IT was not very far into the 20th century when the man regarded by many as the man of the century, saw the light of day. The year was 1911, and the day was September 25.
And it was only a little past the second decade—1922 in fact—when the little boy, entering Queen’s Royal College, was also entering a society which would be figuring big in his mind. Although his boyhood would be a boy’s world, it would certainly not be just a world of play. For the boy, Eric Williams, was no typical little boy.
A few years more and what he saw when he looked behind him was not the road he had walked from Dundonald Street, but the shape of the years that had already past. When he looked ahead what he was seeing was not the wrought-iron gates of Queen’s Royal College, but the way people lived: the relationship between the rich and the poor, the right and the wrong, the white and the black. As he reached the higher forms in college the shape of his future life was forming in his mind. There was already an inward hunger, for he could not help thinking Trinidad could be made into a better place.
This is not to say that Eric Williams did not share in the fullness of college life. Indeed, he was in the thick of all this life involved, including sport. Not only did he play football for his college but he was captain of the team. He had an outstanding career in the forward line, and the only complaint his team mates had against him was that he always wanted to score.
The year 1932 was the year Eric Williams scored most beautifully. In a team effort he led Queen’s Royal College to win the college football championship, scoring crucial goals; also, in a magnificent solo effort he won the Cambridge School Certificate Island Scholarship.
Neither of those two accomplishments caused surprise among his colleagues. On the football field he was known as a brilliant player, and in the classroom he was known as an exceptional scholar. Indeed, speaking of scholarship, in 1926 and 1927 he had scored well in the Junior Cambridge School Certificate examination, and in 1928 when he was only 17, he made the highest score (in Trinidad) in the Senior Cambridge Certificate examination, thereby placing first.
In 1929, although rather young, at 18, for the Higher School Certificate, Eric Williams placed third among his college students, coming behind R.V.S. Aleong and W. E. Gocking, and in 1930 only Aleong headed him in those examinations. However, in 1931 Eric Williams turned in an exceptional performance, topping his colleagues, and this was what led to the award of an Island Scholarship in 1932.
In the same year, 1932, he entered Oxford University and at this time the inward hunger had intensified. England was a good point of vantage to see the West Indian islands for what they were, and England was also a good example of a metropolitan slave power.
Being a student of history and economics he began to investigate, through research, why these productive islands had developed in that particular way, or, better put, had failed to develop at all, and it was then that he came to some surprising conclusions, including finding out the truth about the abolition of slavery.
Eric Williams spent his five years at Oxford pondering the political and economic condition of the British West Indies, especially in relationship to how the metropolitan slave powers handled slavery. He had always pondered on the system that had made England a great industrial nation, a system which had produced great wealth from cheap sugar, but not great wealth for the colonies; a system which had produced blood, sweat and tears for the African slaves.
And this was the subject of his thesis, which was entitled: Economic Aspects of the Abolition and Emancipation of Slavery in the British West Indies.
It was such a masterful work that he emerged with a First Class Honours degree, and at the same time he had the distinction of coming out on top of all the other students at Oxford in that year 1938.
But Williams was not merely a bright student. He was a man with a mission.
The year was 1938 when Dr Eric Williams obtained his doctorate from Oxford University, and far from seeing this as an end to his quest, for him it was just the beginning.
The title of his doctoral thesis was “Economic Aspects of Emancipation and Slavery in the British West Indies.” This subject had preoccupied him for a long time, for he always held the view that it was the continued economic exploitation of the West Indies by all the former colonial powers that had put the colonies in such a hopeless position. In 1938, there was nothing but economic gloom in the West Indies, dominated, of course, by the political hopelessness of the region.
The task that lay before the young Doctor of Philosophy was to help bring about change. Change in the political situation of the West Indies had to come before any other. The colonial “birds of prey” had to be routed, before anything like self-respect and economic prosperity could come on the scene.
When Dr Eric Williams left Oxford he went to Howard University, in Washington DC, where he assumed the post of Associate Professor in Social and Political Science. (He was promoted to Assistant Professor in 1944 and obtained a full professorship in 1947).
He knew that the battle for political change had to begin soon, and indeed, there was no time like the present. Shortly after his move to Howard University the Second World War broke out and the so-called “fight for freedom” had to be on two fronts, not only on the battlefields of Europe, but in the colonies too. Although the focus of the battle for change had to be in his own Trinidad and Tobago, he was seeing a broader arena—the entire West Indies.
