Eric Williams Remembered: The Man, The Myth

“…he is, unquestionably, the greatest Trinidadian of the 20th Century – the person who has had the greatest influence on the affairs of the country…”

By Jeff Hackett
March 26, 1998

Eric WilliamsIn the 1950s and 1960s, word was that the late Dr. Eric Williams was “the third brain in the world”.

Nobody bothered to provide the identities of the persons ahead of Dr. Williams – members and supporters of the People’s National Movement (PNM) were quite happy with his international cerebral rating.

With last Sunday’s launching of the Eric Williams Memorial Collection at UWI, Dr. Williams’s memory and image have been dusted and refurbished.

Four decades after Williams decided to ‘let down his bucket’ in his native land, the man and the myth persists.

And this is so, primarily, because he is, unquestionably, the greatest Trinidadian of the 20th Century – the person who has had the greatest influence on the affairs of the country.

He was the man who led the country to Independence and who shaped post-colonial Trinidad and Tobago, for better or for worse.

Dr, Williams was internationally recognized as a major scholar (his seminal work Capitalism and Slavery overturned a century of scholarship on the reasons for the abolition of slavery) as acknowledged as one of the fathers of regional integration.

He was a statesman who somehow found the time to write books and built the PNM into an impregnable political force. He was an excellent communicator, fascinating the masses with his oratory, addressing his peers at Oxford in Latin or impressing them with his brilliant discourses.

Williams was a larger-than-life figure and a winner.

He also had his frailties. One of them was women, according to a former Cabinet minister who was close to Williams in the early years of the party. He claimed Williams always had “woman trouble”.

He confided that during Williams’s stormy marriage to his first wife, the former Elsie Ribiero, a thick set Portuguese woman from St. Vincent, the man who had an unenviable reputation for intimidating Cabinet ministers, party members, relatives, civil servants and just about everybody, was routinely manhandled by his no-nonsense wife.

The relationship eventually ended in the United States in an acrimonious divorce. Williams was taken to court for child support and this last indignity was said to be the reason why he resigned his professorship at Howard University in 1948 to work full time with the Anglo American Caribbean Commission at Kent House, Maraval, as deputy chairman of the Research Council.

His second marriage, unfortunately, ended with the early death of his wife, the former Eveline Moyou and his secret wedding to Frederick Street dentist Mayleen Mook Sang in 1959 did not last as long as the proverbial Red House fire.

The late copper work artist and virtuoso masman Ken Morris, a friend and liming partner of Williams in the early days of the party, once told me that Johnny O’Halloran would procure literally dozens of beautiful women who worshipped the then youthful Prime Minister but he seemed more interested in chatting with them than indulging in amorous activities.

A journalist colleague, who was involved in the beauty contest business, might have had a different story to tell. He actually helped organize a relationship with a statuesque beauty queen in the early Seventies but Williams had to terminate the romance when it was discovered that the lady had a violent boyfriend who regularly battered her.

Williams did not get on well with people – he was rude, abrasive, overbearing, and insisted on having his own way.’

This resulted in his alienating the party stalwarts of the calibre of CLR James, Dr. Winston Mahabir, Sir Learie Constantine, Dr. Patrick Solomon, Karl Hudson-Phillips, Dr EC Richardson and others.

In the Caribbean, he was not on speaking terms with Barbadian leader Errol Barrow and Kamaluddin Mohammed, as Minister of West Indian Affairs, was delegated to mend fences in the embryonic stages of Carifta.

When Caricom came into being, Williams became reclusive and never ventured out of Trinidad and Tobago to attend any Heads of Government meetings until this quixotic behaviour became a Caribbean joke.

He intensely disliked the United States and Venezuela to the extent that he made only one official visit to the US.

He accused Venezuela of harbouring imperialist intentions in the Caribbean and in 1963, in an instance or rare political shortsightedness, turned down Venezuela’s offer to become a founding member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).

A decade later, Williams tried unsuccessfully several times to become a member of this political oil cartel.

He was a man of contradictions and allowed himself to be bullied by big business, despite rhetoric to the contrary. The traditional commercial business elite was regarded as a political enemy but in 1969 Williams introduced legislation to prevent Alstons and other business houses from being acquired by British corporate raider Oliver Jessel.

The 1967 Finance Act, which sought to increase taxes, was seen as causing the break between him and ANR Robinson, who introduced the legislation.

Big business demanded Robinson’s head: Williams had a cabinet reshuffle, removed Robinson from the Finance Ministry transferring him to External Affairs.

Williams was rude to party members insulting a village headman during his “Meet the People” tours in the Sixties.

His treatment of the press was no different, his acid tongue humiliating newsmen. At one press conference in 1970, one journalist had the temerity to ask Williams if journalists could look forward to more press conferences.

Williams’s quick response was: “Keep looking forward.”

Williams had his faults and his idiosyncrasies, which did not dilute his enormous success as a politician or perceived greatness as a statesman.

No one really expected him to die – we believed he was too smart for that.

His distinctive monotone and hearing aid, which was food for comedians like John Agitation, will remain forever with those of us who lived in the William’s era.

And it will always be a job to separate the man from the myth.

