Sunday, November 18, 2007

Review of Kwame Dawes's Invisible Flying

Impossible Flying. Kwame Dawes. Leeds, Peepal Tree Press, 2006.
ISBN-13: 9781845230395
120 pages

Kwame Dawes’s latest collection begins by taking the reader to a Kingston of the mind, the Kingston of his youth long left behind but never forgotten. It begins with poems that are so deeply personal and familial – about his father, about his brother – that the appearance of politics, of the Kingston of 1980 and of a quotation from the Jamaica Labour Party’s campaign song of that year, comes as a visceral shock.

The themes established in the first few pages of this collection are repeated throughout the book, though the poet contemplates places other than Kingston and experiences other than those of growing up in the Jamaica of the 1970s and 1980s. Experiences that include his younger brother growing into manhood, his mother’s care, his father’s childhood in Sturge Town, St Ann, and his own efforts to create an identity for himself:

my first decision there – to change my name, not
Neville any more, not the Anglo name, the protection
of my father’s birthright, his Oxbridge imprimatur.

I read these poems, and I feel like an intruder in Dawes’s life, an observer over his shoulder in the various vignettes he sets out, which are always personal, always intimate, and yet at the same time detached so that the observer, seeing things through the poet’s eyes, still feels an observer. He explores his life and invites the reader to join with him in this exploration of his own private space.

Even in the title poem, “Impossible Flying”, which is pretty openly political, with its simultaneously engaged and detached view of Jamaica in the 1970s, we find ourselves suddenly moved from the approaching Jamaica Labour Party victory in the elections of 1980 which takes place in a public space to a private encounter between the poet and his brother as the latter tries to do the impossible and fly. It is not the first of the many surprising juxtapositions in this book. And even the political becomes personal; the socialism of 1970s Jamaica becomes an inverted snobbery, an effort to claim the mantle of poverty:

how we fought
to be poor, to be sufferers.

It is his brother and his father who populate most of these poems, though one is dedicated simply ‘for Mama’ and others deal with adult relationships outside the birth family, and the central theme is the poet’s striving for manhood in relation to both. But there is something more: “This is,” he writes, “the tale of our redemption.”

We follow Dawes through Kingston, through London, through Canada, through South Carolina, as he explores his present, his past, his family, his own body as it grows fat with age, and we feel privileged to be his traveling companions through the ordinarinesses, discomforts, joys, and epiphanies of life. Dawes was born a traveler, and he can do nothing but take his readers with him on his explorations of place, people, and self.

Mortality sits lightly on these poems, his father’s death and the inevitability of his own:

I do not want to die. So absurd
this admission, this effort to confront
the unpredictable odds of our living.

These poems are filled with regret, for lost chances, for more innocent times, for the relationships that are no more. It is that regret, the melancholy that fills these poems, “the messy/contracts we make with blood legacies” as Dawes puts it.

The blurb on the back cover declares that Dawes is “widely acknowledged as the foremost Caribbean poet of the post-Walcott generation”. That’s a bold claim, most especially because, apart from place, there is at first glance little that is Caribbean about these poems; most of them could have been written anywhere. They are about what it is to be male, how a masculine identity develops in the shadow of a father, in the presence of a brother. The history in them is personal, even at its most political. Yet it is a claim that should be weighed carefully, for Dawes is a true poet, and his work speaks to one of the most significant qualities of being human which is “the dreary cadence of regret”. And that regret is a pain that can be as political as it is personal.

F.S.J. Ledgister
Clark Atlanta University

Friday, June 8, 2007

Machiavellian Moments: Norman Manley, Eric Williams, Democracy and Decolonisation in the British West Indies

Machiavellian Moments: Norman Manley, Eric Williams, Democracy and Decolonisation in the British West Indies

F S J Ledgister

Clark Atlanta University,

Atlanta, Georgia


Attraction and inspiration are the sugar coating enabling the political leader to engage in political education, as J.S. Mill put it promoting “the virtue and intelligence of the people themselves.”[i] Mill tells us, also, that a people who have been slaves have to be taught self-government, and require “not a government of force, but one of guidance,” a point of considerable relevance when considering the politics of the British West Indies after the mid-19th century.[ii] But who is to provide this guidance, the metropolis or metropolitan-trained leaders of the people?

On the side of the metropolis, we should consider the assertion of Sir Alan Burns, a colonial administrator in Africa and the West Indies in the first half of the twentieth century, that the British

Undertook the gigantic task of helping the peoples of various under-developed territories to overcome the handicaps imposed on them by nature and environment; to learn the principles of democracy and honest administration; and to qualify themselves for independence.[iii]

While this is dishonest, self-congratulatory, and self-deceptive, it contains the underlying positive claim of the colonial ruler: that they acted as trustee for peoples who could not have sustained their own self-governing polities in the world of competitive capitalism. It also encapsulates a truth, British rule provided (or provided the conditions) for the emergence of an educated subject class that learned “the principles of democracy and honest administration” along with the rules of cricket.

