I come not to praise Karl

By Raffique Shah
January 19, 2014

Raffique ShahFriends, Trinis, countrymen, I come not to praise Karl, nor indeed, to bury him. I come instead to tell some truths about Mr Hudson-Phillips, some complimentary, others unsavory, but which, wherever he may be, he would applaud me for having the courage to enunciate, honourable man that he was.

Karl was the 37 years-young Attorney General of the country in 1970, the youngest minister in Dr Eric Williams’ Cabinet. He was colonial to the core, with mannerisms characteristic of the Court of St James’s. In contrast, at age 24, I was representative of a generation that abhorred colonialism and revolted against the neocolonial power structure that stymied our country, young men and women who were prepared to put our lives on the line in a bid to change the status quo.

Although he was a mere ten years or so older than us, he represented the old order. We were destined to collide. When we did, the foundations of the country shook. He was the architect of a state of emergency that started with the arbitrary arrests of scores of Black Power activists and triggered a mutiny in the army.

In its turbulent wake, 80-odd soldiers were charged with treason and mutiny, with Karl being the prosecutor-general, although he appeared in court only briefly. He had hired a formidable legal team led by Bruce Procope and Teddy Guerra, and, since we had all but admitted to having mutinied, it was seen as “case closed”.

That was not to be. Rex Lassalle and I, directing a team of radical young lawyers from our prison cells, entered an unprecedented plea of “condonation” that caught the prosecution flat-footed. When Desmond Allum and Allan Alexander dropped this legal bombshell, the court almost collapsed in confusion.

When the dust settled, we won a case that appeared to be unwinnable, with even the Privy Council agreeing with our arguments. Two junior officers had run rings around the mighty Hudson-Phillips.

The legal fraternity that today lionises Karl as an advocate-supreme, also forgets (or does not know) that humble solicitor Lennox Pierre found a flaw in the initial declaration of the emergency in 1970, which he, Alexander and others took to court on behalf of George Weekes and others. The judge ruled in their favour and the original emergency was nullified. Karl declared another emergency in order to hold the political detainees.

The notorious Public Order Bill, which some of his worshippers are today defending, sought to abrogate human and civil rights, curb freedom of speech and, the right to protest. It was aimed at opponents of the PNM, not criminals. Public outrage was such that even conservative citizens came out against it. Venerable QC Algernon “Pope” Wharton appeared on a protest platform for the only time in his life, tearing up a copy of the Bill. Government was forced to withdraw it, although Karl would later introduce elements of it piecemeal, hence the requirements to stage public meetings or hold protest demonstrations.

In most civilised countries, these rights are unfettered. Karl, with full backing from Dr Williams, had these draconian measures institutionalised in this country’s statute books. This was the background to Chalkdust’s immortal calypso, “Ah Fraid Karl”.

Karl would find himself estranged from Dr Williams by early 1973. In his Machiavellian style, Eric would neither speak with Karl nor respond to his letters. Karl had the courage to resign as AG, something that lesser PNMites would not dare do. Later that year, when a frustrated Eric declared his intention to resign as party leader, hence Prime Minister, Karl announced his candidacy for leadership.

On the day of the convention, at the behest of his toadies, Eric returned to wild acclamation at the party’s convention that seemed set to elect Karl. Battle lines were drawn,

In the run-up to the 1976 general election, Karl refused to sign an undated letter of resignation that Eric demanded of all PNM candidates.

He would later join the Land Tenants and Rate Payers Association and I would witness the unimaginable spectacle of Karl picketing Parliament. It was the first time we shook hands and talked. Later, he formed the ONR, the party that ended PNM ownership of the East-West Corridor and the middle class Afro-Trinidadian vote, even though it failed to win “a damn seat” in 1981. However, the alliance with an earlier and maybe more important PNM defector, Ray Robinson, and Basdeo Panday’s ULF, eventually crushed the PNM in 1986.

Karl could take credit for that, and for eschewing political office when he could have claimed it. He never explained why he stayed out of the NAR Cabinet, but when the new political behemoth imploded, his acolytes stayed with Robinson.

In his political after-life, he would emerge as a voice of reason, speaking out on contentious political issues or when persons holding high offices appeared to breach principles.

