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A personal glimpse of the Williams legacy
With the close of this year’s Wimbledon tournament, memories of the Williams sisters, who lived without fanfare as neighbours of my late mother in Long Circular, Port-of-Spain, have come flooding back to me, in this 50th anniversary of our independence, perhaps the crowning political achievement of their illustrious brother, Eric Eustace Williams, whose succinct message expressing the ‘earnest hope for mankind that while we gain the Moon, we shall not lose the world’ – one of only 73 invited from world leaders and taken to the Moon by Apollo 11 – remains timeless in our universe.
Always unassuming, they studiously avoided the illusive seduction of the limelight, choosing to live their lives quietly and without ostentation, devoid of the slightest evidence of favour, so readily flaunted by others catapulted into their position. In the time that I was privileged to know them, only once did they ever engage in any discussion with me regarding their esteemed brother and that was an occasion, shortly after his death, when they chose to show me the framed copy of the photograph of his doctoral graduation at Oxford, which they quite rightly treasured.
Notwithstanding this proximity by happenstance, I never had the privilege of meeting Dr Williams, for whom, as my mother would whisper knowingly to me, Mrs Joseph, his sister, would sometimes cook. But in my early teens as a schoolboy at QRC, when he burst onto the political stage in 1955, I recall vividly being transported to another world, seeing him in full flight at the University of Woodford Square and hearing him on the radio and how the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end, whenever I happened to see him being chauffeured pensively up Abercromby Street, on his way to his official residence, without a single outrider.
I have been around the block for quite a few times since, but to date no other Trinbagonian has ever impressed me in the way that he has. And if this frank admission irks his detractors, perfect specimens to the bone, of course, who owe more to him than they know or care to admit, not to mention those who were only too keen to “eat ah food” at his table, when he was the Chef, then so be it.
I may not have met him in person, but it is no exaggeration to say, eschewing false modesty, that I have been fortunate to walk with humility at a respectful distance in his shadow. Like me, he played inter-col football for QRC, though, by all accounts, to far greater effect, reputedly losing his hearing from a fall in the process. And as I was to a lesser extent, he was also a footballer, apparently, for his college at Oxford, where I really began to appreciate more fully the measure of the man.
Unlike me, he arrived there as an island scholar before World War II, when Trinidad and Tobago (or Trinbago, or T & T) was still very much a crown colony, which not only languished in the political doldrums on the periphery of the expansive British Empire, but was actually believed by many in the metropolis to be part of Jamaica - no joke - of which much more was then known abroad.
As the British High Commissioner in T & T observed recently, Oxford retains its place as one of the top universities in the world, but when the young Williams confidently strode across its quads, its supremacy, universally, was unrivalled, a world apart from UWI today which he and other Caribbean visionaries would champion, but whose ranking, particularly in its social science enclave in T & T, remains, regrettably, much further south than they would have hoped.
And not satisfied, as most are, with the kudos of just being a student of so prestigious an institution, the Samsonite colonial boy proceeded to shake its pillars to their foundations, not only by gaining first class honours in his final exams, but by coming first in the entire batch of students, who faced the final exams on the occasion..
As a result, he was entitled to anticipate a teaching fellowship at the cream of the crop of Oxford’s colleges, All Souls, where, uniquely, students of its other colleges may be tutored, but are never admitted otherwise, membership being restricted to its fellows (dons).
That he was overlooked is widely regarded as being due to his collision with the contemporary racial ceiling, the irony being that the library of All Souls College, with its ornate ceiling, was built, as he discovered, on the basis of a donation from the compensation received by the Codringtons, unlike their slaves, following emancipation. To proceed thereafter to produce an astounding thesis on slavery, which not only undermined the traditional self-serving explanations for emancipation, but did so at a time when the support of the vast non-white areas of the empire was considered vital to Britain, as the war clouds threatening World War II were gathering ominously on the horizon, took real intellectual courage and conviction.
My own thesis, for what it is worth, which was inspired after receiving unexpectedly, from my older “Kid” brother then in New York, a copy of a seminal speech by Dr Williams in 1955, enabled me to explore, to the best of my comparatively limited ability, the political agility of his mind.
The most memorable experience during the exercise was being able to gain access to his actual thesis, with its last-minute corrections, routinely familiar to students with dire deadlines to meet, annotated in his hand, and being able to read it, the genesis of his masterpiece, Capitalism and Slavery, under the gaze of the huge portrait of the controversial colonialist, Cecil Rhodes, at Oxford’s Rhodes House Library.
