The legend of Eric Williams

What is the fascination of Dr Eric Williams? A small, balding authoritarian figure, Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago from independence in 1962 to his death in 1981, he does not automatically seem the stuff of which legends are made. And yet, a conference to mark the centenary of his birth by the Institute of Commonwealth Studies in the Senate House of London University, showed me that he is now perceived as a political and intellectual giant, not just in the political history of the Caribbean, but in a wider world, as Kaye Whiteman reports.

What struck me first of all was the curious way in which in the years after his death, he was forgotten in his home country. It was as if the Williams phenomenon was almost too difficult to digest and analyse, both intellectually. In 1994 a major conference was organised in Port of Spain to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Williams’ seminal book Capitalism and Slavery. This had remained a controversial work which dared to put forward the powerful thesis that the motivating force in ending the slave trade in the early 19th century came from the way Britain’s industrial revolution changed the country’s economic balance of power. The mercantilism of the 18th century, typified by the triangular trade of slaves and sugar, which had laid the basis of capital generating the industrial revolution was no longer the dominating force. Though slavery’s vested interests remained, Britain no longer needed it.

Arguments about the slave trade surfaced in 2007, with the bicentenary of the abolition, when there was some distress that Wilberforce’s famous campaign may not have been the deciding factor. One cannot ignore its importance to British politics, but the truth of Williams’ arguments still resonates in discourse beyond mere academic circles, a reflection of the way the shadow of the slave trade still lingers.

What was remarkable was the impact of the 1994 conference, and the assessment of his work, on his reputation, with the growing awareness in public opinion that the country had nurtured an international titan, a natural ‘father of the nation’. People recalled his election slogan from 1956  – ‘Massa Day Done’ (the day of the colonial masters is finished), which made a huge contribution to the ideology of independence, not just in Trinidad but in all the Caribbean and beyond. His vision extended to Cuba, Haiti, Martinique and Guadeloupe and Puerto Rico.

Some of the academic contributions to the centenary, part of wider celebrations in Europe and the Americas, noted Williams’ special position as scholar-statesman or Platonic philosopher king. Like others in that category, he had difficulty relating his vision to the practical political situations in which he found himself. He had ridden the nationalist tide to a narrow but revolutionary electoral victory in 1956, there at the heart of his myth. He became profoundly depressed by having to handle the ‘black power’ insurgency in Trinidad in 1970, and even wanted to resign three years later.

His own electoral power base had been mainly ‘Creole’ (in Trinidad and Tobago this was the African-Caribbean population). He was, however, constantly looking for ways to encompass the complex racial mix of the two islands, rooted in the vagaries of colonial history. He also had to live down a remark, taken, it seems, out of context, referring to the East Indian population as “a hostile and recalcitrant minority”. One speaker stressed the amount that he did to reach out to the Indians, themselves divided into Hindus and Muslims.

One of the most interesting speakers was Selwyn Ryan, author of a massive biography of ‘de doctor’, who has attempted a psychological profile, linking Williams’ contentiousness to a revolt against his white French Creole background. Another factor was his annoyance at being refused a fellowship at All Souls in Oxford, and his later sacking by the Caribbean Commission. Without these two ruptures he might never have gone into politics. He also had a special personality cult, such as driving in his official car with the light on, so all could see him, and notoriously switching off his hearing aid if a conversation disinterested him. One speaker observed that writing his autobiography before going into politics indicated the size of his ego.

He was also notorious for his life-long grudges, and used fear of his acerbic tongue to dominate his colleagues, even as part of the loneliness of power. I often wondered if the dark glasses and strange aura were meant conjure up the vodoun deity Baron Samedi (rather in the manner of Duvalier in Haiti). The speculation about whether his death was voluntary suicide has added to the mysterious myth. “The people want him back,” one participant told me. I added that maybe some think he never died. As with that other intellectual in politics, Leopold Senghor, his people were intensely proud of his intellect and his writings. They form part of a legend that can only grow with time and history.

For the original report go to

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