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Book Review

COLIN PALMER. Eric Williams and the Making of the Modern Caribbean. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006. Pp. xii+308. $34.95 (cloth).

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
Wellesley College
November 12, 2006

Eric Williams and the Making of the Modern Caribbean by: Colin A. Palmer 
Eric Williams and the Making of the Modern Caribbean by Colin A. Palmer 
Colin Palmer has written a brilliant work, Eric Williams and the Making of the Modern Caribbean, that examines Williams's relationship with the Caribbean. In this beautifully written work, Palmer offers an intriguingly new dimension of Williams's political career and documents his standing outside of Trinidad and Tobago (T&T). Drawing on innumerable sources, Palmer locates Williams in the Caribbean's struggle for justice, demonstrates his seminal importance in the fight for independence, and chronicles the dignity he conferred upon his people. Williams thought highly of himself and his movement. He believed that T&T was the "the standard bearers in the world, especially in our part of the world, of the principle of nationalism, of the principle of self--determination, the principle of the emergence of people formerly submerged under colonialism" (Eric Williams, "From Slavery to Chaguaramas," in Major Party Documents, vol. 1, People's National Movement [Port--of--Spain, Trinidad, 1966]). Prior to the achievement of national independence in 1962, he informed Harold MacMillan, the British prime minister, that "it is no spirit of national conceit that Trinidad and Tobago claims for itself a unique position in the Commonwealth, a unique position justifies unique treatment" (143).

Williams was clearly a man on a mission. He was full of self--confidence and possessed a compelling devotion to his causes. To him, the interest of his nation always came first. Yet he was not without his faults. He was petulant, intolerant of the views of others, intellectually dishonest at times, and even cruel to his associates. It was not uncommon for him to dump those who were most important in promoting his academic and political career. He even said nasty things about them after he fell out with them or had no further use of their services, as the cases of C. L. R. James and Norman Manley reveal. Patrick Solomon was among the first persons to alert us to this malignant tendency (Solomon: An Autobiography [Trinidad: Imprint Caribbean, 1981]). Palmer does not explain this dysfunction in an entirely satisfactory manner. A psychoanalysis of Williams that takes into account the society, culture, and language out of which Williams came--his early social and cultural grounding--might better explain Williams's dysfunction rather than his childhood fantasies upon which Palmer bases his claims.

In this well--researched book, Palmer uses original sources to make his case. Rather than rely on interviews with Williams's cohorts--a deliberate decision on his part--Palmer draws almost exclusively on official correspondences, particularly those in the Public Record Office (London), the National Archives (Washington, DC), and the Eric Williams Memorial Collection (Trinidad). He charts Williams's academic contribution to scholarship and sees Capitalism and Slavery as "a watershed in the historiography of slavery" (28), says that the "Massa Day Done" speech "will go down in the historical annals as one of the strongest indictments of the psychological impact of colonial rule made by a head of government anywhere" (23), outlines Williams's attempt to create an effective West Indian Federation with a strong federal center, describes Williams's struggle to regain Chaguaramas for the federal capital of the now--defunct West Indian Federation (he calls it the "greatest victory" of Williams's career [137]), and carefully delineates Williams's fascinating negotiations with the British as he tried to squeeze as much economic aid out of them as he could prior to T&T's independence. Palmer also describes Williams's visit to Africa. He says he was conscious of the need to develop new relations with the African countries as he sought to persuade them "to support Trinidad's request for preferential treatment in European markets" (241). Williams emerged from this tour as "the unifying leader in the Caribbean" (252).

Chapter 6 examines Williams's attempt to craft a solution to the Guyanese problems and offers a fascinating look at Cheddi Jagan's Marxism and Williams's attempt to prevent African involvement (particularly that of Kwame Nkrumah and Mohammed Ahmed Ben Bella) in the Guyanese political crisis. Williams's failure to mediate the issue highlighted the distrust the political leaders of Guyana (Jagan, Forbes Burnham, and Peter D'Aguiar) had for Williams and captured, in a nutshell, some of the interterritorial political tensions between Caribbean leaders.

