Father of the Nation?

Maurice St. Pierre, Eric Williams and the Anticolonial Tradition: The Making of a Diasporan Intellectual (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2015); 254 pages, ISBN 978-0813936734 (paperback)

• February 2017

The Caribbean has produced many fine intellectuals who have earned international recognition. Within the region however, a number of these scholars have entered public life taking on the role of national leader: Eric Williams is one example. Maurice St. Pierre’s Eric Williams and the Anticolonial Tradition: The Making of a Diasporan Intellectual is an attempt to explore the events that transformed Williams from the child of working-class parents into the first prime minster of Trinidad and Tobago. For many people in Trinidad and Tobago, Williams is the “Father of the Nation,” a national hero who fought the imperial powers of England and the United States on behalf of the twin islands’ residents, while for many others he is a polarizing figure who, as prime minster, continued the colonial legacy of divide-and-rule and race baiting in order to maintain his hold on political office. Both these narratives are debated more than fifty years after the nation, under Williams’s leadership, achieved political independence. St. Pierre’s study does not examine Williams’s tenure as prime minister but instead helps the reader understand some of the factors that shaped his thinking as a public intellectual. The author suggests that class, education, color, and family history all contributed to the formation of Williams the academic and that his experiences as a child and young adult compelled him “to understand the world and to take a position in it” (195).

Early in the book St. Pierre defines intellectuals as “knowledge entrepreneurs, who create a public (consumers) for their product, and by extension a market for their knowledge, by speaking to the relevance of their product” (7). By this definition, Williams’s role as a politician was not accidental but instead the end result of a larger plan, the roots of which can be traced as far back as his primary school education and his family structure and history.

Williams’s childhood, the author suggests, was shaped by a colonial structure and small-island living that meant Williams had to depend on his academic ability to climb the social hierarchy. St. Pierre reminds us that Williams was born into a large immediate family with few economic resources, a situation that was made more difficult by his race and color. Citing Williams, St. Pierre describes how Williams’s father’s color was complicated by the circumstances of his paternal grandparents’ marriage: the social order, according to Williams’s telling, had been violated by his grandparents’ union—a white woman who eloped with a full-blooded Negro who had been employed by her family in a menial capacity (14). His grandmother’s family subsequently disowned the couple, and their descendants suffered because of the couple’s breach of the social norms. Consequently, Williams and his parents understood that he had to rely on education in order to climb the social and economic ladder. It was clear that school choices could and did have an impact on the social mobility of nonwhites, and so Williams’s decision to study history rather than law or medicine at university was not welcomed by his family.

St. Pierre points to Williams’s informal education by his family and friends and his professional experiences at Howard University and on the Anglo-American Caribbean Commission (on his return to Trinidad) as having, alongside his formal academic training, a deep impact on his intellectual development. Also of influence was the hidden curriculum of both Queens Royal College (QRC) and Oxford University. This hidden curriculum transmitted the values, norms, and expectations placed on a smart, black, poor, young man living on a colonial outpost. Williams’s time at QRC, where he witnessed the brutal flogging of a “coloured” student by the white principal, and at Oxford, where his presence was questioned by classmates, reinforced for him “that public humiliation as part of the language of colonial oppression ranked higher than racial considerations” (31). This was an important reminder to any person of color who planned to engage with colonial powers: no matter their intellectual capabilities, challenges to authority would be met with brutal repression if necessary.

St. Pierre claims that Williams drew on his academic training as well as his cultural knowledge in order to legitimize his public life. The ability to be both a credentialed intellectual and the son of working-class parents gave him a level of authenticity among both the elite and rank and file. Williams built relationships with various political and social actors, including teachers and working-class women. More significant, however, was his ability to use print media, debates, and speeches to engage in public discourse. St. Pierre argues that Williams’s use of Woodford Square, known as the People’s Parliament or the University of Woodford Square, was important because of its place in the public imagination as the platform for popular discourse. Another noteworthy event that St. Pierre notes is Williams’s debates in 1954 with the Catholic monk and educator Dom Basil Matthews. Although Matthews was not the only public figure Williams debated, their discourse was important because it had “specific implications for nationalism and the forging of a collective identity among the followers of the social-movement leader and intellectual” (61–62).

The examination of Williams’s intellectual growth is central because, as St. Pierre illustrates, Williams is one of many scholars who participated in the struggle for self-rule throughout the developing world. The Caribbean was (and continues to be) home to an abundance of scholars who have been educated in the best universities in the world, many of whom return to their birthplaces and engage in public life. Examples include Alexander Bustamante, the Manleys, and Edward Seaga (Jamaica); the Barrows, Edward Kamau Brathwaite, and George Lamming (Barbados); W. Arthur Lewis and Derek Walcott (St. Lucia); Forbes Burnham, Cheddi Jagan, and Walter Rodney (Guyana); and, as the author discusses in detail, Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon (Martinique). According to St. Pierre, what made Williams unique was that he “used the symbolic capital of the highly qualified academic and professional historian to provide a consensus regarding the meaning of political independence” (200). This public discourse led to a legacy of an engaged public that was, and still is, a central part of the Trinbagonian character. Education and, perhaps even more significantly, debates in the public square are perceived as the right of every citizen. This is why the physical space of Woodford Square and other public arenas remain important in the political education of citizens, along with calypsonians, letters to the editor, and radio and television talk shows. Although Williams was not the first public figure to engage with the public (Tubal Uriah Butler, Andrew Arthur Cipriani, and Albert Gomes, among others, did as well), the author claims that Williams mastered the public square.

St. Pierre spends much of the book describing Williams’s childhood, educational experiences, and emergence as a key figure of the movement to self-governance. This offers the reader one of the more complete narratives available of Williams’s life before he became Trinidad and Tobago’s first prime minister. However, it is unclear why the author claims Williams is a diasporan intellectual. If the author is referring to Williams as a descendent of the African and European diasporas that settled the Americas, then, certainly in this narrow sense, Williams is that. But it seems that the evidence St. Pierre offers supports the idea that Williams was in fact an intellectual formed by the colonial experience who became part of the anticolonial movement. These experiences did not radicalize Williams or encourage him to use his intellect to challenge or reinvent the social, economic, and political institutions beyond fighting for political independence. Williams instead more closely resembles what Selwyn Ryan calls an Afro-Saxon: a black man who embraces and appreciates the benefits of Western civilization with all its institutions, particularly educational, political, and legal. For many scholars of Williams, this apparent conformity is confounding. His failure as the prime minister to foresee and, in the opinions of many, to appropriately address the Black Power revolution in the early 1970s, and his ignoring the flagrant corruption of many of his ministers and close associates, point to his becoming insulated against the needs of the citizens. Therefore, while not discounting his intellect and academic achievements, one is left to question if Williams, because of his childhood experiences and education, could ever have created an indigenous political system instead of embracing the Westminster system. St. Pierre’s book offers the reader a glimpse of some of the possible factors that contributed to Williams’s intellectual grounding and how his public discourses helped redefine this Trinbagonian academic as a scholar who could move effortlessly from Oxford University to the University of Woodford Square.

 

Alison Mc Letchie holds a PhD in sociology from the University of South Carolina and an MA in anthropology. Her research interests include social inequality, racial and ethnic identity formation and transformation, the Caribbean diaspora in the United States, religion, calypsos, and creolization.

 

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