Memorable, too, was the guidance generously received at the time from the venerable C.L.R.James, in spite of their eventual differences, when, at his invitation, I visited him at Howard University in Washington DC to explore their relationship and the academic legacy at Howard of Dr Williams. A crucial inspiration to his thesis was Black Jacobins, on the heroic revolutionaries of Haiti, by CLR, with whom the adolescent Williams would meet, during his student vacations, at the home of Mrs Constantine and her husband, the cricketing legend, Learie Constantine, as he was then, in Lancashire..
Of Dr Williams’ achievements in the face of daunting challenges following his eventual return to T & T and his subsequent departure from the mysterious Anglo-American Commission, volumes have been written by others more capable than me.
These, together with his own erudite publications, should be compulsory reading for every Trinbagonian, as the beneficiaries of his political opus magnum, the independence of Trinidad and Tobago, the struggle for which is helpfully documented in his autobiography, Inward Hunger: The Education of a Prime Minister.
If this is too tall an order in this day and age, I commend the cogent and measured lecture, available on the internet, by Professor Colin Palmer, the eminent Jamaican of Princeton University, which was delivered in T & T on June 11 last year, in commemoration of the centenary of the birth of Dr Williams on 25 September, 1911.
And to those, relying on the infamous maxim that a big lie repeated often becomes believable, who persist in their efforts to tarnish his image, by regurgitating the mantra of the cowshed fable, as it has been aptly described by Selwyn Cudjoe, I can do no better than to recommend Dr Cudgoe’s robust rebuttal, also available on the internet, in the wake of his attendance at the recent celebration in Trinidad of the arrival of East Indians, at the invitation of its avid promoters.
On 24 September 1956, Dr Williams attained unprecedented electoral success in the colony and would pass on in office in 1981, never having lost a national election in our country. True, in the wake of the political stampede triggered by his elevation to office in 1956, a shock to his opponents, the pro-federation party under the renowned Norman Manley, to which Dr Williams’ political wagon was hitched in the first and only federal elections of 1958, though gaining a majority of the votes cast in T & T, suffered a 4-6 defeat locally by his hastily realigned opponents, led by parochial anti-federalists, alarmed by the demographic implications of the West Indian federation. But, as in 1976, following the unusual elections of 1971, he was to regain firm control of the political reins in the crucial and bitterly fought elections of1961, which preceded our independence in 1962..
Undoubtedly, without Dr Williams astride his fledgling government from 1956, the slaying of the colonial dragon would not have occurred in our country when it did, with, among other concessions, a Concordat facilitating denominational schools in place, though now questionable.
And in the event, there might be no flag to wave nor to pin proudly on our lapels, no indigenous anthem to sing, no UN place in which to sit and no mother Trinidad and Tobago to claim her oil and gas and the achievements of Hasely Crawford and a host of other local heroes, since independence, let alone a Chaguaramas from which to send cadets to Sandhurst. More significantly perhaps, there might have been no way back for the young braves, who survived the attempted coup against his government in 1970, without the Privy Council he retained in the wisdom of his political philosophy.
Being mortal, as we all are, he was certainly not perfect, nor claimed so to be, but he was as near to Plato’s iconic philosopher ruler as was humanly possible, cigarettes notwithstanding. Streets ahead of his contemporaries here, not to mention those since, whose megalomania has conspired to squander much of his legacy on the one hand and, on the other, has strived to contrive its desecration for political expediency, he was, undeniably, personally beyond reproach in a society notorious for corruption and remained steadfastly indifferent, following his political ascendancy, to the acquisition of personal status symbols, famously urging against post-mortem honours of any kind in his memory.
This should not dissuade true patriots among us, howsoever, from standing up to be counted in his honour, in this significant year, while the praises of lesser natives, past and present, are stridently broadcast at large. The blanket of silence pervading our society of late in his regard may be neither here nor there to this inimitable Caribbean hero of Trinidad and Tobago, his hearing-aid having been turned off long since.
Even so, he remains irreplaceable in the hearts and minds of countless of his compatriots and others, for whom that deafening silence speaks volumes, in their unshakeable conviction that his colossal contribution to our political development, and much more besides, deserve far more recognition than grudging footnotes, in passing, to the pages of our history.
And so, come the 31 August this year, the ingratiates and ignoramuses could jump high or limbo as much as they like in the delusion of their regal progress, for they know not what they do. But my focus will be on the devoted single father of our nation, Eric Eustace Williams, and the shining example of the Williams sisters, who, content to glide effortlessly beneath his shades, graced the centre court in my neighbourhood, with atypical dignity and modesty.
• Rawle Boland is a Trinidad-born attorney and political scientist based in London
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