Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Who Is Bridget Brereton?

Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Who Is Bridget Brereton?

Article excerpt

Background and Antecedents

It makes no sense to construct an appreciation of Bridget Brereton without telling the readers who she was, and where she came from.1 She was not a black girl from Laventille, Moruga or Toco in Trinidad who experienced upward social mobility by flying brilliantly through secondary school and university education abroad by means of a scholarship, and then returning to Trinidad to research and teach faithfully at its only university. In making an assessment of Professor Woodville Marshall, Bridget Brereton had no problem about his origins relative to his country of residence; he was a native-born Barbadian and he taught history mostly in Jamaica (Mona) and in Barbados (Cave Hill). However, Gordon Lewis, if we follow Brereton, was a different matter; he was a Welshman, who took a job in Puerto Rico, and stayed a lifetime. He was a white male outsider/insider, who became a critic of the United States of America's control of Puerto Rico; a radical in the country of his adoption. His origins and his status as an outsider/insider ought to have played - and perhaps did play - some important part in his development as a thinker, researcher and writer on Caribbean history and politics, at the University of Puerto Rico.2 In the eyes of Gordon Lewis, outsiders and imperialists have always done wrongs in the Caribbean.

These reflections might appear irrelevant if we forget that Bridget Brereton is also a white outsider/insider in her adopted country, Trinidad and Tobago; and in addition she is a woman, married to an untitled black middle-class Trinidadian. She wrote about race relations throughout her academic life; she wrote on women and gender after the mid- 1980s; and surely any historian assessing her career, her writings and achievements who is not sensitive to her origins, her race and her sex would be wanting, would not in fact be applying her own recommended analytical lens on West Indian history. But to turn that lens on this "strange female" is in practice like peering through foggy binoculars. Suspicion is one thing; evidence is another. In a marvellously terse, enigmatic description of her in 1975, the poet historian Kamau Brathwaite jotted down the following: "U.K. born, Trinidad married".3 How brilliantly evasive! He could have been writing about a black person, but he was not; he could have been referring to someone who merely contracted marriage in Trinidad, but he was not. Some young students of West Indian history in a class at Mona in 2005 exhibited surprise when shown a photograph of her in a UNESCO General History of the Caribbean book.4 Not only was she white, but she was still alive! But just who is Bridget Brereton?

In her biography of John Gorrie, Professor Brereton tells us something about his parents, his siblings, his early education, and early jobs before he became a colonial official. Bridget Brereton had only one job, her first job, her career long job as a teacher and researcher of history at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine, Trinidad. She arrived in Jamaica at seventeen years of age, with her father who was a Professor of English literature on the Mona campus of the University of the West Indies. She herself indicated much later that she was reasonably well read in English classical literature, in Scotland and England. Her Jamaican or West Indian schooling (for such was the ethos at Mona in those days) began when she entered the BA History Honours programme at Mona and graduated in three years, with a first class degree at the young age of twenty years. She was first in the first class because she was alone in that class that year; and was in fact only the second woman in the BA History Honours programme to perform so well. The relevance of this remark was that the other female, some seven years previously, chose to continue studies and career in the field of law and politics. Bridget Brereton was not the first female from this programme to turn to historical research, but she was the first one to gain the PhD in history. …

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