An Op-Ed piece by Lennox Grant for Trinidad’s Express.
Eric Williams is back in Port of Spain. More than a century after his birth, and 35 years after his death, both in this city, this is to cheer for.
At last, it may be said, the city has made its peace with its most famous son. The public library building, at Knox and Pembroke, has now been consecrated the final resting place for what, of his personal legacy, can be seen, felt, touched, and marvelled at.
The Eric Williams Memorial Collection always belonged in this city. Inside the upper-floor reference room of that building, he had made his name as a man to watch.
There, he gave the lectures, and engaged in the debates that, in the 1940s and 1950s, marked a singular contribution to the city’s intellectual life. He was giving back, as a stellar beneficiary of the best this place had to offer. “Greatness, Trinidad style, was thrust upon me from the cradle,” he wrote, giving testimony as one of us: “These people were my own flesh and blood. I had been to school with them, played cricket and football with them, shared their sufferings, enjoyed Carnival with them. We had grown up on the same food, the same drink, the same experiences…”.
By that writing, the child of Woodbrook, pupil of Tranquillity, and Island Scholar of QRC had become Dr Eric Williams. The library reference room overlooked Woodford Square, and the bandstand where, before the people who had crowded to see and hear this wonder of the West Indian world, the Doctor vowed to “let down my bucket where I am, right here with you”. The “bucket” hit the ground with an overload of material of the mind, representing decades of reading, research, and writing. The payload got heavier over the succeeding decades in politics and government.
Among the current collection are “some 7,000 volumes”. That’s the estimate of the librarians at UWI, St Augustine where, since March 1998, the memorial collection has resided. In the Port of Spain of 1955, the “bucket” declaration did the today equivalent of going “viral”. For 11 years, he had been lecturing, sharing his prodigious learning, discoursing on the colonial condition, and covering his own journey toward the leadership position he soon assumed. Confident he was reaching minds and hearts, he wrote: ”They were listening to the intellectual expression of their own basic convictions.” Making history in his turn, Dr Williams would found and lead the PNM, and the country, all the way through federation, independence, and republicanism. Eight years before he died, he vented disgust at what he had wrought in the PNM. He briefly threatened to quit.
As the party sought to realize its mission as T&T’s “natural party of government”, it grew to shrug off the Williams intellectual heritage as baggage liable only to impede political progress. After 1986, when the PNM was electorally devastated by the NAR, the Williams tradition was all but jettisoned, as part of a spent-force “old PNM”. Dr Williams had bequeathed the “memorial collection” to his daughter, Erica Williams-Connell. She assumed loyal and protective possession of her father’s intellectual legacy.
Briefly, in the post-1986 period, Ms Williams-Connell had appeared to pose a political threat to Patrick Manning. The result was to push the Eric Williams memory even farther into the background of reigning PNM consciousness. In 1998, when she entrusted the Williams collection to The UWI, PNM and opposition leader Manning declined even to attend the ceremony. The guest speaker was top US General Colin Powell, first African-American to reach that rank. Feature speaker was prime minister Basdeo Panday, who was personally praised for his support of The UWI endeavour. In honour and furtherance of Dr Williams’s unrealised ambition, he announced the policy of free secondary education for all.
Toward making that happen, he assigned responsibility to the largely unknown quantity that was Education Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar. The rest is history, including forgetful PNM disregard of Eric Williams, so especially evident at the party’s Woodford Square 50th anniversary gala. Visiting Balisier House in 1987, I noted the faded, dog-eared poster pictures of Williams on the walls, that confirmed earlier impressions. At the Central Bank’s annual Eric Williams lecture series, I recognized former Minister Overand Padmore as the only PNM public figure in consistent attendance. The party people who rallied with Mr Manning after 1986 found little taste for sentimental embrace of the Williams heritage.
By the 2001 Manning PNM return to office, other symbolic cherishings of history and culture were ripe for philistine discard. That government cancelled plans to name the national library building after VS Naipaul, and refused the request by fellow Nobel laureate Derek Walcott to accommodate the Trinidad Theatre Workshop in the complex.
In 2013, under the Partnership administration, the restored public library building was dedicated to housing memorial collections of all T&T prime ministers and presidents. So keen is the Rowley administration to emphasise the passing of Manning times, that the entire building is now reserved for just the Eric Williams collection.
Port of Spain’s Doctor is in the house.