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Eric Williams and Trinidad and Tobago's Intellectual Tradition

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
Posted: October 07, 2004

We must see the social sciences, not as arid accountants of the way we live now, but as the way we might live, as the handmaiden of power over the material environment, employed to make West Indian man [and woman] the master and not the slave of the relations in which he is involved.

I suspect that half of Dr. Williams' decision to move from scholarship to active politics was a recognition of that truth. He saw, quite simply, that private research is a sterile ivory tower unless it is translated into public policy. What he has seen we can all see. And as we see it it will make us free.

-Gordon Lewis quoted in Eric Williams, Inward Hunger
There is no doubt that Dr. Eric Williams, having dedicated his life to cultivating "the West Indian [historical] garden" as he puts it in Inward Hunger, his autobiography, remains the quintessential Caribbean scholar. It is also true, inescapably, that Dr. Williams is a part of a Trinbagonian tradition of scholarship, a subject that has not been examined in any detail. In his autobiography Dr. Williams alerts us that J. J. Mitchell, one of his primary school teachers at Tranquillity Government School, and W. D. (Billy) Inniss, one of his masters at Queens Royal College, were the two most important influences on his life. Of the latter he says: "More than any other teacher in Queen's Royal College, he shaped my destiny. He always took particular pride in my annexation of the island scholarship-and well he might, for he had contributed to it more than any other individual except myself-….I decided therefore to proceed to Oxford to read for an honours degree in history. I consulted Inniss. He was delighted. I had selected not only his alma mater but his profession." Like Dr. Williams, Billy Inniss also won an Island scholarship from Queen's Royal College and proceeded to Oxford where he obtained a BA degree with honors. Yet, when he applied for a teaching position at QRC in 1901, the government turned him down. This rejection elicited a strong rebuke from the editor of the Mirror who bemoaned that a black man, no matter how qualified he was, could never replace a less qualified white man. The Government, he said, "have encouraged our youths to eschew law and medicine only to throw with sublime contempt their applications for other positions for which they have qualified themselves into the waste-paper basket." Dr. Williams's father made the opposite request of his son. He wanted him to study medicine. Fourteen years after his initial disappointment, Billy became a master at QRC. He was the son of Lewis Osborne Inniss, the most accomplished anthropologist of 19th century Trinidad and grandson of Augustus Inniss, a teacher in the Ward Schools Lord Harris set up in the 1850s. In other words, W. D. Inniss, one of Dr. Williams's mentors, came from a long line of Trinbagonian scholars.

Most of the intellectuals of the twentieth century-C. L. R. James, Williams, Oliver Cromwell Cox, George Padmore and others-were influenced by and stand on the shoulders of the intellectual giants of the nineteenth century. James, influenced by Maxwell Phillip, one of the most towering intellectuals of the nineteenth century, promised to write Philip's biography. One only has to look at the intellectual breadth of the scholars of the 19th century to understand how Dr. Williams developed his love for history, his broad intellectual pursuits and his growing appreciation of literature and the arts. At Oxford, he says, he arrived at "a growing realization that history was not a record of battles and politicians, dates and events, or even of the follies and foibles of mankind, but rather a record of the development of humanity, of life and of society, in all their various manifestations."

In this regard, Dr. Williams was one with Jean Baptiste Phillipe, author of Free Mulatto (1824) who drew on the ideas of Enlightenment to make his case against the colonial authorities. He would have been sympathetic to Maxwell Philip's interpretation of the lex talionis, the law of just revenge, that he examined in Emmanuel Appadocca (1854) which he saw as an integral part of ancient's African philosophical and theological system that Europeans borrowed from Africa and associated with Hebraic Law. He would have admired the originality of J. J. Thomas's Theory and Practice of Creole Grammar (1869) and recognize that it represented the continuation of a process, nay linguistic, of codifying the emergence of a new form of social existence. He would have welcomed Pierre Gustave Borde's The History of the Island of Trinidad Under Spanish Government (1876, 1883) which the Venezuelan historian, Aristides Rojas, welcomed as "an important acquisition in the literature of American history, already rich with works by Prescott, Washington Irving, Acosta, Plaza, Baralt and other modern writers from the two Americas." From the beginning of the 19th century, our intellectuals functioned within the ambit of the larger international community.

