- Eric Williams and the Politics of Language
Most scholars in Caribbean and African-American intellectual thought have read Eric E. Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery (1944), a classic text that argues that European slavery in the Caribbean was abolished for economic reasons rather than humanitarian practices cited by the members of the antislavery movement. Others who have followed Williams’ career more closely sometimes cite From Columbus to Castro (1969), an extensive study of the history of the Caribbean. Most scholars regard Williams primarily as a historian. Few seem to appreciate his accomplishments as a political theorist and politician who has contributed tremendously to our understanding of colonialism in the Caribbean and some of the problems inherent in the construction of new independent societies.
Born in Port of Spain, Trinidad, in 1911, Williams was educated at Queen’s Royal College and Oxford University, where he received a doctorate in 1938. His doctoral dissertation, “The Economic Aspect of the West Indian Slave Trade and Slavery,” was revised to become Capitalism and Slavery. In 1939, Williams migrated to the United States as an assistant professor of social and political science at Howard University. With the collaboration of C.L.R. James, one of Williams’ teachers at Queen’s Royal College and his mentor in England, Williams developed a three-volume work, Documents Illustrating the Development of Civilization (1945), for a humanities course he taught at Howard. During this period, Williams also produced The Negro in the Caribbean (1942), written at a time, as Alain Locke suggested, when the Caribbean had become “one of the crucial foci of national, hemispheric and international politics.” 1
At Howard, Williams worked with many prominent American educators: E. Franklin Frazier, the prominent social scientist; Alain Locke, who wrote the Introduction to Williams’ The Negro in the Caribbean; John Dewey, who wrote the Introduction to Williams’ Education in the British West Indies (1950); Charles Johnson and Ralph Bunche, with whom he worked on one of the more important issues of Journal of Negro Education; and Margaret Mead and William E.B. DuBois, both of whom, together with Williams, contributed to the latter periodical. In this academic circle Williams enjoyed great prestige, and his intellectual and academic career developed apace.
Williams’ stay in the United States was very important to his intellectual development, especially with regard to the “Negro question” and modern trends in American higher education. He was influenced by his African-American colleagues, who laid great emphasis on the role of education as a means of liberating their people from [End Page 753] bondage in racist America. Williams’ contention that a British West Indian University should be modeled more on the American than the Cambridge and Oxford examples of classical education reflects the importance his African-American colleagues placed on practical education. Likewise, the developing state education system in the United States led him to place much faith in its nonelitist orientation. In addition, his major contention in The Negro in the Caribbean—that the Negro has failed to receive adequate recognition for his contributions to Western civilization—had its origin in E. George Payne’s introduction to Horace Mann Bond’s The Education of the Negro in the American Social Order (1934):
Too little importance has been attached to the status and contribution of the minority cultural groups to American life and civilization. Particularly is this neglect evident in the case of the Negro, in spite of the fact that perhaps the most outstanding achievement in the educational progress of any single group in the United States, or elsewhere, has been the advancement of Negro education since the Civil War. Negro formal education began with his freedom. 2
The emphasis that Bond placed on what he calls the “educational improvements . . . [and the] far-reaching coordinates between agencies of social betterment in the extension of those services to the masses of Negroes and whites,” is central to Williams’ Education in the British West Indies (1950). While at Howard, Williams also participated in editing one of the more significant issues of Journal of Negro Education in the summer of 1946 dedicated to “The Problems of Education in Dependent Territories.” In this issue there were contributions...