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Keeping a legacy alive

Thursday, August 22, 2013
Dr Eric Williams, the country’s first prime minister. Inset: Although more than 70 years old, Dr Williams’ book remains relevant and is still a part of university reading lists.

For historians like Michael Anthony, Bridget Brereton and Brinsley Samaroo, a large part of the enduring legacy of Dr Eric Williams is owed to his contributions as a Caribbean historian and author.


As T&T’s first and longest-serving prime minister, Williams is celebrated for having introduced the system of organised party politics to T&T with the inauguration of the People’s National Movement (PNM) in 1956 before leading the country into the West Indies Federation and later to independence within the Commonwealth in 1962.


Just last week, at the unveiling of a plaque in Williams’ honour on Harris Promenade, San Fernando mayor Navi Muradali lamented that the legacy of this “father of the nation” was being lost, with his memory becoming more and more blurred among younger generations. 


Whether or not Williams is indeed falling into the abyss of apathy shown towards national history in T&T, local historians are certain that apart from his political triumphs, he will be remembered worldwide for his academic contributions and studies in Caribbean history.


Brereton, a professor emerita at the University of the West Indies (UWI) St Augustine, said in a telephone interview on Monday that Williams will forever remain widely recognised as a major figure in 20th-century history and a key pioneer in decolonising Caribbean history. 


She made particular reference to his 1944 publication Capitalism and Slavery—a study that examined the role of slavery in financing the industrial revolution in Britain and denounced the popular notion that the abolition of slavery was owed to a sense of morality or humanitarianism on the part of the British. 


Brereton said the book was still being read around the world along with CLR James’ The Black Jacobins. It was Capitalism and Slavery that was regarded as the beginning of modern historical tradition in the Caribbean.


“In particular, in that book, Williams changed forever how we looked at the end of the transatlantic slave trade and the end of slavery itself within the British empire. He introduced a new interpretation that focused on the economic reasons that led to the abolition of slavery.”


Brereton noted that the study is still being widely read and furiously debated—an unusual occurrence for an almost 70-year-old book, and an indication that his position is “very secure as a historian and Caribbean writer.”


The T&T Guardian also spoke to Anthony, a well-known writer and historian, who said Williams will be remembered more internationally for his role as a historian than for being T&T’s premier, chief minister and prime minister, before dying in office in 1981. Williams’ exploration of history, he said, helped to broaden the limited historical perspective of the Caribbean and to decipher some of the issues surrounding slavery and the slave trade that the intellectual world had been wrangling with for many years. 


On Capitalism and Slavery, he said: “At the time people would have preferred to think that it was compassionate men in the British parliament like Thomas Fowell Buxton and William Wilberforce who helped to turn the tide in bringing about the abolition of slavery. Eric Williams presented a different idea—that it was not the sympathy of these men or merely the failure of sugar that led to the end of slavery.”


Views like this sparked a great deal of debate at the time and Anthony said Williams found himself faced with bitter opposition from the Catholic Church and other traditional thinkers who were of the impression that his views were supportive of communism.


“But what he did was to put forward theories and substantiated them with convincing argument. I think the world, the critics, students in the UK and US, they know his name. They know what he did and the points that he made. 



“I think he will be remembered more for that than he will for him being prime minister here. We will remember that part. But they will always recognise him for being a historian of great merit.”


He said the other book on which Williams’reputation rests is From Columbus to Castro: The History of the Caribbean, 1492-1969. 


It offers a broad overview of colonial rulership in the Caribbean and Anthony said it will remain one of the major sources for students of Caribbean history. Williams’ other publications include The Negro in the Caribbean, British Historians and the West Indies and his autobiography, Inward Hunger. 


“I can quite easily say that his reputation is there for good because he has lectured so widely through these publications,” he said.


Echoing his sentiments was Samaroo, a professor of history, who said Williams’ role as a Caribbean historian must not be forgotten since his publications helped to present Caribbean history from a new perspective. 


“He is the one who changed our perception of history and started to write from the point of view of the oppressed rather than the oppressor, the colonised rather than the coloniser. 


He made us see ourselves very differently and helped us to recognise the contribution that West Indians made to West Indian civilisation. That cannot be forgotten.”


Samaroo believes his memory is being perpetuated through the Eric Williams Memorial Collection at the Alma Jordan Library at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine campus. The extensive collection contains books, journals and manuscripts and reports written on and by Williams.


At the beginning of this month, it was announced that a $6 million restoration project was set to begin at the presidential and prime ministerial museum collection at the old public library on Knox Street, Port-of-Spain. 


Samaroo said after the restoration of the over 100-year-old building has been completed, this will be a very tangible way of preserving Williams’ memory, since he will be prominently represented in the collection.



Little emphasis placed on history



Asked their thoughts on Muradali’s comments last week, all three historians agreed that the issue of concern was the general indifference and ignorance when it comes it history in T&T—a trend that Anthony sees as disgraceful.


“Most people, young people especially, don’t know exactly who Williams is,” he said. “Some know that he had something to do with politics, but generally, they don’t know. I think it is a shame that a man we refer to as the father of the nation, teenagers are asking who he is. That should never be.” 


He said this was merely a reflection of the attitude towards history adding that this sort of ignorance of a national hero reflected badly on the teaching profession and on the local education system.


Brereton said while she did not believe there was any deliberate intention to neglect Williams, there is a general tendency in T&T to allow national history to “fall between the cracks.” She has found that while most people would have heard Williams’ name, their view of his political and academic contributions would be quite sketchy. 


She, like Anthony, believes that somewhere within the primary and secondary school system, national history should be made a compulsory subject. She said only a relatively small number of students opt to take Caribbean history as a subject in the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC).


Similarly, Samaroo believes there is need to look at the importance that ought to be attached to T&T’s history.


“I don’t think that he’s being forgotten.” he said. “I think it has to do with the overall unimportance we attach to history in general and to all past prime ministers, presidents and national heroes. In that sense, Williams gets caught up in the general neglect of history in T&T.”


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