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Celebrating the Centenary of Dr. Williams' Birth

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
September 28, 2011

Perhaps it is one of those crazy though explicable Trinbagonian things. Dr. Eric Williams is undoubtedly one of the most distinguished citizens ever to have bestridden our country over the last two hundred years. Yet, there was not one official ceremony in Trinidad and Tobago to celebrate the centenary of his birth. I say, "one of the most distinguished citizens" because over its long history there have been many distinguished Trinbagonian men and women such a J. J. Thomas, Maxwell Philip, Captain Arthur Cipriani, Colon Adrian Renzi, Lionel Sukeran, Audrey Jeffers, Mother Gerald and Mac Donald Bailey. Sadly none of these names ever come to mind when we think of our achievements, access our social and cultural capital, and determine are our civic and spiritual values.

Given such a history, all of the men and women who strut upon our stage today with such an air of self-importance will be forgotten and consigned to irrelevance a year after they have left office and forgotten completely in ten years after they have died. Our Hindu compatriots may return at a higher level of existence, but our Christian and Muslim brothers will lay in some unforgotten grave or have their ashes strewn upon the earth to fertilize the next generation of citizens. This will be the destiny of our best scholars, our best sportsmen, our best everything.

Anybody remember Bertie Marshall????

As a society we do not remember or cultivate national memory. We remain averse to honoring our own. So we strut and fret; say nonsensical things no one remembers; and exit the stage of life as though we never existed; having done next to nothing, contributed little, trying as hard as we can to pull down anyone who seeks to do something. We privilege the here and the now and dance our dance of death oblivious of tomorrow and damned with the curse of amnesia. We say nothing or no one can be any good. This has been the fate of Dr. Williams in our country.

Just read Lenox Grant in Sunday's Guardian (September 25) and one realizes what nonsense personified sounds like. Read Raffique Shah in the Sunday Express (September 25) and one sees a man who, in spite of his misgivings, is trying to come to terms with his present as well as his past; trying to understand Dr. Williams, warts and all, and seeking to situate himself and his actions vis-à-vis the mindlessness of much of what calls itself T&T.

So it is in keeping with our state of national amnesia that no significant function was held in Trinidad and Tobago, by the present government, the People's National Movement (PNM) he founded, the University of West Indies (UWI, Trinidad) of which he was Pro Vice Chancellor; or the University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT) to honor Dr. Williams' contribution to the country and the world. I don't know why I thought that one of the functions of UTT, UWI (and even the PNM) is to preserve and promulgate knowledge of things Trinidad and Tobago.

While we did little to remember Dr. Williams gave his life to this society, distinguished international scholars (included several Trinidadian and Tobagonian scholars) gathered at St. Catherine's College, Oxford University, to honor and to celebrate his contributions to capitalism, slavery and statesmanship. Necessarily, there was a bit of nostalgia (and perhaps reverence) since St Catherine was responsible in large part for Dr. Williams' intellectual formation and the place where he wrote his doctoral dissertation about the slave trade, slavery and their impact on the development the Industrial Revolution.

In recognizing the importance of Capitalism and Slavery, the product of his dissertation, in shaping Caribbean historiography, Professor Franklin Knight of Johns Hopkins University, remarked: "Dr. Williams became the first [scholar] to fundamentally change the observation point of Caribbean history and to bring an entirely different set of cultural values to bear on his work."

In contextualizing his scholarship, Professor Knight noted that "Dr. Williams was a typical product of his times-times that produced several distinguished individuals from many fields in the Caribbean…[he] may be compared to Christopher Columbus who brought the Americas into the intellectual and political consciousness of Europe….Columbus certainly catalyzed exploration in the way that Williams catalyzed Caribbean historical scholarship."

Necessarily, international scholars were more interested in Capitalism and Slavery and its impact on Caribbean and international scholarship whereas a few of us, building up the rear, examined the statesmanship dimension of Dr. Williams' career. Capitalism and Slavery signaled a watershed moment in Dr. Williams' career; the half-way point between the academic Williams and the political Williams; an international Williams and a Trinidad and Tobago Williams; the dispassionate scholar and intellectual as opposed to the polemical and political Williams that we know.

Since scholars make their living examining the substance as well as the minutiae of a scholar's intellectual output (much of it irrelevant sometimes) they tend to be more respectful of the facts. On the other hand many times the layman is guided by gossip and mauvais langue. They are willing to take fragments of conversation, generalize there from and arrive at absurd conclusions.

For example, one such absurdity has it come down to us as unvarnished truth that Dr. Williams called the Indian community a recalcitrant minority which proves unequivocally that he was a racist and hated the Indians. This is why UWI, UTT and the government refused to celebrate his centenary. It does not matter that this falsehood continues to inform the consciousness of many East Indians which determine their attitudes towards him and most Africans in the society. The Grants of the society certainly have their reasons for their ill-will towards the man.

One day Trinibagonians will raise their heads and their hearts and acknowledge Dr. Williams' greatness. When we do we will have begun the tortuous journey of nationhood, hurling ourselves out of oblivion and locate ourselves in history as a people. Meanwhile we should thank Erica Williams, St. Catherine's College and the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute of Harvard University for making this memory and evaluation of Dr. Williams possible.

Professor Cudjoe's email address is

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