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On Eric Williams: An Assesment of Selwyn Ryan’s Biography

From: Caribbean Studies
Volume 40, Number 1, January-June 2012
pp. 171-186 | 10.1353/crb.2012.0016

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Dr. Eric Williams was Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago for 25 years from 1956 until his death in 1981, during which time he took Trinidad and Tobago to independence in 1962 and set the basic parameters for the economic, social and political development of the country which are still in place today. Prior to this Dr. Williams was an international civil servant employed in the Caribbean Commission and prior to that a distinguished scholar at Oxford University and then academic at Howard University. In his various capacities he published and lectured extensively leaving behind him eight books, numerous articles and lectures and many more speeches.2 It is a record unmatched anywhere else in the Commonwealth Caribbean and it has created a substantial scholarship in recent years seeking to understand, and in some cases dissect, Eric Williams as an academic, a politician and as a person.

The latest to appear, Eric Williams: The Myth and the Man, by Dr. Selwyn Ryan, Professor Emeritus at the University of the West Indies, is by far the largest and the most comprehensive. It is a new book but also contains former work which has been edited, revised, rewritten, updated and most importantly added to in the light of some of the studies on Williams of recent years. It therefore provides a relatively succinct, if still massive summary, of Ryan’s many academic studies of Trinidad and Tobago, supplemented by insights generated by his regular weekly newspaper columns and his position as a close observer of Trinidad’s political affairs, with access to many of those who worked closely with Williams during his period of political office. It is for this reason the most important single book to appear to date on the political life of Trinidad and Tobago under Williams and it necessarily marks an important point of departure, or more accurately the indispensable starting point, to understanding politics in Trinidad and Tobago in the Williams era.

The review is divided in three parts. The first considers the structure and content of the book, identifying some of the important conclusions that Ryan reaches on Williams’ involvement in setting the political agenda and determining the political outcomes. The second discusses some of the controversial issues surrounding Williams’ personality and how this contributed to the way he engaged in politics and related to others. The final part situates the book within the existing scholarship on Williams discussing how it adds to it and to our understanding of politics in Trinidad and Tobago under Williams.

Structure and Content

Ryan organises the book in seven parts. The first deals with his ‘Early Years.’ It discusses Williams’ family background, his education and his scholarship. His sources include material from the Eric Williams Memorial Collection (EWMC) at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad as well as various published accounts, including Williams’ autobiography Inward Hunger (1969). The most novel aspect is the importance which Ryan attaches to Williams’ ‘black’ French creole background, which is often glossed over in other studies. Given the importance of French creoles in Trinidad society and particularly Williams’ conflicts with them over the years this is an intriguing dimension. I would have appreciated more information on this subject, particularly when he raises it in the context of one of Williams’ most controversial speeches “Massa Day Done” (1961) where Williams excoriates the ‘white’ French creoles and other colonial minded people in Trinidad opposed to independence. Ryan speculates: “Here perhaps is the ‘smoking gun’ that links Williams’s status as a frustrated black French creole to his political and social war against the white French creoles who had refused to treat him and his immediate family as part of the kin” (p. 290). Was the rejection of his family by the white French creoles one of the ‘many grudges’ which Williams was said by others to carry all his life and if so how did it affect his behaviour and judgement? Ryan does not tell us but given the racial complexity of Trinidad it is an intriguing question, particularly since Williams was an adept player of “the race card” in securing advantage in Trinidad’s politics.

The other subject in the first part is a...



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