9 thoughts on “Eric Williams Remembered: The Man, The Myth”

  1. Very insightful article, it is always good to get a glimpse of the true Williams. There were so many sides to him.

  2. For those of us who grew up and was introduced to politics by this great man he will always be that mythical wizard who lived the contradictry lives of educator, author, politician, statesman, teacher and intellectual. Everyuthing about this man seeemed mysterious but that was in a curious provocative kind of way. Almost all great men had ‘another’ side which could be considered unusual. Einstein gave the world a lot of innovative physics formula and mathematical formations but he was lousy in family life, that is what happens when one belongs to the human race. We cannot be perfect. Much is made of Dr. Williams outburst about the Indians being a ‘recalcitrant minority’. While profound as a man of his caliber making such an unfortunate statement, it was borne out of frustration and did not identify with the many good things that the Indian population came to benefit from his policies. While the seminars and commemorations on his life and works should live on for eternity efforts should be made to enliven the life and times of Dr. Williams in our very young and not so young. As a boy growing up in the country I was taught and schooloed by my elders about Marcus Garvey and what he stood for, I did not need a text book to explain that to me because his workis became a part of my culture and upbringing. It is very unfortunate that a large portion of the have not heard or know of this great gtreat man, they cannot be blamed for this butr those responsible for accurately regurgitating our past owe it to trutrh to keep his name alive and on our hearts and minds.

  3. Most people would accept Eric’s academic excellence and Capildeo’s as well. It is true Eric had the ability to perceive easily and who to dispense with at ease. Frank Rampersad was Eric’s budget speech writer for years and was rewarded later on in the Chamber’s administration. Eric gave the impression of lacking people skills at time and having the penchant to use an acid tongue i.e. keep your friends close and your enemies closer, especially so in a political career. At the same time Eric always crystallised his ideas for the good of Trinidad based upon his own personal experiences whilst living in metropolitan countries prior to dropping his bucket in T&T.

  4. ” As a boy growing up in the country I was taught and schooloed by my elders about Marcus Garvey and what he stood for,” and yet nothing about CLR James , George Padmore,and for unfortunate Afrikan kids, in USA ,Afrika, and T&T ,cousin Stokley Michael de Belmont kid without whom many would still be eating in the garbage bins of restaurant, and sitting at the back of busses.
    You know why T&T Afrikan kids especially ,did hear anything about them , and therefore why the self hatred persist ,as they conclude – just like counterparts in Afrika , and USA- that their people are only good to play stupid music, dance on stage like puppet idiots, kick balls, and run races like animal?
    Well, let me just add that papa Eric banned two of these guys from their own country, and we know why, hummm? Give de man his props , but dis too must be part of the discussion.
    In the interim , we are fed the hog wash of fake intellectuals,local and foreign based, as epitomized by a tasteless country hating novelist V.S Naipaul, national ingrate in chief, who can never in his twisted soul give credit to his land of birth , when his real enemies are the European peoples he pretends to love , who likewise will return the same favor of pretense.
    We hear nada of real writers , and patriots such as de very witty , and socially potent Samuel Selvon,our own Earl Lovelace,of ‘De Dragon can’t dance’ fame, Sando’s own Historian Michael Anthony , and of course our selfless Professor Cudjoe, who toils daily , and unselfishly in trying to elevate the psyche of his downtrodden people , and more importantly advance the cause of our entire country , as he tries to make a difference, by keeping , undemocratic , politically clueless, neo racial , self aggrandizing barbarians, at bay.
    We the socially conscious ,who are aware of what the consequential fall out from neglect, divisions, demonization, and worst of all, denunciation / humiliations of particular heroes , as led by power mongrels ,can be ,luv you Dr Cudjoe.
    Keep dem honest my friend. Good job, as usual.

  5. Dr Williams suffered from Bipolar disorder & severe depression for most of his life.

  6. Divide and rule was his mantra, he divided the Country along racial lines to stay in power, he allowed small Islanders to migrate to sweet T&T and settled them to get votes. He gave them a fish rather than teach them to fish.
    Today we are reaping what he sowed which was supported by his student Manning and others.
    Now the PP Government is endevouring to correct the disturbing situation, they are faced by idiots from that old regime who find it appropriate to only condem any positive move.

    1. Mr.Rampersad, you have views that are peculiar to the
      Indian community in Trinidad. Had he been interested in divide and rule he would never have invited Indira Gandhi to visit. Your views are not shared by the world comunity, but mainly by those who benefitted from the free secondary education he offered to all, and who would turn around and bite the hand that fed them. His was a model of trying to pull this country together. That is why TIME magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. I believe the list is still available online. Check and see.

    2. More lies by Indians to spite Dr Williams this is what you get when you allow crooks into your home & give them free education.

      1. The indentured Indians who were lied to by the Brits,about the conditions of their bound servitude, have a right to be in Trinidad, just as the Africans who were purchased as commodities.. My only problem with them is their continued divided loyalty to our homeland.
        I am very Africa conscious, but if Ghana or Nigeria tried to jump in Trinidad and Tobago’s face, I will be pelting verbal rocks at them. I do not believe, based on my observations in TnT that the majority of Trini-Indian population would throw rocks at India if she attacked Trinidad. They would find that it was the Trini’s fault, especially Dr. Williams and the PNM.
        I make this comment despite the fact that I have nieces with both Hindu nd Muslim names.

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