On the other side, consider the equally bombastic pronouncement of Eric Williams, the historian-statesman who governed Trinidad and Tobago from 1956 to 1981:

The independence of Trinidad and Tobago cannot be developed on the basis of intellectual concepts and attitudes worked out by metropolitan scholars in the age of colonialism. The old intellectual world is dead, strangled by the noose that it put around its own neck. The new world of the intellect open to the emerging countries has nothing to lose but the chains that tie it to a world that has departed never to return.[iv]

The bombast should not blind us to the facts that British colonialism, by transmitting liberal-democratic values, did sow the seeds of its own destruction, and that a once-colonised people must find its own path in the world.

Though British colonialism was not the high-minded, altruistic enterprise that Burns makes it out to be, it had an influence persisting into the age of independence. Current political institutions in all the former West Indian colonies, except Guyana, are modelled on those of Great Britain; the language of business, education, and government is still English; and there are still economic and personal ties with the former overlord. More importantly, colonial rule creates conditions of thought and practice that persist long after it has ended.

A colony’s history is not entirely its own. The history of the colonial power is also, if only in part, the history of the colony. The evolution of political ideas and practices in the “mother country” affects events in the colony. The values associated with the imperial overlord are normative and may remain so in the post-colonial period. In colonies like those in the West Indies, these values are not only those of a ruling class, they are also, because of the visible physical differences between ruler and subject, those of a ruling race.

Most British West Indian colonies, by the late nineteenth century, were Crown Colonies, ruled by imperial fiat from London. The Crown Colony had replaced the Old Representative system in which a colonial assembly responsible to a limited electorate possessed legislative authority. The Crown Colony system permitted Britain to institute modern state structures in the West Indies. This created a contradiction between the norms of the modern liberal state and the facts of colonial rule. The colonial subject eager for a place in the sun could exploit that contradiction.

I explore one aspect of how autocratically governed colonies became independent liberal democracies. How were the values of colonial rule challenged, and by whom? The short answer is nationalism buttressed by social democracy. Deeper analysis must involve considering who planted the seeds of nationalism and social-democracy.

I focus on two nationalist leaders of the late colonial period, Norman Manley of Jamaica, and Eric Williams of Trinidad and Tobago.[v] I will show that these political activists mounted a successful challenge to the ideology of colonial rule with its own weapons: British education, liberal and social democratic political values, and patriotism. To do this they fashioned political theories that had the dual effect of justifying their policies as political activists and of justifying the achievement of national independence.

I examine their writings and speeches in the pre-independence period, to determine how they constructed their theories, what these were, and how they functioned both as a means of gaining office and as a challenge to the colonial political order. Manley and Williams saw themselves as the political educators of their peoples; each sought, successfully, to acclimate liberal and social democracy to late colonial polities. After discussing the political thought of these statesmen, I will consider the nature and basis of their approach to politics.

Norman Washington Manley: The Dutiful Intellectual

The labour revolt of May and June 1938 in Jamaica produced two leaders who were to play a major role in shaping the island’s politics through independence and beyond. One was Alexander Bustamante, who put himself at the head of the labour movement, and whose populist style connected with the masses; the other was his cousin, Norman Manley, the colony’s leading lawyer, who was invited to lead the People’s National Party (PNP), the first successful organization of middle-class activists in Jamaican politics.[vi]

Manley, a Rhodes Scholar, returned to Jamaica, from education in England and wartime service in France, in the early 1920s. He quickly carved out a niche for himself as an effective barrister, and, by 1930, had become “a household name throughout Jamaica.”[vii] In the early 1930s, dissatisfied with his way of life and profession and alarmed at the rise of fascism and the effects of the Great Depression he began to consider social activism.[viii] Using his connections to the Jamaica Banana Producers Association, Manley was able to persuade United Fruit mogul Samuel Zemurray to contribute one cent per stem of bananas loaded to the social development agency that Manley founded, Jamaica Welfare Ltd.[ix]

The labour revolt thus found him ready to enter public life. The political needs of the time provided Manley with a purpose and an objective: constructing a nationalist and social democratic political culture.[x]

His first major statement came at the founding conference of the PNP in September 1938. His speech was a first statement of his political philosophy and his conception of the purpose of political organization:

No amount of economic good will make our people a real unity. All efforts will be wasted unless the masses of the people are steadily taken along the path in which they will feel more and more that this place is their home, that it is their destiny. They will then do more for it, more work, more effort, more thinking, more sacrifice, more discipline, and more honesty than by any other measure you can bring in this country.[xi]

Political education, then, is the cornerstone of political development. Obviously, it is the task of the party to educated the people and create within it a national spirit and a sense of common purpose. That purpose involves not only the transformation of the political system through the achievement of self-government, it means also the transformation of the economy, and an end to middle-class complacency. Manley acknowledged that he had to shake off that complacency himself:

And it [the PNP] will be opposed by all those who look back upon what they regard as the beautiful past, the past of peace and contentment and freedom from agitation. But great things are not done without effort; and discontent is the divine prerogative of man. There are those who love our thatched huts and the picturesqueness of Back-O-Wall, and those who look at smiles on people’s faces and believe that all is well because people will smile, nature is bountiful, and one season follows another. I have lived in that feeling myself, I have felt those sentiments. If you live in a place long enough you become complacent. What you see every day you regard after a time as belonging to the order of things.[xii]

To exercise that divine prerogative to challenge the existing order and ameliorate it is obviously the task of the political party and the political activist. Manley provides not only a set of goals, but also a political language that, though not revolutionary, is fundamentally transformative. He insists that “the order and nature of things” has to be changed, and that this is the purpose of politics. The political party is the agent of that purpose.

