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Celebrating Fifty Years of Trinidad and Tobago's Independence

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
Published: October 23, 2012

First of all I would like to thank Professor Linda Heywood for inviting me to participate in this wonderful program. I am particularly delighted to be on the same panel with Professor Orlando Patterson, Professor Emmauel Akyeampong, and to have the opportunity to view the screening of "Akwantu: The Journey" since strictly speaking the journey for independence in the Caribbean began when these gallant brothers, incidentally led by Captain Cudjoe, began to fight for our liberation from bondage. Ever since then, the citizens of the British Caribbean have struggled to control their internal and external affairs, culminating in national independence for most of these territories in the 1960s. In Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica, we gained our national independence in August, 1962.

As we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Trinidad and Tobago's independence it is important to remember that there have been many players and political movements that helped to secure this state of independence. Chief among these were the Reform Movement at the end of the nineteenth century that agitated for internal self-government and which was led by E. Maresse-Smith; the formation of the East Indian National Association of Trinidad in 1897, "one of the major Indian political organizations during the nineteenth century"; the massive panchayat that was held in Tacarigua in 1899 in which the East Indians articulated their ethnic/nationalist interest publicly for the first time; the rise of a black nationalist movement represented by persons such as Alexander Pierre, Canon Douglin and Emmanuel Mzumbo Lazare; the rise of Sylvester Williams, and the Pan-African Movement of 1901; the nascent articulation of class consciousness among working people that manifested itself in the activities of the Trinidad Workingmen's Association that ultimately became the Trinidad Labor Party and later the activities of the Ratepayers Association (RPA) that led to the Water Riots of 1903.

This sense of self-determination and conscious national strivings picked up more steam during the first half of the twentieth century. In 1919 Captain Arthur Cipriani, "the pioneer of the nationalist movement" as Dr. Williams called him, led the first industrial strike and inserted the barefoot masses into the political equation. Uriah Butler's mobilization and Adrian Cola Rienzi's organization of the working people followed up the work that was done by Cipriani, whereas Patrick Solomon's formation of the Indo-Caribbean Cultural Institute also contributed to the forward march to independence. It was the work of these leaders and movements that set the stage for Eric Williams and the People's National Movement that came onto the political stage in 1955.

There can be no doubt that Dr. Williams and his party, the PNM, spearheaded the drive for national independence. Between June 1, 1955 and June 14, 1956 Dr. Williams gave 154 lectures throughout the country on topics that dealt with economic development, constitution reform, race relations, party politics, and federation which remains the most important sources of his political and economic thinking. In his autobiography, Dr. Williams observed that he made it a point "not to talk down to the people. It was straight university stuff, in content and in form as well as in manner, designed to place the problems of Trinidad and Tobago in international perspective.

National elections were held in September 1956. The PNM won thirteen of the twenty-four seats that were contested receiving 106,000 votes whereas the People's Democratic Party under the leadership of Badase Sagan Maraj won 5 seats receiving 56,000 votes. Having won a majority of seats Governor Edward Beetham asked Dr. Williams to form the government and the British authorities allowed him two nominated members to run the government. In 1959 when cabinet government was introduced, Dr. Williams was named premier and ruled over the government. When the West Indian Federation failed in 1962, Trinidad and Tobago, like Jamaica, attained national independence in that same year. As a result of these changes, Dr. Williams became the first prime minister and the leader of the first republican government in 1975.

Eric Williams and the PNM remained in power from 1956 until March 1981 when he died in office. While in power, they promoted a Caribbean Economic Community (which led to CARIFTA) after the West Indian Federation failed; objected to the US invasion of Grenada upholding the principle of the noninterference in the affairs of other countries; resumed trade with Cuba after the imposition of a US trade embargo; and set aside millions of dollars "to provide assistance to CARICOM countries."

