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Single-Mindedly Williams Transformed Our Lives

By Dr. Selwyn R Cudjoe
July 24, 2010

Part I - Part II

It is Besson's contention that Williams and James lied to us about the role Africans played in the slave trade. Besson feels that it is only when one understands the magnitude of black (read African) culpability in the slave trade that one can understand how all the blame for the evil system of slavery should not be placed on European shoulders alone.

The Africans were just as guilty as the Europeans. Such realities lead Besson to conclude that Dr Williams's "revisionist narrative pilloried the European population in Trinidad and Tobago as not only descended from slave-owners, but also inheriting their guilt, while ignoring the complicity of the Africans who sold their fellow Africans in exchange for trade goods." Such an omission did not happen by chance. It was a part of Williams's "cynical outlook" that was meant to enhance his "shrewd use of black nationalism" which forced his followers to "reject the existence of any truth in the moral impulse of the late 18th century English people, as expressed in ideas such as 'justice and humanity.'"

It was the humanity that Rev James Phillippo, residing in Jamaica from 1823 to 1843, saw at first glance when he reported that the entire history of the colonies was "one revolting scene of infamy, bloodshed, and unmitigated woe, of insecure peace and open disturbance, of the abuse of power, and of the reaction of misery against oppression...slavery has been the curse of the West Indies." (From James Phillippo Jamaica: Its past and present state, published in 1843.)

Moreover, if we accept Besson's contention about British concern for justice and humanity, it forces us to reiterate the quizzical observation that James made of Sir Reginald Coupland, Oxford scholar and the chief proponent of the humanitarian thesis about the abolition of slavery, "Those who see in abolition the gradual awakening conscience of mankind should spend a few minutes asking themselves why it is man's conscience, which had slept peacefully for so many centuries, should awake just at the time that men began to see the unprofitableness of slavery as a method of production in the West Indian colonies." (From the 1938 edition of The Black Jacobins by CLR James). But things get worse. Williams, he says, misled the public because he "may [again the may] have harboured a deeply felt sense of injustice and deprivation due to his family's unique circumstances." This condition led Williams to indulge in "obsessive behaviour and phobias, deprivation and victimhood," a condition so strong that "it may have become an obsession, perhaps a form of mental disorder, impairing contact to some degree with external reality, which is the definition of neurosis".

This is Besson's most audacious charge. Dr Williams was a mad man whose contact with external reality was skewed. No substantive evidence is provided; none is needed. All it takes is a sufficient repetition of "maybes" and "perhaps" and he is on the road to proving his case. All that is left to be said is that those of us (myself included) who followed Williams shared in his madness and his neurotic behaviour. It was in the political vineyard of T&T that Williams found his ignoble measure. Williams, he tells us, was one of the "vote manipulators" of the Third World who "may have originated racist attitudes and the scapegoating of present-day Trinidadians of European and particularly French descent" when he wrote History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago in which he "exile[d] half of the island's population [the East Indians] from his narrative."

"Massa Day Done" is Besson's cause célèbre. He argues that in this 1961 address Williams expressed "the dislike and deep-seated prejudices felt by most Afro-Creoles towards Indians." The "bitter words" in "Massa Day Done" indicated the "pathological changes associated with a neurosis" and that changed T&T's racial history and inaugurated what he called racial stereotypes and scapegoats. One wished that Besson had read Yogendra Malik's East Indians in Trinidad and VS Naipaul's Middle Passage critically. He would have come away with a different view. But herein lies "the smoking gun" that Besson has been working toward to nail Williams to the psychological cross of deprivation and loss. It is revealed in two words, "frustration and inhibitions." They are the keys that unlock Williams's "frustrated black French Creole" identity; the link that takes him back to his displaced family relationships. It is these delusions that lead Williams to inflict his poisonous insecurities upon his people, a point that Ramesh Deosaran endorses in his blurb on the black cover of the book and in his correspondences with the author.

When I reviewed Deosaran's Eric Williams, His Ideas and His Politics in 1981, I pointed out that his study would have yielded better results if he had used the tools of psychoanalysis rather than psychology when he tried to explain the complex drives that informed Dr Williams's life and work. While it is true that a man liberates himself through his speech (or more specifically his discourses), Besson does not probe deeply into the gaps and lacunae of Williams's texts to explore the contradictions in Williams's behaviour. It is only through rigorous rethinking of Williams's texts and what Antoine Vergote, a French scholar in psychoanalysis, calls "analytic listening," that one can arrive at the psychic complexities that drive Williams.

In spite of the derogatory comments that Besson makes about Williams, he is not likely to erode Williams seminal role in the shaping of T&T's politics in the second half of the 20th century and his magisterial contribution to the study of slavery and the slave trade. Many more studies will be done about Williams, but for the time being I prefer to rely on Arnold Rampersad's judgment about Williams's impact on T&T when he said: "Single-handedly and single-mindedly, Eric Williams transformed our lives. He swept away the old and inaugurated the new. He made us proud to be who we were, and optimistic as never before about what we were going to be, or could be. 'Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,' and nothing that has transpired since in Trinidad can negate Williams's gift to his people, or his triumph of intellect and spirit."

In the years to come, someone will write the history of blacks in Trinidad. It might prove to be a worthy refutation of the half-truths that Besson propagated in this work, particularly in the last chapter, "The Afro-French Creole Narrative." In the meantime, black people stand convicted by the slanderous twisting of their social and political activities during the last fifty years of their existence. May God have mercy on their souls as they continue to live in a state of delusion and perpetual victimhood.

Professor Cudjoe's email address is

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