Manley connected nationalism with liberty, democracy, and creativity. Freedom can be maintained only through constant striving against authority, both external and internal. Democracy is necessary in order to realize human creative potential and “the evolutionary potential in every society however chaotic and vague its elements may seem.” Consequently, to demand self-government for Jamaica is to demand the “ restoration of the conditions essential to the liberation of reality in the life of a country.” Against this demand for the creation of a national identity, however, “the dead hand of imperialism” stultifies the development of a creative culture: “there would be life and trouble, blossom and fruit, but the dead hand, quietly with blind efficiency, closes on it all.”[xiii] Self-government will liberate creativity and humanity. Manley’s nationalism, as the above indicates, has clear roots both in Enlightenment humanism and in Marxism.

Logically, then, we would suppose the PNP to be committed to some form of socialism; and we would be correct. In 1940 the party committed itself to democratic socialism, which Manley defined as involving a “vital transformation of society” though not limited by “rigid doctrine” and neither anti-religious nor revolutionary.[xiv] In other words, Manley saw the PNP as playing the role of the Labour Party in Britain.

Manley entered the legislature as leader of the opposition and an advocate for self-government in 1949. In 1955 he finally achieved office. In government, the PNP did not immediately increase the pace of constitutional advance, having chosen to join the West Indies Federation proposed by the British, no longer either capable or willing to maintain an empire, as a means of ridding themselves once and for all of their colonies in the Caribbean.[xv] Nonetheless, Manley continued to move for greater Jamaican control of internal affairs.

In 1957 Manley made a remarkable broadcast to the Jamaican people, stressing the role of “the little people, the poor, the humble, and the seeming weak” in Jamaica’s acquisition of self-government.[xvi] He also emphasized Jamaica’s role as an exemplary multi-racial society, and the need for fraternity now that Jamaica had received internal autonomy.[xvii] Having achieved internal self-government, Manley now emphasized national solidarity in order to maintain rapid economic growth.

Manley had not forsaken independence, but transferred his focus from Jamaica to the West Indies. As the British sought to pull out of their colonies, they attempted to rationalize the empire into packages large enough to be viable in independence – from the perspective of the Colonial Office. This meant, in several cases, bringing together colonies that had operated under separate administration into federations that would enter independence as units. The West Indies was one region the Colonial Office attempted to federate; it had, since 1946, focused on creating a federation that would become an independent dominion. Ten of Britain’s thirteen West Indian colonies agreed, and the Federation of the West Indies came into existence in 1958 as a Crown Colony.

Although the federation was a creature of the British, many West Indian nationalists, including Manley, were committed to it. Manley’s rival, Bustamante, lacked that deep commitment, and in 1960 announced that the JLP was opposed to federation as a matter of policy. Manley’s response was to call a referendum on the question for September 1961.

In announcing the referendum, Manley asserted that there was a West Indian nation destined to take its place in the comity of nations. This nation contained a West Indian people, with common aspirations and a common history, which was on the verge of achieving unity.[xviii] As an exemplary nation where people of different races “are learning, have nearly learnt, how to dwell together in unity,” the West Indian nation was obliged to become an independent state as a light to the world.[xix]

Manley could not transmit his vision of a united West Indian nation to a majority of the Jamaican electorate, which, on 19 September 1961, rejected continued membership in the federation. Jamaica had no other option than to become independent, which it proceeded to do at the beginning of August 1962. The PNP lost elections held four months earlier, and Manley spent the rest of his political career in opposition.

Yet independence had been his goal, and he welcomed it unreservedly, transferring back to Jamaica his hopes for an independent West Indies as an exemplary state.[xx] Independence was the culmination of a long struggle by “men who in the past and through all our history strove to keep alight the torch of freedom in this country.”[xxi]

Independence could be marred by a lack of vision among the country’s leaders. Jamaica continued to be influenced by the colonial legacy of passive obedience to authority both in pusillanimity and in the difficulty of arousing public opinion. The task still remained to “create the new things which will make [the] nation live and endure in the world to come.”[xxii]

A few years later, retired from politics and looking back over his career, he declared that the mission of his generation had been to create a national spirit, and achieve political independence, the succeeding generation had the task of conceiving and creating a society “based on principles of equality” in which no group of Jamaicans would be alienated from or reject the Jamaican nation.[xxiii] At the end of his life, however, his vision had become more somber. Independence, he said

was a real chance to rebuild the national spirit, and to think out afresh the sort of Jamaica we wanted to build which could make a real and vital contribution to the modern world. That chance we missed.[xxiv]

Jamaica could still set the world the example of an integrated, multi-racial community. It should avoid entrenching race or colour conflicts in its politics.[xxv] To the very end, Manley carried a vision of a national society based on equality and social justice that could be a light to the world.

His vision was liberal, social-democratic, and humanitarian. He brought to Jamaican politics both conscientiousness and conscience, not to mention a strong moral awareness. His biographer, V. S. Reid, did not exaggerate when he stated that Manley’s life had been lived to the end of achieving independence and that “he had caused a multitude to praise.”[xxvi] It was entirely fitting that just before his death he should be officially proclaimed – by his political rivals – a national hero.

