Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

The Chaguaramas Affair in Trinidad and Tobago: An Intellectual Reassessment

Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

The Chaguaramas Affair in Trinidad and Tobago: An Intellectual Reassessment

Article excerpt


This article examines the efforts on the part of Dr Eric Williams and the Trinidad and Tobago government to transform the location known as the Chaguaramas Base from a place for US security into a social space that was embedded with specific social meanings intimately associated with the essence, and termination, of colonialism in Trinidad and Tobago. While there have been a number of insightful treatments of the Chaguaramas affair,1 this article departs from those assessments by arguing that Williams's efforts were part of his role as a social movement intellectual. Thus, attention is paid to the extent to which Williams: (a) made space for himself and the political independence movement in the political landscape as he interacted with fellow challengers, as well as the American government and his many detractors in the twin island; (b) used various resources to transmit his ideas to his followers; and (c) generated knowledge by way of a specific strategy and regarding information about the US presence at the base. Beyond the above, the article is guided by three major theoretical perspectives. The first deals with resource mobilization theory (a branch of collective action theory) that focuses on the manner in which resources that are generated by the experiences of participants are used by social movement leaders to forge a collective identity, often in the face of constraints on the part of the challenged.2

The second perspective concerns Henri Lefebvre's notion of production and reproduction of space by reproducing systems of inequality, in such a manner that locations are radically altered or become what he calls "representations of space".3 Using Karl Marx's notion of inequality based on relations to the means of production as a means of perpetuating structural inequality, Lefebvre, as others have done, is concerned with demonstrating how control of certain locations, rather than of the means of production, enables the controllers to sustain their hegemony over those who do not control certain spaces. As will be seen, however, the question of space has other connotations. Thus, as a social movement intellectual, Williams used the Chaguaramas issue to make space for himself and the political independence movement in the political fabric of Trinidad and Tobago, by aligning the removal of the Americans from the base with the nationalist aspirations of the twin island.

The third perspective speaks to Jürgen Habermas's view of the public sphere,4 which he conceptualizes as an aggregation of people who "come together as a public in order to engage in a debate over rules governing relations", or simply put, a body of persons who assemble for the purpose of discussing matters of "public concern" or the "common interest",5 from which they were previously excluded. As will be seen the key aspect of the dialectics of the Chaguaramas affair entailed bringing matters of common interest from the periphery to the centre of argumentative debate.

The 1941 Agreement

The location of an American Base at Chaguaramas was the result of the "Ships for Bases" Agreement between the British government and the US government in 1941, which excluded input from the people of Trinidad and Tobago and gave the United States a ninety-nine-year lease over a site on Trinidad's north-western peninsula, known as Chaguaramas, involving some 33,000 acres.6 This was done in exchange for "50 over-age destroyers" which, if sold in 1930, would have fetched a price varying between US$263,000 and US$340,000, or an average of US$300,000. During World War II, the base was an important US naval facility and, from the American perspective, was viewed as essential to the strategic defence of the Western Hemisphere. The terms of the Agreement also stated that "the United States Government was accepting no obligation, no commitment, no alliance . . . [and could] abandon its undertaking whenever it pleased them to do so with or without consent". …

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