I was born here, and here I stay, with the people of Trinidad & Tobago, who educated me free of charge for nine years at Queen’s Royal College and for five years at Oxford, who have made me whatever I am, and who have been or might be at any time the victims of the very pressure which I have been fighting against for 12 years…I am going to let down my bucket where I am, right here with you in the British West Indies.
Quote by Dr. Eric Eustace Williams made during his public lecture at Woodford Square, June 21, 1955. Excerpted from his autobiography, Inward Hunger: The Education of a Prime Minister, published in 1969.
Dr. Eric Eustace Williams (Trinidad & Tobago’s first Prime Minister) was born on September 25, 1911 in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad & Tobago. He was the first of 11 children born to Thomas and Eliza Williams.
As an 11-year-old, Williams entered the prestigious Queen’s Royal College, which is recognized as Trinidad & Tobago’s oldest secondary school, established in 1859.
He gained an Island Scholarship in 1931, which meant that he had the highest score of all students in Trinidad & Tobago at the Senior Cambridge Certificate examination. An Island Scholarship was a coveted prize on any island in the British-controlled Caribbean and even in Guyana (formerly British Guiana), where the prize was a Guiana Scholarship, and later, a Guyana Scholarship.
The ultimate reward of winning one of those scholarships was the opportunity to study at either Oxford or Cambridge University in London, England. It was the dream of many a colonial family for their child to become an Island Scholar or a Guyana (Guiana) Scholar. It certainly was the dream of Williams’ father (a junior civil servant) who desperately wanted his son to accomplish what he could not.
In Inward Hunger: The Education of a Prime Minister, Williams explains his father’s dilemma:
“The lack of social qualifications was an impediment to the progress of thousands of Trinidadians, inside and outside the civil service. My father was one of them. The necessary social qualifications were colour, money and education, in that order of importance. My father lacked all three. In colour he was dark brown. His three great expectations of money failed him.”
In gaining the Island Scholarship, the younger Williams validated his father’s existence, as he explained in his autobiography:
“His 20-year-old dream had come true. Underpaid, tired, demoralized by the sight of younger people promoted out of turn over his head, because he lacked the necessary pliancy to ingratiate himself with the powers who controlled his destiny, he looked upon my victory as decisive proof of his manhood. He often told me that whatever his rivals had, they had not an Island Scholar as their son.”
Williams gained his undergraduate and graduate degrees, including a Doctor of Philosophy degree from Oxford University in December, 1938. The title of his doctoral thesis was “The Economic Aspect of the Abolition of the West Indian Slave Trade and Slavery.”
In his autobiography, he wrote of the racism he experienced while studying at Oxford. In spite of all the wealth the British harvested from their colonies and their rhetoric encouraging the “colonials” to consider themselves British, the reality was very different for those who ventured off to live or study in Britain.
Like many before him, Williams found that singing “God save the King or Queen” and “Rule Britannia” did not make a racialized man from the Caribbean welcome, even if he was well-educated in the British tradition.
The Dean of his college made that very plain when he said to Williams, who was seeking employment after earning his doctorate, “Are you still here? You had better go back home. You West Indians are too keen on trying to get posts here which take away jobs from Englishmen.” Williams unsuccessfully tried to get his thesis published but found that even Britain’s most revolutionary publisher would not publish the book that eventually became Capitalism and Slavery. It was a revolutionary thesis that turned British historians’ version of the abolition of the slave trade and slavery on its head.
The view among British historians at that time was “That a band of humanitarians – The Saints, they had been nicknamed – had gotten together to abolish slavery, and had after many years succeeded in arousing the conscience of the British people of man’s inhumanity to man. Britain had repented and given an earnest of her contribution by voting twenty million pounds sterling to the slave-owners for the redemption of their slaves.”
Williams argued that Caribbean sugar plantations funded British industrialization, which made slavery an outdated mode of production. In Capitalism and Slavery he wrote:
“The commercial capitalism of the 18th century developed the wealth of Europe by means of slavery and monopoly. But in so doing it helped to create the industrial capitalism of the 19th century, which turned round and destroyed the power of commercial capitalism, slavery, and all its works. Without a grasp of these economic changes the history of the period is meaningless.”
Even Britain’s most revolutionary publisher refused to publish such a revolutionary book and according to Williams, told him:
“Mr. Williams, are you trying to tell me that the slave trade and slavery were abolished for economic and not humanitarian reasons? I would never publish such a book, for it would be contrary to the British tradition.”
Eight months after receiving his doctorate and with no prospects of a job in Britain, Williams left for Washington, D.C.; and a position as lecturer at Howard University – one of the 105 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in the USA — which he dubbed the “Negro Oxford”.
At Howard University, Williams was promoted to assistant professor and then professor. Meanwhile, his book Capitalism and Slavery, which was too revolutionary for British publishers, was published in 1944 by the University of North Carolina Press.
Williams returned to Trinidad & Tobago after resigning his professorship at Howard. On January 24, 1956, he launched the political party – The People’s National Movement (PNM) — which he led until he transitioned in 1981.
Now considered the “Father of the Nation,” Williams’ PNM successfully won the election of September 1956. In his autobiography, he writes of the moment of triumph:
“On September 25, 1956, my 45th birthday, the day after the triumphant election, the Governor sent for me and asked me to form a government.”
On August 31, 1962, Williams led his country to independence from British rule (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uPMTtiZEyTs).
When Williams transitioned on March 29, 1981, he had been at the helm of his country for almost a quarter of a century. He served as Chief Minister, Premier and then Prime Minister of Trinidad & Tobago from 1956 to 1981.
Williams is not here to witness and celebrate the 50th independence anniversary of his beloved Trinidad & Tobago but the citizens of the twin-island nation certainly owe this brilliant and dedicated scholar and politician a debt of gratitude.