due , only to their own doing?
    Is it not evident , as to why our extremely divided country, is suddenly poised,to topple over the symbolic precipice, and we -a resource laden country -remains a divided, underachieving , backward ‘non -nation,’ destined to play catch up with the likes of resourceless , Bajan upstarts, and Jamaica nationalist egomaniacs?
    With respect to the issue at hand, tell you what , I’ll make a public pledge to defend each and everyone , their rights ,to elevate any individual they desire ,to hero status , even if I am certain such is unjustified.
    Just don’t be surprise that I want no part of the usual , back slapping , jig and dance, feel good gestures,favored by too many of us , when it comes to this particular case of revisionism, for just maybe , I have too high a standard ,in judging folks , who profess to be leaders,both domestically,and internationally.
    In our present day abysmal state of affairs , if the only credit we can extend to T&T’s ,said Founding Father, papa Eric Williams,is that he introduced free education ,then such speaks volumes.

    When it comes to real leaders , some fervently think that often ,it’s by their fruits ,one can really  judge dem , since ‘banana can’t bear plantain ,’ as de wisest woman dat ever lived ,used to admonish me.Using Lybia, Iraq, Egypt, USA,Syria , and of course T&T as a backdrop ,they might just have a point. Hey Erica, how is Boston? Got to give Uncle Bas his props, representing eh Mikila? Just follow my advice if you wish for success.
    Now that’s change even I, you, and everyone , can believe in, yes?


  8. Dr. Williams would have pulled out his hearing aid at such gum flapping. He was impatient of nonsense.

  9. As we all can agree, here lived an interesting ,and complex figure , but definitely human . We should therefore celebrate his wonderful characteristics, applaud his contributions to the global community , and his country in particular, but never hesitate ,to also highlight his flaws where applicable.
    This will only prove , firstly, that he was a mortal being , and secondly , we as ‘progressive humanists nationals ,’ are unique , in that we are capable of seeing life , and our fellow kindred souls ,in a realistic manner, without the usage of rose colored glasses,as is the norm , yes?
    Thanks Dr . Eric Williams, for putting Afrikans on the global map, when you stood up , as a young man ,to Oxford intellectual giants , and expose a lie as to the reason why slavery ended.
    We are appreciative of the fact that T&T was made relevant,as you taught some regional peons, such as Jamaica,a new form of maths, when bauxite made these nationalist egomaniacs think they were a force.Thanks for teaching us the value of loving our less fortunate neighbors as ourselves, when you opened opportunities for both ASIANS close , far and wide, as well as Caribbean neighbors.
    It is not your fault that our citizens as a collective , never appreciated the value of patriotism , and so we cannot fault you.
    Your entire family should be proud, that you saw no wrong in using your education for the development of your country , region, and so left a lasting legacy , that no Norwegian coveted global awards, or phony British Knighthood ,could honor- ehhhh V.S , you self loathing , national ingrate ?
    Long live our democratic ideals , and more importantly the Republic of T&T- something that you dedicated the majority of your life in enhancing.
    If there is a heaven ,then one can be certain you Papa Eric ,are there, along with another special Afrikan brother of ours,in Julius Nyerere , as you both are the perfect representation of what ‘honest ,self less servants of the people ,’ were meant to be.
    Very difficult to replicate indeed.
    Yet ,some still wish to know why we still luv this country? Tell dem for us , it’s because it’s a country ‘where every creed , and race could find an equal place,’and dreams of young bare-feet,historically insignificant ,yet ambitious girls , can be nurtured, to eventually become PM,s, ehhh ,Your Majesty, Queen K?
    We wish to thank you too ,for making that acknowledgement as well, on the grand stage. Just wish more unmentionables , could be as magnanimous, hmmmmm? Call names folks!

  10. Professor Kudjoe you are on point! It is sad to see where the nation of T&T has fallen to in terms of remembering such a patriot. Dr. Williams brought T&T from a place of obscurity, to a place of achievers. So many today are willing to write off Dr. Williams as another corrupted leader without merit or thinking. It should be remembered that Eric Eustace Williams was a man just like Idi Amin of Uanda, Fidel Castro of Cuba, Saddam Hussein of Iraq, Adolph Hitler of Germany, Albert Gomes, Mao Tse Tung, and Barack Obama. He was a leader. And, he made an enormous contribution of good during a time when the world was rife with racism and bigotry. The honor we bestow upon present-day leaders in T&T should be a reflection of what should be placed upon Dr. Williams. This is what those whose grandparents, parents, children and grandchildren benefited and are benefiting from must never forget.

  11. Just as a number of Trinidadians and Tobagonians who wish to contribute find it necessary to exit the stage of TnT- David Rudder, for example, so that one’s thoughts can focus on one’s work rather than on “no electricity again”, “water gone”, “the truck delivering gas didn’t come, I have bread in the oven and even my back-up tank is empty”, so too, do a number of those who appreciated what Williams did for the THIRD WORLD, not just TnT, also live abroad. His daughter is one of them. Think for a moment of what I call the Penny Commisiong. Wendy Fitzwilliams syndrome. Who can those women date while staying in TnT? Penny got her degree abroad after winning Ms. Universe. There is no way she would have succeeded at my Alma Mater, every grade she got would have been the public’s business. Wendy was fortunate to win when she was already in law school, but if she had decided, soberly as I am sure she did, to have a child outside of wedlock, she could not have chosen a TnT person- field too small. We continue to revere Dr. Williams.One has to travel abroad, in the world of scholarship and politics, to get a measure of the man. Yet, there is no Eric Williams School of Public Policy, or Government, or anything. There is no “Contemporary Forum on Independence Issues” sponsored by UWI, no chair of anything, for this brilliant son.Not even a primary school is named in his honour. We do have the Finncil Complex, and the Medial Center. Maybe that’s enough.We are like that, but we keep the Colonial names of those who savaged our ancestors, sacred, as in Woodford Square. Thanks to Selwyn Cudjoe’s book, “Beyond Boundaries”, which I reviewed for this e-paper when they were still willing to publish pieces by me that were not commentaries on someone else’s work, I know of the viciousness of Sir Ralph James Woodford, who was recalled to London and tried for torture of a 13 year old girl of mixed race, in Trinidad! The square should be officially renamed “The People’s University” That would keep the Williams legacy alive, and put the remnants of Woodford’s colonial repression, into the dustbin. Change Woodford Street also, please. Republican Street would be good. We have to show that we know our history, and have the innate dignity to act on it.

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