Eric Williams: The Hero as Politician

Before there was an organized labour movement, much less a labour revolt, in Jamaica, there had been both in Trinidad. That country had produced its own equivalent to Bustamante, oilfield union leader T.U. Butler, and a host of politicians, some venal, some decent, who sought to take advantage of the political self-awakening of the people. Trinidad, nonetheless, did not produce an equivalent to Norman Manley for almost two decades. From the late 1930s to the mid-1950s, political leadership was largely in the hands of mediocrities and eccentrics, none of whom articulated a clear, cohesive vision of the nation.

Then a leader with vision did appear; Eric Eustace Williams, an academic intellectual with a blazing image of the history and destiny of his homeland at the forefront of his thought, was borne into office on a wave of popular enthusiasm in 1956, and remained in power until his death in 1981.

To assess Williams as theorist and activist, we need to note the distinction between Williams the statesman and Williams the scholar. His scholarly career lasted from the late 1930s until the mid-1950s. Thereafter, although he published books as late as 1969, he was very much the political leader. Yet, though these careers occupied different stages of Williams’s life, each informed the other; there are clear political concerns in his academic writing, and his political career was definitely informed by his academic interests.

Williams first came to public attention with The Negro in the Caribbean (1942), a study of the region in the war years derived from his travels on behalf of the Caribbean Commission. In this book, he advocates political and economic federation of the Caribbean and asserts “the Negro’s right to decide his own affairs and his own life is not a question for argument.”[xxvii] The book that made his name was Capitalism and Slavery (1944), a masterly study of the links between West Indian slavery and the rise of industrial capitalism in Britain. This book alone would have made Williams a significant figure in the development of Anglophone Caribbean political thought. In it, Williams applies the principles of economic determinism to West Indian slavery, arguing that politics and morals “are to be examined in the very closest relation to the economic development.”[xxviii]

The third book written by Williams before he became an active politician, Education in the West Indies [1950] was produced in response to the decision by the British government to establish a University of the West Indies.

From the mid-1940s to the mid-1950s, Williams was Secretary of the Caribbean Research Council of the Caribbean Commission, based in Port of Spain. As an international civil servant in his own country he was barred from public political activism; but he was not forbidden from lecturing on subjects that were not party political, nor was he prevented from meeting like-minded people in private, and he did both. In addition to public lectures for the Teachers’ Economic and Cultural Association (TECA), he led a study group called Bachacs (fire ants) composed of educated members of the middle class who sought solutions to the colony’s problems.[xxix]

Williams’s relationship with the Caribbean Commission was stormy; he perceived them as biased against him on grounds of race and national origin. In 1955 the Commission refused to renew his contract. On the day he left their service, under the auspices of TECA Williams gave a speech at Woodford Square in Port of Spain that marked his transition from academic to man of action. In the speech, “My Relations with the Caribbean Commission, 1943-1955,” Williams rehearsed his quarrels with his former employers, arguing that he incarnated the principle of intellectual freedom and the cause of the West Indian people, and that his dismissal was “the defeat of the policy of appointing local men to high office.”[xxx] Having identified these causes with himself, he stated his commitment to remaining “with the people of Trinidad and Tobago… who have made me whatever I am, and who have been or might be at any time the victims of the very pressures which I have been fighting against for twelve years.” He declared that “I am going to let down my bucket where I am, now, right here with you in the British West Indies.”[xxxi]

The decision to commit his expertise to the service of his people catapulted Williams into a position of leadership that may have been unexpected but was hardly unwelcome. He entered public life at a crucial moment in Trinidad’s political history. Universal suffrage had been introduced in 1946, and ministerial status had been granted to elected members in the executive in 1950. A true party system had not yet developed, and the party with the largest bloc of support from both Black and East Indian Trinidadians, the Butler Party, had been excluded from the executive. The Creole middle class had been alienated from politics after 1950, and did not expect to see an educated, responsible leadership of the sort that had arisen in Jamaica and Barbados emerge in Trinidad.

Williams became the leader of a new political party, the People’s National Movement (PNM), seeing it as a vehicle for political education as well as a body of activists seeking office. Williams emphasized his leadership and his commitment to political education by speaking regularly in what he called “the University of Woodford Square.”[xxxii]

The PNM had to overcome considerable distrust of politics as usual. Williams set out to do this in a pamphlet entitled The Case for Party Politics in Trinidad and Tobago [1955]. Trinidad, he contended, was “the sick man of the Caribbean” and the problem lay with the “doctors”.[xxxiii] What Trinidad needed was an enlightened, alert, relentless opposition that would keep the government on its toes.

Trinidad’s political climate in 1950 had been hostile to “the very idea of party politics.” Instead, candidates stressed their non-partisanship, and, on the basis of being individually-elected representatives, offered their constituents promises of a better life, a more developed country, and greater opportunity. On these, Williams was merciless.