Dr. Williams would have welcomed the rise of the ramlelas; the hosay and the carnival arts as counter-discourses to the dominant discourse of the colonial-capitalist order that strove to impose their values on a colonized people. No wonder, he was so contemptuous of J. O. Cutteridge, the author of several of our early school texts, whom Dr. Williams acknowledged as having "a negative rather than a positive" impact on his life. In 1901, Joseph de Suze, a local school master wrote Little Folks Trinidad to tell us about the wonders of our world. Trinbagonians may remember Cutteridge who Sparrow made infamous in his biting satire of our educational system in his calypso, "Dan is the Man in the Van." Few of us know who de Suze is. In elevating Inniss and decentering Cutteridge, Dr. Williams suggests that we need to honor those who went before and to acquaint ourselves with the intellectual culture that make us who we are. Hence his emphasis on the ennobling dimensions of his enterprise. "[In my lectures] I sought always to instill pride, to give a new sense of dignity to the people. Our history was the politics of the past, made for us by others. It was a necessary guide to the politics of the future, made for us by ourselves."

In our day and in some circles it has become fashionable to downplay or even ridicule Dr. Williams' importance in Trinidad and Tobago's intellectual and political life. I offer two ways of reading Dr. Williams works that I take from Edward Said's insightful lecture, "Freud and the Non-European," that he delivered at the 2002 Freud Memorial Lecture in London and Jacqueline Rose's response to it. Rose observed: "You read a historic writer not for what they failed to see, nor for the ideological blindspots of their writing-too easy, too programmatic in the literary academy of recent years-but for the as-yet-unlived, still-shaping history which their vision-which must mean including the limitations of that vision-partially, tentatively, foresees and provokes. The task of such a reading is to 'dramatize the latencies in a prior figure or form that suddenly illuminates the present.'" No one could re-read Inward Hunger, Capitalism and Slavery, Perspective of Our Party or Massa Day Done, to name a few of Dr. Williams's works, without being startled anew by his perspicacity, his erudition, and the subtle latencies that subtend his work.

Said is more succinct. His approach to reading and analysis attempts to see great writers and thinkers "in their context as accurately as possible, but then-because they are extraordinary writers and thinkers whose work has enabled other, alternative work and readings based on developments of which they could not have been aware-I see them contrapuntally, that is, as figures whose writings travel across temporal, cultural and ideological boundaries in unforeseen ways to emerge as part of a new ensemble along with later history and subsequent art."

There is a sense in which Said wants us to understand the musical act-the 'contrapuntal'-as an expression, a habit of life, or an activity in a new environment, occurring inevitably "against the memory of these things in another environment." It helps if we envisage Dr. Williams' work as being contrapuntal: traveling across the twentieth and the twenty first centuries yet inescapably beholden to an intellectual tradition that has its origins in the inaugural acts of our 19th century forebears and the culture that spawned them.

In 1971 when Norm Chomsky delivered the first Cambridge University lecture, "Problems of Knowledge and Freedom," in memory of Bertram Russell, he observed that the "Radical transformation of any society is unthinkably without the active participation of those engaged in creative and productive work." This, it seems, is what Gordon Lewis meant when he avers that "half of Dr. Williams's decision to move from scholarship to active politics was a recognition of the truth…that the social sciences [must be seen] as the hand maiden of power over the material environment, employed to make West Indian man [and woman] the master and not the slave of the relations in which he [or she] is involved."

Dr. Williams made his scholarship relevant to his people's aspirations. Such a posture always represented the creative thrust of Caribbean scholarship of which Dr. Williams was one of the most respected members. Such a posture is rooted also in the intellectual tradition of Trinbagonian scholarship of which Dr. Williams is one of our most sainted members. We overlook his rootedness in Trinidad and Tobago's intellectual life and culture at our peril.

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