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Besson's Cruel Accusations

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
July 23, 2010

Part I - Part II

Gerard Besson's The Cult of the Will seeks to challenge the historical orthodoxy that undergirds Dr. Eric Williams's analysis of the causes of the abolition of slavery and the slave trade and the cruelty he perpetuated against the entire society although whites seems to come out worse in the bargain. According to Besson, Williams sought "to facilitate the stigmatization of Caribbean people of European descent, or those who appear so, through the projection of negative concepts of 'slave master' or 'colonial master,' to modern-day individuals for political and ideological purposes."

In spite of its scholarly pretensions and Besson's thoroughly misunderstood historical concepts and dubious psychological theories, The Cult of the Will turns out to be nothing more than an attempt to defend European (and more specifically, his family's) privilege by debunking Dr. Williams's academic and political work. In the process he asks us to accept the British representation of themselves as being concerned only with justice, humanity, and fairness toward enslaved Africans when they ended slavery and the slave trade.

To achieve this end, Besson makes extraordinary claims and fantastical mental leaps. His first claim is that Dr. Williams, a scion of the Besson family, acted as he did because he was cheated of a legacy that was rightfully his and hence Williams's indulgence in what the author calls "inherited victimhood." He argues that "the political personality of Dr. Williams was shaped by the 18th century Afro-French Creole plantation experience and the manner in which this was lived in and expressed in the 19th century by the coloured middle class of which he and his extended family were a part."

Not content with this dubious proposition, he goes on to argue that Dr. Williams "may have been influenced, perhaps even manipulated, by C. L. R. James and other ideologues, who may have had knowledge of his personal circumstances and psychological weaknesses," the supposition being that James and the other ideologues knew what Besson discovered only recently about Williams's family history. Besson believes that James and Williams inflicted this tortured legacy upon an unwitting population of political nincompoops.

The book is short on evidence and long on speculation. In fact, it is inundated with so many "mays" and "maybes," "may have been," and "may have developed" that one is forced to conclude that speculation is substituted for evidence; bastard psychologizing replaces the logical causation of phenomena; and a jig-saw putting together of historical episodes stands in place of a solid methodological procedure. Such speculative thinking allows Besson to argue that Williams "may have developed the mulatto's or red man's complex: the so called 'chip on the shoulder,' a sense of racial inferiority; social as well as other inhibitions; and maybe he developed a pathologically suspicious and cynical attitude with regard to Europeans and even perhaps a strong animosity, a rage, against the French Creole community, the colonial establishment of his day, along with a distrust of the legal system that had not supported the family at redress" (my italics).

In the first place, it seems highly irregular that a political personality, or any personality, can be shaped and/or defined by a century prior to the one in which he lived. And while it is true that men's actions are determined by the weight of the past, they do not make history in any way they choose. So that while Williams's political activities were determined by 19th century Trinidad (it couldn't be otherwise), it is difficult to see how his personality was shaped by a previous century in which the social and cultural imperatives were so different.

Such a preamble brings me to the central thrust of Besson's argument against Williams's contention that the primary cause for the demise of slavery and the slave trade was economic rather than humanitarian. Whatever one gives primacy to, economic or humanitarian forces, as the ultimately determining factor in history, one cannot ascribe purely subjective motives to Williams's argument, something that Besson does throughout his book. Dr. Williams could not have written Capitalism and Slavery (1944) without the pioneering work that James did in Black Jacobins (1938), as James could not have written his work without the pioneering effort of Leon Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution (1930). None of these works could have been written before the advent of Marxist dialectics or a materialist conception of history.

It is also of interest to note that Williams dedicated Capitalism and Slavery to Lowell Joseph Ragatz, the author of The Fall of the Planter Class in the British Caribbean, 1763-1833 (1928), a pioneering study that traced the social and economic forces that shaped the Caribbean during that period. Ragatz was the first person Williams wanted to meet when he arrived at Howard University in 1939. Both James and Williams saw The Fall of the Planter Class as a model of scholarship. Ragatz, white and racist, made the following observations in his book: "The West Indian negro had all the characteristics of his race. He stole, he lied, he was simple, suspicious, inefficient, irresponsible, lazy, superstitious, and loose in his sex relations." In spite of this, Williams could say that Ragatz's "monumental labours in this field may be amplified and developed but can never be superseded." This must have been quite a feat for racist Williams, his anti-white views, and his French Creole antipathies.

Besson has a different story to tell. According to his reading of history, Williams and James spoke in forked tongue that misled the natives. The world would have been such a better place if only we had dismissed James's and Williams's wrong-headed notions and accepted that the British had spoken "the truth in their rendering of history." If we had done so, we would not have become the "victims of a conspiracy that withheld the truth about the abolition of slavery and the slave trade" that made us "suffer from colonial injustice and racial prejudice."

How could Williams and James be so cruel to us?

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