The last chapter of the book offers an interesting discussion of race relations in T&T. In my view, Williams was ambivalent about race. He was aware of the importance of slavery and indentureship in the making of the Caribbean, but I do not think he would argue as Palmer has that "racism was responsible [primarily] for the Caribbean ills" (260--61). He made that clear in Capitalism and Slavery when he intoned that "racism was the consequence of slavery," which, as Palmer acknowledges, remains a controversial claim. After independence "Williams toned down his verbal assault on white privilege" (283). The passage of the "management--friendly" Industrial Stabilization Act in 1965 did much to generate the confidence of the business class in his administration. This might have been his undoing.

All of Williams's actions were trumped by the demands of the Black Power advocates and the February Rebellion of 1970. It signified that Williams had ceased to listen attentively to his publics, producing a feeling, particularly among young Africans, that independence had not delivered all it was supposed to deliver. It was not that Williams had not tried--he accomplished much--but, as Palmer noted, leaders such as Hugh Shearer of Jamaica and "to some extent the Eric Williams of the late 1960s, were not fully attuned to the striving of those at the societal margins and the young intellectuals who helped to give them voice" (289).

By 1970 Williams's magic was receding. The oil boom of the 1970s helped him economically, but the dynamism and optimism of the early years faded as the young advocates began to chant "Black Power" and younger scholars such as Walter Rodney "grounded with their brothers." With the assistance of the United States, Britain, and Venezuela, Williams weathered the storm, although it must have been at a tremendous "psychological blow" to his ego (303). Palmer called the February Rebellion "a watershed" (302) in his political career that seriously challenged his administration.

Palmer's work is rich and surprising in other areas as well. He exposes the intrigue of Britain and the United States against Williams. For instance, it might come as a shock to many that the United States gave some thought to "eliminating" Williams during the Chaguaramas discussion. The British sought to sabotage his efforts. These revelations should not be taken as empty threats in light of the Central Intelligence Agency's role in Cuba and Guyana when several attempts were made to eliminate Fidel Castro, and Jagan was removed from office by Britain and the United States. Necessarily, these actions must be seen against the background of the Cold War that operated during this period.

Palmer also chronicles Williams's use of his scholarship in his various encounters with colonialism and independence although he did not always use it nonideologically. Responding to a letter Williams wrote with regard to Grenada's desire for unitary statehood with Trinidad, Dennis Williams, an official in the Colonial Office, bemoaned it was "the kind of tissue of half and quarter truths one has come to expect in any communication from Dr. Williams. He always gives a highly selective version of events, convenient to his own thesis, which has little relation to facts" (193). Such an evaluation was not entirely inconsistent. F. S. J. Ledgister observed that in writing about British racism in the nineteenth--century Caribbean, "Williams presents establishment figures such as Carlyle and Trollope as demonic, but he fails to mention comparable figures on the other side. Williams's objective in assaulting Carlyle in British Historians and the West Indies is clearly political rather than historiographical" (F. S. J. Ledgister, "Thomas Carlyle, John Stuart Mill, and Eric Williams on Race and Rule in the West Indies," Canadian Review of Studies in Nationalism 26, no. 1 [1999]: 1--16)--although it must be said that in British Historians and the West Indies, Williams "made no attempt to separate his role as historian from that of a political partisan" (Denis Benn, Ideology and Political Development [Mona, Jamaica: Institute of Social and Economic Research, University of the West Indies, 1987], 72). There was always that tendency to use history to his advantage.

Many more books will be written about Williams's political career. However, Eric Williams and the Making of the Modern Caribbean, a rigorously argued work, will gain a cherished place in scholarship on Williams. It is a fitting tribute to Williams's achievements, a timely salutation to his brilliance, an erudite discourse on his enormous political courage, and a welcomed recognition of his contributions to Caribbean integration and the international anticolonial struggle.

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