One of the most common of the claims made to fame by the candidates was their experience in city or county councils and in ward-work. The manifestos are full of boasts of standpipes erected, drains paved, roads surfaced, telephone booths installed or secured, traces improved, and cemeteries enlarged, undertaken, or under construction. If the candidate is not able to guarantee you living space, dying space is the next best thing; if you guarantee the candidate a happy hunting ground in this life, he will guarantee you a happy resting place in the next.[xxxiv]

Williams goes on to point out that without the backing of a party, the promises of individual candidates were meaningless. What is more, it would not have mattered had the electors in 1950 backed a completely different set of independents.[xxxv]

Having lambasted the existing political elite, Williams turns to arguments to back the “overwhelming” case for “a democratically organized party”. Such a party would have a coherent programme, and internal discipline would enable its members to carry out that programme.[xxxvi]

The main task of the party is political education, with emphasis on the Burkean notion of the representative serving the nation as a whole rather than the local constituency. Political education is not limited to such tasks, but should focus on getting “the people to do things for themselves and think for themselves.”[xxxvii]

The party must be national, appealing to all classes, races, and religions.[xxxviii] Williams underlined this by stressing the cooperation of capital and labour, and his opposition to racial discrimination. As for the problem that any new party faces, the question of the experience of its leaders, Williams declared: “My colleagues and I are and always will be inexperienced in corruption, in changing our minds, in promising one thing and doing the opposite.” Instead, the party would hold up to Trinidadians the ideals of Athenian democracy, “animated by the noble sentiments of Pericles.”[xxxix]

The PNM’s victory in 1956 brought Williams to government. Two years later, in elections to the West Indian federal parliament, the PNM was dealt a sharp 6-4 defeat by the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) a rally of the “outs” formed to fight the federal elections by Sir Alexander Bustamante. The DLP constituted a significant challenge to the PNM. It took up the oppositional role that Williams had initially envisaged for his party, and it provided ethnic contrast: the PNM had become identified with one ethnic group, the Creoles; the DLP, consequently, became the Indian party.

Williams, for his part, sought to stress the open, multiracial nature of the PNM, its commitment to political education, the development of a national identity, democracy, and economic change. In his speech, “Perspectives for Our Party” given at the PNM’s third annual convention in 1958, he noted that the PNM had established party government, given the country a political leader “who speaks with authority,” established the “University of Woodford Square”[xl] as a public forum, set up its own newspaper, won control of the legislature and local councils, posed “a conception of the new society,” and spearheaded the nationalist movement.[xli]

His government had operated according to the Lincolnian ideal, promoting development and political education. The party had to be organized as “the indispensable complement and support” of the political system. It had to penetrate “into the deepest masses of the people”.[xlii]

In this party organization, the “Political Leader” (i.e., Williams) plays an important role. As theoretical guide he inspires the party, and plays the central role in political education. The political leader sets the tone for the party. In the conditions of the West Indies, the roles of ideologue and party leader had to be combined.[xliii]

The DLP provided Williams with the opportunity to make a statement about nationalism and democracy that remains to this day the benchmark of West Indian nationalist thought. In January 1961, a liberal white businessman, Sir Gerald Wight, wrote an open letter to Williams, expressing concern about anti-democratic tendencies in the PNM government. In his reply, Williams contended that the PNM was “in the historical stream which runs from Aristotle to Franklin D. Roosevelt,” and told Sir Gerald “Massa day done.” This last phrase, says Williams, was seized on by “the scribes and Pharisee,” and the DLP urged Williams to repudiate it.[xliv] Instead, he went on the attack.

Addressing a crowd at Woodford Square in March 1961, Williams said that it was the Trinidad Guardian newspaper that he had been attacking for its “slave mentality.” However, if Wight thought that the term applied to him, Williams was not going to lose any sleep over the issue. He categorically refused to withdraw, amend, or apologize for his statement.

Williams’s opponents, he declared, were concerned only with power, not with the history of the colony or its progress. All they could see in Williams’s slogan was “racial antagonism;” but “massa” was not a racial term, it was the symbol of a past age.

Massa had been, in the main, an absentee European planter who ruled his slaves by the whip, and grew sugar since he knew nothing else. He could treat slaves and indentured labourers with “pathological unconcern with the most elementary conditions of production” because he had a monopoly of political power. He rationalized his rule by insisting that Blacks and East Indians were inferior and incapable of self-government, and his laws ensured that the subject peoples had no opportunities, thus making the “inferiority” visible. Massa was loyal only to his self-interest; the West Indian massa “constituted the most backward ruling class history has ever known.” However, not every white man was a massa, and “not all Massas were white.”[xlv]

Massa’s values, said Williams, were absorbed by the house slaves. These values “penetrated the consciences” of the enslaved to such an extent that the Haitian revolution which began as a fight for freedom ended up with “a ridiculous imperial court of a Haitian despotism with its Count of Lemonade, exploiting the Negro peasants.” The Maroons of Jamaica, who had fought a long guerrilla war for their freedom ended up required “to help Massa to put down any other slave rebellion.” Emancipation itself led to a transfer of ownership such that, in some colonies, “whilst Massa remained, his complexion became darker.” Massa was consistently against education, against the moral and material improvement of the masses, against anything that interfered with his profits. World War II heralded the end of “Massa Day” as colonized peoples around the world, and the working class in the industrialized countries, were on the march: “Massa Day Done, Sahib Day Done, Yes Suh Boss Day Done.”[xlvi]

