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  • The Legacy of Eric Williams
  • George Lamming (bio)

Dr. Eric Williams started in a way which to my mind is unique in the history of Caribbean politics. He started with an intensive and quite exhausting campaign of popular education. He turned history, the history of the Caribbean, into gossip so that the story of a people’s predicament seemed no longer the infinite barren track of documents, dates and texts. Everything became news: slavery, colonization, the forgivable deception of metropolitan rule, the sad and inevitable unawareness of native production. His lectures retained always the character of whisper which everyone was allowed to hear, a rumor which experience had established as truth. And whatever misgivings we may have about the ultimate value of popular education, this undertaking, it seems to me, has become an achievement of genius on the part of a teacher.

No other West Indian politician has exposed himself so consistently to the gravest of all political risks: the risk of refusing to talk down to an electorate. He distinguished very early and quite clearly between formal education, which is often wasteful, and native intelligence: and having done that, he worked on the native intelligence by demanding at all times an adult attention and response to his lectures. This was an example, probably the first of its kind in our part of the world, of the teacher, in the noblest sense of teacher, turned politician, and of the politician, in the truly moral sense of politician, turned teacher.

So when he visited Jamaica shortly after the formation of the People’s National Movement to consult with Norman Manley, they were astonished and amused by the authority of tone with which he spoke about his plans for Trinidad and Tobago. One member of the Manley family told me: “We thought him a bit cracked to be talking as a Government with a party of a few months old and about to face its first election. In Jamaica it took the People’s National Party some twelve years before we won our first election.” In the euphoria of success which had marked his sojourn to Oxford University, Williams made no distinction between dream and reality; indeed he may have unconsciously embraced the belief that dream was the foundation of reality.

The People’s National Movement won its first election eight months after it was founded. In my recollection of the period it was thought they would do well and provide the country with its first coherent and critical parliamentary opposition. But victory was beyond the expectations of his most ardent admirers. It was a victory which also contradicted the history of party evolution in other territories, for Williams had maintained a strategic distance from the organized working class which was the twin of the political party in Barbados, Jamaica, Guyana, and elsewhere. Nor was [End Page 731] he favored by the old Trinidad traditional colored middle class whose ambition for imperial honors would have made them uncomfortable with the doctor’s language of “colonial” and “imperialist” and “letting down my bucket,” which was not a vessel of high repute. His constituency was the aspiring lower middle class, a generation who were just a leap away from the cane patch, and struggling with belligerent pride to redeem their humble origins. Education was the only weapon that could rescue them from the multiple humiliations of the past.

This was the critical importance of Woodford Square. But paradox was at the heart of everything Williams did. His reputation as a man of learning carried a certain mystique in a society where scarcity of education was an imperative of colonial rule. He attracted vast crowds. Men traveled with their children to make sure no member of the family would be deprived of this feast of knowledge. But Williams was not himself a man with a taste for crowds. This proximity to the ordinary man by handshake and pat on the back was a difficult exercise for him to simulate, and he made no effort to overcome what would have been a fatal deficiency in the normal politician. He was not the normal politician; and that was his first essential gift to the political culture of...

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