He was thinking of a way to drive the colonial power from the British West Indies, and to foster and encourage the idea that the tiny, unstable islands could join together in some sort of political union. In other words he was already thinking of a federation of the West Indies.
It followed that what was forming in his mind was the necessity of building a road to Independence, firstly for his territory, Trinidad and Tobago, and in the meantime see if the groundwork could be prepared for the Independence and then federation of the entire West Indies.
The first open move by Dr Eric Williams to have a close look at the political situation inside Trinidad and Tobago and at the same time to “sound out” the people of this country, came in April, 1944. He was still Associate Professor of Social Science at Howard University, and he came here to deliver a series of lectures entitled: “The West Indian Situation in the Perspective of World Affairs.”
The lectures were a great success and it appeared that Dr Williams was greatly encouraged by the warmth people showed towards him. He was also delighted to find so many people receptive to his political ideas.
He returned to Washington DC with his enthusiasm greatly heightened. So much so that he soon returned, this time as deputy chairman of the Caribbean Commission—a commisson made up of representatives of the United States, Holland, Britain and France, and which had as its declared goal the development of the British Caribbean.
Dr Williams’s job on this Commission was as an adviser. Many observers, realising that the traditional role of such commissions was not to spur development in the interest of the territories concerned but instead in seek the interest of their own countries, foresaw that Dr Williams’s relationship with the Caribbean Commission could be nothing but turbulent. And so it was.
Williams remained uneasily with the Caribbean Commission, meanwhile lecturing to the masses, educating them in the finer aspects of politics, preparing them for what he saw as an exciting future.
In 1953 and 1955 he delivered two major series of lectures at the Trinidad Public Library on the theme: “The Social and Political History of the West Indies,” and, related to this or not, it was in this period that his relations with the Caribbean Commission reached crisis point. When his contract expired on June 21, 1955, the Commission did not renew his contract.
Williams was at the time conducting a series of open-air lectures at the “University” of Woodford Square, and on the same day, June 21, cleared out his office at Kent House and went straight to the square where he told the cheering crowds waiting for him: “I will let down my bucket here with you in the West Indies.”
Although in a relatively short time Dr Williams had become well-loved and much sought after, this was by no means the case with all sections of the society. In fact, he had just emerged from a long, controversial, and unpleasant series of debates with Dom Basil Matthews on the subject of Church and State in Trinidad and Tobago. The idea had been spread, that being in favour of birth control, Williams was against what the Church stood for, and was in fact, a communist. It says a lot for this man of the century that even though being called “communist” was one of the worst things that could happen to an aspiring politician at the time, especially in this country where the Christian population was heavily Catholic, his popularity never decreased.
Deeply appreciative of Williams’ effort was a large section of the middle class, mainly teachers. The teachers had become disenchanted with the then Minister of Education, Roy Joseph, who had altered the education code to their disadvantage—as they claimed. Albert Gomes, Minister of Labour, was virtual head of government, and Roy Joseph’s action was blamed upon Gomes. General elections were forthcoming and the teachers were willing to support anyone who sought to overthrow Gomes’s political party, the Party of Political Progress Groups (POPPG). They, along with the masses in general, were clamouring for Dr Williams to form a new party. Williams, to test how genuine was the cry, launched what he called a Constitutional Reform Memorial to seek 19,000 signatures, or ten percent of the then electorate.
The cry was indeed a genuine one for he got these signatures in one month.
This man of the century formed the new party forthwith, and called it the Peoples’ National Movement. The date was January 26, 1956, and when general elections came nine months later, with a new constitution allowing for a Chief Minister, Williams swept the poll at the elections, winning 13 seats out of 24 and forming the government.
Whether he was the greatest leader the country has ever seen is not the purpose of this tribute. In 1961, with a parliament of 30 seats, he won 20 of them, with about two-thirds of the popular votes.
He pressed for independence on all sides, and at the same time he fought for a federation of the West Indies. When Jamaica risked a referendum on the issue and the people rejected federation, Williams, totally disenchanted, declared “One from ten leaves nought,” and sought Independence for Trinidad and Tobago alone.
He achieved this on August 31, 1962.
He governed under a simple Independence constitution, and in 1976 went the whole way, establishing a republican constitution for this country, making it a sovereign state. He did everything he could do and on March 29, 1981, he passed away, leaving the baton in other hands. Of all the people of the century his contribution was perhaps the most profound.