- Prising Open the Contradictions of Empire
BY C. L. R. JAMES (Introduction: Bridget Brereton)
Duke University Press, 2014
The Life of Captain Cipriani: An Account of British Government in the West Indies was the first full-length work of nonfiction by the West Indian Marxist and pioneering historian of black resistance to oppression, C. L. R. James. Drafted sometime between 1929 and 1931, while James was living in Trinidad, the study was originally published by a small local printer in the northern English town of Nelson in 1932. James had moved to the UK that year with the encouragement and support of the cricketer Learie Constantine, whose ghost-written biography he also brought with him, and to whom he dedicated this study. Before he settled in Lancashire, James had opted to spend time in the intellectual circles of Bloomsbury—an experience on which he reported for the Port of Spain Gazette (see James 2003)—and it was at the suggestion of Leonard Woolf that he produced, in 1933, a radically abbreviated version of the original text for the Hogarth Press, which drew out his underlying critique of Crown Colony government in the West Indies (as the revised title makes clear: The Case for West-Indian Self Government). These two early works are brought together and republished here for the first time as part of the excellent Duke University Press series on James, edited by Robert A. Hill. The historian Bridget Brereton [End Page 153] provides an insightful introduction that offers valuable context, including a detailed account of the original reception of James’s study in the Caribbean.
At the outset James insists that his text is to be understood not as a conventional biography, but as “a political biography” (39). In this respect, as Brereton points out, it can be thought of as lying at the beginning of a long line of efforts on James’s part to think through the relationship between leaders and the social movements of which they are part. He would return repeatedly to this relationship with regard to a series of (always male) political figures including, inter alia, Toussaint Louverture, Leon Trotsky, Kwame Nkrumah, Frederick Douglass and, in a slightly different sense, Frank Worrell. Cipriani, from a family of Corsican descent, had been a captain in the British West Indies Regiment during World War I and became, on his return, president of the Trinidad Workingmen’s Association, a campaigner for social and political reform in the colony, and an advocate of self-government. James takes Cipriani as his focus, then, not so much for his own sake, but because he was one of the “leaders of the democratic movement in the West Indies” (165). Indeed it seems clear that what James has in mind when he describes the book as “political biography” is not so much the biography of someone who happens to be a political figure but rather biography that has, itself, a political purpose, biography as a means of doing politics. This is made evident at the end of chapter 1, for example. Here James provides a sociological synopsis of the relationships of colonial society in Trinidad from which Cipriani is more or less absent. It is only at the end of the chapter that James segues into the start of his account of Cipriani’s life with a kind of “crane shot” overview of rising popular discontent across the region, which ends up by panning back even further, and positioning that discontent as part of a wider shift in the relations of empire as a whole: “It is strange that the British official, with his long experience of having to pack his traps and go from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Egypt and Ireland, while yet the people of India speed the parting guest, despite all this has not yet learnt to recognize when he is outstaying his welcome” (60). In this way, James has Cipriani ushered onto the stage of his own biography, as it were, by the movement of history: “That is...