While his opponents in the DLP sought to hold back the tide of liberation, Williams and the PNM by developing the country, by recognizing the small farmer and the worker, by standing for the dignity of labour, had ended “Massa Day” in Trinidad and Tobago. The PNM had brought those who were defined as unfit to rule themselves to the brink of political independence. Against massa’s belief in racial inequality, it held out to the people the possibility of interracial solidarity, democracy, and education.[xlvii]

By calling on Williams to repudiate the phrase, the DLP had demonstrated that they were no more than modern house slaves. The PNM, by contrast was committed to building a free, democratic nation.[xlviii]

At this point, Williams seems to slide into farce by noting that his government had been able to welcome Sir Winston Churchill to the colony, and “it is only left now for Her Majesty the Queen to visit us.” Clearly, the values of massa had not been completely expunged from Williams’s mind, though it is possible that he was using Churchill’s fame, and a long tradition of high regard for the monarchy for his own ends.[xlix]

It is noteworthy that Williams, in this and other speeches and writings, connected liberal democracy in Trinidad to American as well as British values. His vision of liberal parliamentary democracy drew from Alexander Hamilton and Booker T. Washington, as well as from Burke and J.S. Mill. He rooted his vision of democracy, furthermore, not in nineteenth century Westminster but in classical Athens. His approach to political education involved teaching the people of Trinidad their history, and that of colonialism in general, in order to demonstrate that colonial rule had produced a nation.

Both themes are present in Williams’s speeches and writings as his country moved to independence. On Trinidad’s independence day, Williams gave his country the birthday present of a History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago. This book, hastily written and based on research done in the 1940s and early 1950s, contained much material from Williams’s earlier work. It was intended to provide the country with a national history, along with its flag, coat of arms, anthem and other national emblems.[l] Although by no means his best work, it seems fitting that the historian-statesman should provide both nationhood and an understanding of what led to that outcome.

The History was intended to show that in Trinidad members of all racial groups shared the same historical experiences, and had received the same treatment from the colonial rulers. While as historiography this is not exactly the best purpose, as a tool of political education the book provided a neat summation of Williams’s educational efforts since his return to Trinidad.

While Williams the historian sought to provide his people with a sense of their common history, Williams the prime minister sought to give his people a sense both of the solemnity of the occasion and the significance of the achievement: “You are nobody’s boss, and nobody is your boss.”[li]

The important issue was what would be done with independence. Trinidadians had the responsibility of protecting and promoting their democracy, defined in clearly liberal and social democratic terms. For democracy to survive and thrive “an informed and cultivated and alert public opinion” was necessary.[lii]

There is, however, a note of pride in his final words:

Let us then as Nation so conduct ourselves as to be able always to say in those noblest and most inspiring words of St. Paul, “By the Grace of God we as people are what we are, and His Grace in us hath not been void.”[liii]

There is something fundamentally West Indian about being able to find a biblical text to endorse the nation-state. Williams had brought his country to independence; unlike Manley he crossed the stream into the new land, and for nearly two decades after independence was at the head of Trinidad and Tobago’s affairs. For all his failings – arrogance, an autocratic temperament, and a sense of his own indispensability – he created a liberal democracy.

Discussion: The Politician as Foundational Theorist

Modern political theory in the West begins with a concern for the creation of nation-states. This is the problematic of Machiavelli’s Prince and Discourses on Livy, and it is unavoidable in considering the establishment of post-colonial states. Colonial rule created polities that were large workshops, producing goods for the markets of the imperial power, rather than being nations or states in embryo. As late as World War II most colonies were not considered capable of governing themselves.

At the same time, colonial rulers justified their rule by arguing that it provided benefits for both colonizer and colonized. It was not exploitative, but, rather, a means of civilizing the world and appropriating its unused resources for the benefit of humanity. As a British scholar noted in the 1940s:

Although colonial relations arise out of the search for material advantage, men like to justify their activities on moral grounds and colour them with the warm glow of humanitarianism.[liv]

The imperial powers provided their colonial subjects with the education necessary to supply a lower middle class of clerks, police constables, and schoolteachers, whose status and social mobility were linked to the state. These people came from the subject races, and their experience administering the lower levels of the state, and, over generations, rising in the bureaucracy, gradually gave them a sense that they could run as well as serve the state. Local intelligentsia, fostered by the colonial authorities, were, as Benedict Anderson puts it “central to the rise of nationalism in the colonial territories.”[lv]

The British tried to inculcate their values and beliefs in their colonials to keep the subject populations docile and encourage loyalty to the metropole. To do this, they needed a class of educated people to act as the transmission belt for imperial values. Some of these colonial subjects could aspire to some degree of status as a result of education in the metropole. It is no accident that such figures as Trinidad and Tobago Island Scholar Eric Williams and Rhodes Scholar Norman Manley were scholarship boys who won the glittering prize of an Oxford education.

In exposing young colonials to the values of British high culture, and then expecting them to return to middle class status in their homelands, the British miscalculated. Men like Williams and Manley – talented, sensitive, and intelligent – could not long accept subordinate status. They had received the same, or better, preparation as the leadership of Britain, and could not long be satisfied with the role of colonial middleman.