In 1986 the PNM had lost its revolutionary zeal. The Organization for National Reconstruction led by Karl Hudson Philip, the United Labor Front, led by Basdeo Panday, the Tapia House Movement led by Lloyd Best and Democratic Act Congress led by A. N. R. Robinson came together to form the National Alliance for Reconstruction. Worsening economic conditions in the 1980s led to the ouster of the PNM and the victory of the NAR. Robinson became the Prime Minister. The NAR were beset by two major problems: the IMF Structural Adjustment Program which resulted in increased unemployment and an attempted coup by the Jamaat al Muslimeen that attempted to capitalize on the disaffection some citizens began to feel about the NAR administration.

In 1991, the NAR was defeated by the PNM under Patrick Manning. In November 1995, Mr. Manning called an early General Election. PNM and the United National Congress, an offspring of the PDP, received 17 seats each. NAR retained its 2 seats in Tobago. The UNC and the NAR formed a coalition government and Basdeo Panday became the Prime Minister of the country. This was an important milestone for the country. A person of East Indian descent had ascended to the highest elected office in the land.

In 2000 Basdeo Panday and the UNC trounced the PNM. However, the UNC government lasted only a year due to the defection of three of its members: Trevor Sudama, Ralph Maraj and Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj. Panday called a new General Election in 2001. Both parties received 18 seats. Although UNC received more votes than the PNM, President A. N. R. Robinson, in his famous "moral and values" address to the nation, nominated Patrick Manning to be the Prime Minister of the country.

The next General Election was held in 2007. Although UNC and the Congress of the People, a new political party, received a combined total of 342,000 votes as opposed to PNM's 299,813 votes, the PNM captured the government when it received 26 of the 41 seats that were at stake. This victory was short-lived. In 2010, after being in power for two and a half years, Patrick Manning, the leader of the PNM, called an early election and lost to the combined strength of the People's Partnership, a coalition of the opposition forces and certain civic organizations. Once more Mr. Manning had committed political suicide from which his party is still trying to recover.

However, the most positive result of the PP's victory was the inauguration of Kamla Persad-Bissessar, the first women Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago who is now guiding the political and economic destiny of the nation. Perhaps it was a form of political and democratic justice that the nation should be ruled by an East Indian woman at its Fiftieth year of its independence. In 1946, the first year of universal adult suffrage, the East Indian population stood at 35 per cent whereas the African population stood at 46.8 per cent. In 2010, the East Indian grew to 42 per cent of the population whereas Africans decreased to 38 per cent of the population. I have tried to capture the significance of the rise of East Indain population in Indian Time Ah Come which I published in 2010 and which was launched by Sat Maharaj, the leader of the Maha Sabha in Trinidad and Tobago.

What then can we say about the fifty years that have transpired since our independence? During that period the economy was transformed from one based on sugar to one that was energy-based. In 1956 Trinidad and Tobago's Gross Domestic Product amounted to $273.7 million and the average income of a Trinbagonian was about $380 (US). By 2010 Trinidad and Tobago increased its national income almost fifty-fold. Several tactical investments in the hydrocarbon sector, together with the fortuitous rise in energy prices, allowed the country's GDP to grow to 27.2 billion (US). Today a Trinbagonian enjoys an average annual income of US $20,000 and a much higher standard of living than the generation that existed when the country began its independence journey political in 1962.

Things have also changed in the terms of employment. In 1963, the unemployment rate stood at 13.7 per cent; today, it stands at about 10 percent in spite of what Larry Howai, Trinidad and Tobago's Minister of Finance, claims. Trinidad and Tobago's foreign exchange reserves are US$10.28 billion covering 14.3 months of imports whereas the Heritage and Stabilsation Fund stands at US$4.547 billion. The 2005 United Nations Development Programme Human Development Report ranked Trinidad and Tobago number 57 out of 177 countries. Today the country ranks number 62 in the world and life expectancy is 70.1 years.

Some scholars have argued that Dr. Williams' greatest contribution to Trinidad and Tobago was the emphasis he placed on education. In its 1958-62 developmental program the government decided to provide free secondary education thereby "widening the opportunities for children with ability from poor families to get a secondary education." In the 1964-68 development plan, Dr. Williams and his government recognized education to be an important aspect of social and economic development and emphasized that it was "one of the most important instruments of social change." Michael Alleyne argues that the implementation of the 15-Year Plan for Educational Development (1968-83) was "the most ambitious and far-reaching education project ever executed in the history of Trinidad and Tobago." Such a bold initiative ensured that Dr. Williams' name, like those of Lord Harris, Joseph Kennan, and J. O. Cutteridge, would forever be associated with the education of Trinidadians and Tobagonians.