In spite of our vast differences, I learned to respect him. But I would never have trusted Karl with political power. I am convinced he would have abused it in the name of law and order, justice be damned.

6 thoughts on “I come not to praise Karl”

  1. Indeed, what was taking place in T&T was exacting out in England and the US under the umbrella of ‘Black Power’. This is when Angela Davis came over from the US, leading a march in Leeds, Yorks spearheading the injustice of the Soledad bros in the US. Prior to that Eartha Kitt blanked into oblivion by Jackie Kennedy despite the signing of the Civil Rights treaty (Martin Luther King) as was Dusty Springfield initially invited by the South African Gov’t challenged the aparhteid in SA only to be escorted out of the country. http://ca.yhs4.search.yahoo.com/yhs/search?p=son%20of%20a%20preacher%20man&hspart=ironsource&hsimp=yhs-fullyhosted_003&type=irmsd0101
    Arthur Ashe becoming the first black Wimbeldon winner, the Howard University imbrogolio with the fire in the faculty led by the Guyanese political activist. The global happenings at the time pre-empted the decision making of the Privy council.

  2. As one engaged in the formation of the Trinidad and Tobago Defence Force, I knew that the revolt of the 1970s was inevitable. Everything done and instituted were British in nature, purpose and formality. This of course was fine for the likes of the officials of the Defence Force Command personnel because they were of the same ilk. Their background were either World War Two or the higher echelons of the Cadet Force. Their mission was to form a force staffed with ex WWII veterans, ex WIR personnel, ex cadets and recruit young men from T&T. That formed the nucleus of what is to become the Trinidad and Tobago Defence Force. To manage and create this reality was my boss,
    very British and Commander of all forces Col. Peter Pearce Gould.
    He was a brilliant military strategist taken from the remnants of the failed West Indian Federation (Defence). His job was to recruit the officer Corps, hire experienced warrant officers to train and develop the young soldiers into a disciplined army that would protect T&T from internal and external aggressions. Pearce Gould quite rightly tried to develop the young officers as career soldiers and employed a contractual commission method with the older officers in the hope that they would leave as soon as their commissions ended. These officers got used to the privileges and perks British foreign officers enjoyed in the British Empire, their housing needs were taken care of, their transportation were handled by the military, every officer had a ‘batman’ (soldier) assigned to him to handle his and his family home and office chores. There are cases where some of these ‘batmen’ even got involved with the officer’s family life, but that is another story. There were Mess activities where the officers had to behave like ‘gentlemen’, meaning giving praises to the Queen, Country and Officer corps. Very soon those social activities and behavior turned into whorish attitudes that undermined discipline, Raff as a young officer, was exposed to the breakdown of military behavior by the these local officers that were so important to the success of a well-trained and disciplined army. By then all the British personnel had left Trinidad our local officers took command. This is where the clash of old meets new, young vs old, old ideas vs new ideas and old generation vs new generation began. Till this day I am not aware of any studies done by the military to address the disparities and misunderstandings that make up so much of what is commonly referred to as the Trinidad and Tobago Defence Force. Frustrations run supreme and because of the nature of military discipline and compliance, colonialism is still rampant in the fusion that constitutes military life. The black power movement was a catalyst in making the corrections that occurred during this period to include ‘the black man’ in the life of everyday Trinidad and Tobago. The tensions are still there and while suppressed to some extent, the ingredients for fomentation and disillusionment are still very much a part of every-day living in this country.

  3. Raff, you continue to be fair and honest in your blog. I commend you and urge you to continue to enlighten the people at this terrible time in T&T.

  4. Shah’s self-serving revisionism
    By Theodore Lewis
    In his column titled “I come not to praise Karl” (Sunday Express, January 19) Raffique Shah took the opportunity of the death of Karl Hudson-Phillips to once again try to write his own place into our history. Mr Shah does have a place in our history. But he cannot tell us what that place is. History is not biography.

  5. There is a lot that can be said about Karl T Hudson-Phillips but I remember him for his principled stand in resigning from the PNM. I also remember him as my political mentor, from whom I learned the philosophy of the Politics of Conscience, to which I still adhere today. We have lost a great man and I salute him.

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