Jamaica and Trinidad at the beginning of World War II were polities in which only a few could vote. A bureaucratic elite independent from the local ruling class held real power, because it represented the imperial government, but allied to it. Middle class political aspirants could hope to hold elected or appointed office under the supervision of metropolitan officials who were unlikely to be their intellectual equals but who possessed ultimate power.

In the late 1930s, under the impact of the Great Depression, the working people of the British West Indies emerged as a political force in their own right, one that could be used by middle class activists to gain their own ends, and that would accept these activists as leaders in order to gain improved wages, working conditions, and social mobility. The worker revolts of the late 1930s provided emergent political leaderships with a demos on whose backs they could ride to power, but which they also had to serve. Before the labour rebellion, the mass of West Indians had been subjects; their actions earned them the right to become citizens.

Educated activists who possessed a vision of a transformed society wanted more than mere office. They wanted to create nations. Beyond their immediate, or long-term, advantage, they sought sovereignty and national independence for a sophisticated political community whose citizens could control their lives individually and collectively. They took the political awakening of the West Indian masses in the way that Machiavelli had urged Cesare Borgia and Lorenzo de’ Medici to liberate their homeland:

This opportunity, then, must not be allowed to pass by, in order that Italy, after so long a time, may behold its redeemer… This barbarian domination stinks to everyone.[lvi]

Their approach could not be that of simply overthrowing the barbaro dominio of the British. British colonial rule was authoritarian. It was also the rule of law, a constitutional government in which subjects of the Crown possessed defined rights and liberties. In spite of this, the fact that the majority of colonial subjects were excluded from political life made it possible for Williams and Manley to act as “redeemers” in Machiavelli’s sense of the word.

But not only, or merely, as that. Other leaders – Bustamante in Jamaica, Bradshaw in St Kitts, Bird in Antigua, to name a few – also promised redemption. Manley and Williams took on the task of founding these states in the sense used by Machiavelli in the Discourses on Livy.[lvii] For both men this meant constructing liberal democratic states on the British model.

It is difficult to untangle to what extent this was a product of their educations and humanist world-view, and to what extent they were taking Machiavelli’s advice that those who seek to change the form of government must “retain the shadow of its ancient customs.”[lviii] In the West Indian case, this meant not the prevailing customs of colonial administration, but those which were normative even though not applied: the British rules of parliamentary democracy.

The Machiavellian caution employed by Manley and Williams stands in stark contrast to the radicalism of Cheddi Jagan, leader of the People’s Progressive Party in British Guiana, who directly challenged the colonial authorities. Jagan was twice deposed by the British, and sidelined for three decades until the first free and fair elections in independent Guyana brought him to office.

The role of Manley and Williams was to bring together the needs of the West Indian middle and lower classes with the norms of Western parliamentary democracy and the ideals of the post-Enlightenment West. This meant constructing theories of politics that did not challenge the assumptions of the West, but did stress the importance of middle and lower class West Indians, and gave them a sense of history, significance, and value. Williams’s concern with West Indian history, and the impact of colonialism on the West Indian peoples, and Manley’s vision of an exemplary people, a light unto the nations, are the means whereby this was achieved.

They did this, furthermore, not as patriarchal dictators dispensing wisdom from above, but as activists in the democratic arena. The competed with men such as Bustamante in Jamaica, or Albert Gomes and Tubal Uriah Butler in Trinidad, who, while they lacked the particular humanist vision of Manley or Williams, could speak to the people in terms they understood and offer themselves to the masses as the people who would best handle their public business.

What Manley and Williams achieved was the routinization of liberal democracy – and its values – in the space of a generation. They succeeded in imparting meaning to abstractions of political thought and convincing their peoples that they were citizens who could govern themselves. We tend to forget, absent the context of colonial rule, how radical an ideal this was at the beginning, and how significant it has been.


In any discourse there must be speakers and hearers, and discourse only works if those who are in the position of hearers are willing to listen. People respond to a message when it has engaged their thought. The message of Williams and Manley that West Indians could act creatively, manage themselves wisely, and stand up on their own feet is one that resonated with large sections of their peoples. Their vision of a self-governing homeland had meaning for their listeners because they could recognize themselves, in what their leaders said, as actors in rather than victims of history. Manley and Williams engaged the masses of their countries, and in that engagement the masses were transformed, and transformed themselves, into nations. Thus Williams and Manley could lay the foundation for nation-states, and regard that construction as the mission for their generation of leaders.

In recognizing their limitations as political chieftains, we should not forget what they have achieved: in Jamaica and Trinidad over the four decades that have elapsed since independence, governments have changed only at the ballot box. When we look at the records of former colonies in Africa, or at the West Indies’ Latin American neighbours we realize how unusual, and how inspiring, that achievement is.

[i] John Stuart Mill, Considerations on Representative Government [1861], in J.S. Mill: Three Essays. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975, 167.

[ii] Ibid., 175.

[iii] Sir Alan Burns, In Defence of Colonies: British Colonial Territories in International Affairs. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1957, 303. To read that peoples had their independence taken away from them in order to qualify for independence is to realize that it is impossible to underestimate the British sense of humour.

[iv] Eric Williams, British Historians and the West Indies. New York: Scribner’s, 1966, 13.

