Discovering A. R. F. Webber
By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
October 20, 2010
(Excerpts from a lecture delivered at the Du Bois Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, on October 20, 2010)
During the twentieth century, the Caribbean produced several outstanding scholar-statesmen who became internationally known for their work and their insights into the affairs of their time. I can think of C. L.R. James who wrote Black Jacobins, a masterful work on the Haitian Revolution; Eric Williams who offered a new interpretation of slavery and the slave trade in Capitalism and Slavery; and Oliver Cromwell Cox, a sociologist who challenged theories of race and class of Robert Parks and the Chicago School of sociology in his work Caste, Class and Race. Arthur Lewis won the Nobel Prize in economics for the pioneering studies on economic development, particularly as it affected developing countries. V. S. Naipaul won the Nobel Prize in Literature for his wide-ranging views on many subjects and Derek Walcott won the Nobel Prize in Literature for his poetical efforts. Yet, few persons know of the work Albert Raymond Forbes Webber, another Caribbean person of outstanding merit.
Today, I want to spend the next forty minutes telling you who Webber was; why he is important and why we ought to know something about him. Before I do, I would like to tell you how I encountered Webber.
In the summer of 1976 Naipaul published Guerillas to the great acclaim. Having cultivated his reputation in England and the Caribbean Naipaul was not as well known in the United States. Many US critics were happy to hear the voice of this warrior novelist who had the temerity to put down aspects of Black Power although Naipaul was talking about the UK brand of that phenomenon.
One of the most laudatory reviews of Guerrillas was written by Irving Howe, a New York intellectual, who was enamored by Naipaul's work. In 1979 when A Bend in the River was published he observed: "For sheer abundance of talent there can hardly be any writer alive who surpasses V. S. Naipaul." In spite of his tremendous praise of Naipaul's work, Howe and the other critics knew little about the cultural milieu out of which Naipaul's work arose, less still about Caribbean literature of which Naipaul's work was a part. I had just completed Resistance and Caribbean Literature (1980), the outgrowth of my doctoral dissertation at Cornell, and felt equipped to challenge Howe's interpretation of Naipaul's work.
I decided to write a book on Naipaul, which subsequently came out as V. S. Naipaul: A Materialist Reading (1988), to put Naipaul's work into a context. I wanted to demonstrate that Naipaul was not the first Caribbean person to write about East Indians in the Caribbean, the initial subject of much of Naipaul's inquiry. I wanted to show that Webber had written about East Indians in his novel, Those That Be In Bondage (1917). There was only one problem. I had never seen the book although I had quoted what others said about the book.
Unfortunately I could not find a copy of this book at the Library of Congress or the British Library. As they say, when the mountain would not come to Mohammed he had to go to the mountain. I proceeded to Guyana where Webber had lived and there, in the Guyanese archives I found one of the few copies of Those That Be In Bondage. That discovery and subsequent research led to the writing of Caribbean Visionary: A. R. F. Webber and the Making of the Guyanese Nation.
While I was in Guyana I met Derek Whitehead, Webber's grandson, who put me on to his mother, Edith Dummett, who I interviewed about six months before she died. A part of this interview is included in a documentary of Webber that I concluded earlier this year.
Who then is Webber?
Webber, one of the Caribbean's most gifted sons, was born in Scarborough, Tobago, in 1880. In 1899 he left Tobago to join his father, James Francis and his uncles, Ernest and Percival Forbes, partners in Crosby and Forbes, one of the largest gold and diamond traders in Bartica, a frontier town of Guyana.
Shortly after Webber started working in Bartica trouble struck when a shipment of gold from his uncle's company that was sent to London was stolen (the gold was replaced by lead) which led to the ruin of Crosby and Forbes and Webber's retreat from the gold industry. Gradually, he embraced Water Street, Georgetown, the business section of Guyana. His rise in the business community was slow, painstaking and adventurous. Having worked in the interior he knew that territory better than many of his colleagues with whom he served later in the Legislature.
Between 1907 and 1910, Webber worked for several companies including the advertising departments of the Daily Argosy, a Guyanese newspaper, and Booker Brothers, the largest conglomerate of the country. He was also a publicist for Georgetown Chamber of Commerce's publication which he made into "an interesting industrial and trade publication." During the 1920s he became the editor of the Daily Chronicle and the New Daily Chronicle, two of the most powerful Guyanese newspapers at the time. In 1921, he entered the legislative. Thereafter, he went on to be one of the most powerful men in Guyanese and Caribbean politics.
Webber was also the author of many books, the most important of which was the Centenary History and Handbook of British Guiana (1931). He also linked up with Hubert Crichlow, the father of West Indian trade unionism, to advance the cause of the working people of the society. He crossed the Atlantic many times to present the case of his people (and other West Indians) to the Colonial Office.
In 1932 he died suddenly upon the Essequibo River. He was on a business trip to Bartica. The Port of Spain Gazette of July 1, 1932 noted that "journalism was Webber's first love." T. A. Marryshow of Grenada, one of the most ardent advocates of the now defunct West Indian Federation, exclaimed: "Webber dead? Then the cause of West Indian freedom has lost a finished fighter. Taken all in all, he was a devoted son of Mother West India."
Caribbean Visionary makes the case for Webber's importance in Caribbean life and letters. It seeks to place him on the same lofty pedestal as James, Williams, Cox and all of the other thinkers who have tried to explain Caribbean realities.
Professor Cudjoe's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org