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The Tainos : Rise & Decline of the People Who Greeted Columbus
History of the people of Trinidad and Tobago
Capitalism and Slavery
From Columbus to Castro
A Brief History of the Caribbean
The Black Jacobins
Rituals of Power & Rebellion
'Callaloo' serves up Williams' life and work
By BRIDGET BRERETON
Professor of History, UWI, St Augustine
THIS special issue of Callaloo, a well-known American scholarly journal devoted to "African-American and African Arts and Letters", is the first of several publications emanating from the conference on 'Capitalism and Slavery Fifty Years Later: Eric Williams and the Postcolonial Caribbean, which was held at St Augustine in September 1996.
It is a handsomely produced volume, with the delightful painting of Williams by the Trinidadian artist Irenee Shaw gracing the front cover. It includes a valuable bibliography of works by Williams, and about him and his times. Though not free from errors and inaccuracies (typographical and editorial), the essays it contains are often original, sometimes provocative, and usually readable. It should be clear, however, that the volume is targeted at an academic readership rather than the public in general.
The volume starts with two examples of Williams' own writings-which were NOT meant for an academic readership: the first three chapters of his autobiography, Inward Hunger, and his 1961 speech, 'Massa Day Done'. These are well chosen pieces, illustrating the power of his polemics and his intimate yet clinical understanding of the colonial society of the 1920s and 1930s in which he grew to adulthood. They also illustrate one of Williams' great strengths: his easy command of a vigorous, clear, jargon-free and immensely readable English prose. Would that all of the contributors to this volume shared his gift!
In my view-and I hope I am not showing a natural bias towards my own university--the strongest, most original, and best written pieces are those by the UWI contributors. Easily the best (and the longest, characteristically) is the essay by Gordon Rohlehr on 'The Culture of Williams: Context, Performance, Legacy'. This highly original, eclectic, occasionally wordy and always engaged piece considers the cultural meanings of Williams' interventions in Trinidadian society, as scholar, messenger, articulator of collective dreams, maximum leader; his initiatives in the field of 'culture'; and the ways in which his society received and appropriated him, as seen through the words of the poets, the novelists and (especially) the calypsonians. This essay speaks directly, and profoundly, to issues agitating the society today, 17 years after Williams' death, such as ethnic contestations over 'culture.' It is vintage Rohlehr.
Also original, and provocative, is the much shorter essay by Patricia Mohammed, which brings gender into the consideration of Williams' nationalism. Though this essay does not develop its ideas as fully as one might have liked (Mohammed herself calls it 'cursory'), it blends personal memories of growing up in rural south Trinidad in the 1950s and 1960s with analysis of how Williams and his movement conceptualised women and their potential role as citizens. She concludes that the ideas, the rhetoric and the symbols of Williams' nationalism had profound, and liberating, effects on the girls and women of the new nation-especially rural Indo-Trinidadians like herself-though he never overtly challenged patriarchal ideologies.
More clearly 'academic' is the essay by the Barbadian historian Hilary Beckles who examines Black Jacobins (C.L.R. James) and Capitalism and Slavery as seminal texts situating the Caribbean as the "primordial site of Atlantic modernity"-where 'globalisation', early industrialisation, revolution by the dispossessed (Haiti), all classical indices of 'modernity', were first worked out. This essay is not an easy read, and isn't free of academic jargon; but it is provocative and interesting if one perseveres.
Probably of more interest to local readers would be the thoughtful essay by Ralph Henry. He asks how the central insights of Capitalism and Slavery were reflected in Williams' performance as government leader for 25 years, and proposes that this question could be approached by examining how his governments dealt with 'structural inequality': that is, both inequality between the new nations of the region and the metropole and inequality within the society between classes and ethnic groups. His analysis is sensible and balanced, if hardly novel. He concludes that-powerfully aided by the fortuitous petro-dollars of the oil boom era-Williams had succeeded, to a significant degree, in reducing internal inequality, and in redefining the relationships between his country and metropolitan capital, by the time of his death in 1981.
Three essays by American scholars focus on Capitalism and Slavery and its role in the development of historiography and social science theory. Russel Menard, in a short but interesting piece, concludes that the book (first published in 1944) should still be read by anyone hoping to understand the field of 'early American history' (that is, the history of the Americas up to the 1770s or 1780s). William Darity Jr, a leading Williams scholar, contributes a lively and well-written essay on the American, European and Caribbean scholarly influences which contributed to the major theses of Capitalism and Slavery. And Gerald Bosch Jr sees the text as the intellectual point of origin for the dependency theorists whose ideas were so influential in the 1960s and 1970s. He makes the interesting point that Williams pioneered a tradition of scholarship which was morally and politically unlike so many of the scholars (historians mainly) who have sought to critique his work.
The editor, Sandra Pouchet Paquet, a scholar of literature, takes an original line when she focusses, not on Capitalism and Slavery but on Williams' Documents of West Indian History. She sees this work as a 'precusorial text' anticipating important features of recent post colonial, postnationalist Caribbean historical fiction-in particular, it is 'multivoiced, non-linear, dialogic in design,' offering many different versions of West Indian 'beginnings', a collage, a 'disorderly' collection. Pouchet Paquet then tests her insight by analysing three novels by Lamming, Naipaul and Benitez-Rojo, trying to show the similarities with the concept and format of Documents. This is certainly an intriguing and original idea, unfortunately, the essay is full of poststructuralist jargon ( in just a few pages, you will find 'deconstructive troping', 'chronotope', 'telos', 'discursive filiation', 'tropological') which makes it hard to read for all but the initiated. The contrast with Williams' lucid, vigorous, readable prose at the start of the volume is striking, so too with the crisp, elegantly simple sentences of V.S. Naipaul which Pouchet Paquet quotes in her essay.
But on balance this is a valuable and even exciting collection; its readership is likely to be fairly limited but influential. Callaloo is a prestigious journal and this special issue is certain to make the extraordinary work of Eric Williams better known among scholars of the humanities, especially in the United States. For us here in his homeland, it is yet another proof of his international stature and further vindication of the successful efforts of Erica Williams Connell and the University of the West Indies to create the Eric Williams Memorial Collection at St Augustine.
Callaloo (Volume 20, Number 4), Special Issue: Eric Williams and the Postcolonial Caribbean edited by Sandra Pouchet Paquet