[v] Paul Sutton argues that comparison of Manley and Williams is only apt ‘if the aim is political or intellectual biography’. (‘The Historian as Politician: Eric Williams and Walter Rodney’; in Alistair Hennessy, ed., Intellectuals in the Twentieth Century Caribbean. London: Macmillan Caribbean, 1992, 98.) Yet to understand the task they undertook, their functions within the process of political change, and the role of the intellectual in nation-building, it makes sense to compare their work as men who actively sought to construct new states on the basis of the old.

[vi] Rex Nettleford, Manley and the Politics of Jamaica: Towards an Analysis of Political Change in Jamaica, 1938-1968, Kingston: Institute of Social and Economic Research, University of the West Indies, 1971, 1.

[vii] Philip Sherlock, Norman Manley. London: Macmillan, 1980, 71.

[viii] See the biographies of Manley by Philip Sherlock (note 7 above), and V.S. Reid (note 26 below).

[ix] Ibid., 73-80.

[x] Nettleford, op. cit., 14.

[xi] Norman Manley, “Launching of the People’s National Party,” in Rex Nettleford, ed., Norman Washington Manley and the New Jamaica: Selected Speeches and Writings, 1938-1968. London: Longman Caribbean, 1971, 15.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Norman Manley, “Of Freedom,” in ibid., 384-385.

[xiv] Norman Manley, “The PNP Declares Itself a Socialist Organization,” in ibid., 59-64.

[xv] Rex Nettleford, note in ibid., 134.

[xvi] Norman Manley, “A Moment of Joy, a Moment of Promise,” in ibid., 158.

[xvii] Ibid., 159-160.

[xviii] Norman Manley, “Referendum: The Verdict is Yours,” in ibid., 174-177.

[xix] Ibid., 177. “To dwell together in unity” was the motto on the West Indian coat of arms.

[xx] Norman Manley, “To Plough the Land and Gather the Fruit: Address at the Opening of the Independence Parliament,” ibid., 312.

[xxi] Ibid.

[xxii] Norman Manley, Independence: The Assets we Have,” ibid., 315-317.

[xxiii] Norman Manley, “A Mission to Perform,” ibid., 365.

[xxiv] Norman Manley, “Mission Accomplished: The Wheel has Come Full Circle,” ibid., 373.

[xxv] Ibid., 381.

[xxvi] Victor Stafford Reid, The Horses of the Morning – About the Rt. Excellent N.W. Manley, Q.C., M.M., National Hero of Jamaica: An Understanding. Kingston: Caribbean Authors Publishing Co., 1985.

[xxvii] Eric Williams, The Negro in the Caribbean. Washington, DC: The Associates in Negro Folk Education, 1942, 102-104.

[xxviii] Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery. London & Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1994 [1944], 211.

[xxix] Winston Mahabir, In and Out of Politics: Tales of the Government of Dr. Eric Williams from the Notebooks of a Former Minister. Port of Spain: Inprint Caribbean, 1978j, 15 & 17.

[xxx] Eric Williams, “My Relations with the Caribbean Commission, 1943-1955” in Eric E. Williams Speaks: Essays on Colonialism and Independence, ed. Selwyn R. Cudjoe. Wellesley, MA: Calaloux Publications, 1993, 112.

[xxxi] Ibid., 164-165.

[xxxii] Ivar Oxaal, Black Intellectuals and the Dilemmas of Race and Class in Trinidad. Cambridge, MA: Schenkman Publishing Co., 1982, 108. Eric Williams, Inward Hunger: The Education of a Prime Minister. London: André Deutsch, 1969, 133.

[xxxiii] Eric Williams, “The Case for Party Politics in Trinidad and Tobago” in Cudjoe, op. cit., 168.

[xxxiv] Ibid., 179.

[xxxv] Ibid., 183.

[xxxvi] Ibid., 183-184.

[xxxvii] Ibid., 186-187

[xxxviii] Ibid., 196.

[xxxix] Ibid., 204-205.

[xl] Williams was inordinately proud of this. He cites in this speech, as an example of “the international recognition of the University of Woodford Square” a picture in a German magazine captioned “Universitãt von Woodford-Square.”

[xli] Eric Williams, “Perspectives for Our Party,” in Cudjoe, op. cit., 208-209.

[xlii] Ibid., 226-227.

[xliii] Ibid., 228-229.

[xliv] Williams, Inward Hunger, 263-264.

[xlv] Cudjoe, op. cit., 238-246.

[xlvi] Ibid., 247-252.

[xlvii] Ibid., 252-254.

[xlviii] Ibid., 255-262.

[xlix] Ibid., 262-263.

[l] Eric Williams, History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago. Port of Spain: PNM Publishing, 1962, vii.

[li] Eric Williams, “Independence Day Address” in Cudjoe, op. cit., 266.

[lii] Ibid., 267-268.

[liii] Ibid., 269.

[liv] J.S. Furnivall, Colonial Policy and Practice: A Comparative Study of Burma and Netherlands India. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1948, 6.

[lv] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, revised edition. London: Verso, 1991, 116.

[lvi] Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince: A Bilingual Edition. Tr. & ed., Mark Musa. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1964, 223.

[lvii] Niccolò Machiavelli, Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy. Tr. Leslie J. Walker, S.J., ed. Bernard Crick. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1970, 266.

[lviii] Ibid., 175.