Eric Williams: Trinidad's Man for All Season

Article excerpt

A scholar, politician, and international statesman, Eric Eustace Williams is also remembered as a warrior--"a tireless warrior in the battle against colonialism." The speaker of these words, a soldier himself--U.S. general Colin Powell--was commemorating the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago at the inauguration of the Eric Williams Memorial Collection at the University of the West Indies, in St. Augustine, last year.

The Collection, many hope, will eventually develop as a separate library and research center on the campus of UWI, similar to the presidential libraries that exist in the United States. Presently it consists of three rooms in the university library that house more than seven thousand volumes of Williams's extensive personal collectanea and an adjacent reading room. While the principal focus of the collection of books and papers is history and politics, Williams's particular interests in art, religion, and Africana are also revealed. Display cases contain important editions of his works, along with photographs that trace the course of his life and career and the personal memorabilia with which Trinidadians most associate him: Williams's pipe, hearing aid, and sunglasses. In addition, there is a small museum with a re-creation of Williams's private study, complete with pipes, a Ronsonol lighter, a bottle of Quick ink, and the background classical music--Schubert, Brahms, Tschaikovsky--which was so much of his persona. His daughter, Erica Connell, who assembled the exhibit, remarked that "the jacket slung casually over his chair, still with three pens in the pocket--even the half-filled wastebasket and open briefcase, the glorious confusion of his inner sanctum--all speak to a more complete picture of the man, rather than the myth." The idea was to "create a sense of use and immediacy, as though he had been working there and had merely stepped out of the room."

Born in Port-of-Spain in 1911, Williams, showed signs of academic promise from his early years, winning a scholarship to Queen's Royal College, where he excelled both in classwork and as a soccer player. In 1931 he won an "Island Scholarship" and entered Oxford University; he left Oxford in 1938 with a First Class Honors degree and a Ph.D. in history. His doctoral dissertation, "Economic Aspects of the Abolition and Emancipation of Slavery in the British West Indies," was the basis of his famous book, Capitalism and Slavery (1944). As Rex Nettleford, vice chancellor of UWI in Jamaica, observed, Capitalism and Slavery, "remains controversial, but its thesis has never been disproved."

Williams migrated to the U.S. in 1939 to teach at Howard University, in Washington, D.C., where he became a full professor in 1947. In 1952 he returned to work in Trinidad as deputy chairman of the Caribbean Commission, charged with the task of elaborating a development plan for the West Indies. At the same time, he began to deliver public lectures from the bandstand at Woodford Square to enthusiastic and increasingly large audiences. Because of their informative, educational, and intellectual nature, these talks became popularly known as the "University of Woodford Square." Retirees still gather there to discuss politics and the "good old days."

However, Williams became increasingly critical of the Caribbean Commission, claiming that the representatives of the United States, England, France, and the Netherlands served their own ends and not the interests of the Caribbean, and left his post there in 1955. …


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