Academic journal article The Journal of African American History

Eric Williams and the Anglo-American Caribbean Commission: Trinidad's Future Nationalist Leader as Aspiring Imperial Bureaucrat, 1942-1944

Academic journal article The Journal of African American History

Eric Williams and the Anglo-American Caribbean Commission: Trinidad's Future Nationalist Leader as Aspiring Imperial Bureaucrat, 1942-1944

Article excerpt

Eric Williams (1911-1981) was one of an illustrious cohort of colonial leaders who led their countries to independence in the 1950s, '60s and '70s. Most of these men had campaigned for years in the political trenches. Some, such as Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, had gone to jail in the process. Others, like Patrice Lumumba of the Congo, lost their lives in the retaliatory backlash churned up by receding colonial powers. Though some of these leaders settled into moderate and even conservative modes after independence, most were perceived as radical anti-imperialists at some point along the way to independence.

Williams led Trinidad and Tobago to independence in 1962, a relatively short seven years after entering active politics in 1955. The proximate cause of his incursion into party politics was his acrimonious break with the Caribbean Commission, with which he had been associated since 1942. The Caribbean Commission was a super agency created by the Caribbean's colonial powers of the United States, Great Britain, France and the Netherlands. Formed as the Anglo-American Caribbean Commission (AACC) in 1942, its mandate was to supervise a wide range of economic and social programs in the area.

The AACC was announced on 9 March 1942 in the wake of the 1940 lend-lease deal in which the United States provided Great Britain with fifty old warships in exchange for ninety-nine-year leases on military bases throughout the British Caribbean and environs. (1) Prior to 1940 the U.S. was already the dominant power in the area. Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands were U.S. possessions. U.S. protectorates over Haiti and the Dominican Republic had recently ended and Cuba remained a sphere of special U.S. interest. The U.S. also controlled the Panama Canal. Since the Cuban-Spanish-American War of 1898, the U.S. had intervened militarily in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, Panama, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, among other places. Now the addition of bases from Bermuda to Trinidad seemed to complete their grip on the region. (2)

The joint communique establishing the AACC promised U.S.-British cooperation in matters of "labor, agriculture, housing, health, education, social welfare, finance, economics and related subjects." (3) Skeptics saw it as an imperialist maneuver to fill the area with Allied propaganda to ensure loyalty during World War II. This view seemed to be supported in the West Indian Radio Newspaper, a half-hour shortwave prime-time program beamed nightly to the region. It was inaugurated on 1 February 1943 by the AACC in collaboration with the U.S. Office of War Information . (4)

Williams was fired from his position as deputy chairman of the commission's Trinidad-headquartered Caribbean Research Council in 1955. He launched his political career immediately thereafter with a massively attended public lecture entitled, "My Relations with the Caribbean Commission, 1943-1955." (5) Here he traced the twelve-year record of increasingly strained relations that culminated in his expulsion from the commission. He promised to fight, as a politician, for the intellectual freedom which he, and through him the Caribbean people, had been denied by the colonial powers for whom he had worked. The public acrimony surrounding his break with the commission stamped him in the minds of many as an ardent anti-imperialist. Yet his relations with the Caribbean Commission and its predecessor had been complex. He had in fact lobbied very assiduously to get into the AACC, though this did not necessarily indicate a willingness to compromise his dignity in the process.

At the AACC's inception in 1942 Williams had been in the United States for three years. He had taken up a position as assistant professor of Political and Social Science at Howard University in Washington, DC, in 1939, months after receiving his D. Phil. degree at Oxford University. His distinguished academic career already included an island scholarship from Trinidad and Tobago and a double first in history at Oxford, where he graduated at the top of his undergraduate class. …

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