Although Dr. Williams and the PNM scored many triumphs in foreign affairs, economic development, and education, their most significant achievements lay in their building our nation; keeping the society together; fostering the relative civility of our political culture; and laying the foundation for the peaceful transition of political power from one political party to another. From 1956 to 1980 many societies disintegrated into warring and belligerent entities. It is to Dr. Williams' credit that during the twenty-four years that he was at the helm of the government there were no significant ethnic, religious, or political clashes in our society.

This is not to say that Trinidad and Tobago did not have political and social problems. In February 1970 there was an army rebellion and then a coup attempt in 1990. There were also serious challenges about the fundamental fairness and how the state conducted its business. In spite of the turbulence, the nation managed to maintain a political equilibrium and create a strong democracy that is admired internationally.

Dr. Williams and the PNM gave their people a sense of pride in themselves; a belief that they were as good as anyone else; a sense of self-worth and an expanded awareness of their intellectual horizons. Ever aware of history, Dr. Williams wanted to make these little islands (Trinidad and Tobago) the Athens of the Caribbean-such was his hope for his island and his people.

Dr. Williams has been called the "Father of the Nation." In writing about the importance of George Washington, the father of the American nation, Joseph Ellis observed that "he was a republican in the elemental sense that he saw himself as a mere steward for a historical experiment in representative government larger than any single person; larger than himself; an experiment in which all leaders, no matter how indispensable, were disposable, which is what government of laws and not men ultimately want" (His Excellency: George Washington). I am not too sure that Dr. Williams' critics would accept such a description of him. Although there was a defiant, imperial dimension in his approach to political matters, there was something fundamentally republican in his politics. He believed in the dignity of his people; their right to be heard and even be wrong; and a belief in their possibilities. In the end he may have been overwhelmed by their intransigence, their selfishness, and their self-absorption, but he believed passionately in the people and they, too, believed passionately in him.

Each generation, it has been said, writes history to fulfill its own needs. It is clear that the present generation of Trinbagonians sees our history differently from how citizens of 1956 and even those of 1981. In examining our history anew we must accept that all aspects of our history belong to all of us, her children. We must take a serious look at how our society was made, the contributions of each group made to its construction; and what constitutes the essential features of our nation. Dr. Williams showed us how to approach this problem when he suggested that tolerance should be a guiding virtue of our nation.

Dr. Williams contributed much to our country. I believe we can say of him what he said of India and Nehru: "India today would not be what it is if Indians had not achieved independence and if Nehru had not been there for forty years to learn and to teach, to guide and be guided, to inspire and be inspired, to aspire and to achieve. He stands out as one of the greatest champions of freedom for all times." Interestingly enough, our national motto, "Together we aspire; together we achieve," is inscribed in our national coat of arms. It is tempting to think that Nehru's influence might have contributed to the coining of the national motto of Trinidad and Tobago.

In spite of its shortcomings all of our leaders have done much to foster its democracy and its spirit of independence. In 2000, a Commonwealth Observer Group led by Roy MacLaren was sent to Trinidad and Tobago to observe the General Elections. They said many things about the conduct of the election but from their observation about the media one thing that stands out in my mind. They said: "The vigor of Trinidad and Tobago's democracy is illustrated by the vitality of its media...The media provided a fair and reasonably impartial platform to inform voters about the conduct of the campaign and the issues before them...They played a valuable role in informing the people of Trinidad and Tobago about the General Election campaign. There was a serious effort to encourage debate and ensure that all sides were given a fair hearing."

With the so-called Fourth Estate alive and kicking one can say that Trinidad and Tobago is heading for another fifty years of deepening its democracy. In the words of our national anthem, "May God Bless Our nation."

Professor Cudjoe's email address is

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