Eric Williams pt 1: Child is father to the man
By Kim Johnson
Posted: Friday, January 24, 2003
No one in our modern history comes even close in importance to that of Eric Williams.
Yet we have had biographies, and some quite good, of all sorts of people--sportsmen, judges, trade unionists, businessmen, writers, politicians--before the recent appearance of Ken Boodhoo's The Elusive Eric Williams.
For that the book is more than welcome; it is the beginning, hopefully, of a redemption.
And a good start it is. Relying on oral information, it brings to light new and surprising aspects of Williams' private and domestic life.
The Elusive Eric has shortcomings. It is repetitive, and the analysis of Williams' psychology is unconvincing. His academic and political works are not scrutinised for what they tell us of their author.
But, overall, it is a story well told.
The book opens on colonial Trinidad at the turn of the century, the autocratic Crown Colony system, the economic dependence on agriculture, the social dominance of the white French Creoles.
In that stagnant society 32-year-old Thomas Henry Williams, a primary educated, black postoffice clerk, married Eliza Boissiere in 1910.
"My mother was ten years his junior," recalled Williams, "and much lighter in colour than he was. Her family bore French Creole name, of which both she and my father were quite proud."
So too, it seems, was Williams. Both History of the People of T&T and Columbus to Castro mention only one French Creole favourably, Dr Jean Francois Boissiere, Williams' great-great uncle.
Dr Jean Boissiere, a coloured but legitimate son of John Nicholas Boissierre became wealthy, whereas John Nicholas' illegitimate son Jules never received the money that his father bequeathed him.
"That," wrote Gerry Besson, "affected the fortunes of (Eliza's) family, containing them in poverty and regulating (sic.) them to the lower middle class."
Jules Boissiere's daughter Eliza gave birth in 1911 to her first child, Eric Eustace Williams.
Boodhoo makes much of that. He argues that first-borns are more likely to be leaders, more attached to their parents' heritage (which translates politically into nationalism). They are more direct, confrontational and likely to use threats and punishment.
After Eric, Eliza had 11 other children. Her husband Thomas was a staunch Catholic. Significantly, Eric Williams' first political conflict was with the Catholic church over birth control.
("Pre-Natal Murderers" the church labelled the PNM.)
Life was hard. In his autobiography, Inward Hunger, Williams blamed his family's declining fortunes on the colonial system and his parents fecundity:
"The necessary social qualifications were colour, money, and education, in that order... My father lacked all three...
"The failure to control births meant an increasing inability to provide for the children...
"The daily problem of making both ends meet dogged the family as a whole...
"The descending family fortunes were reflected in the descent from the water closet to the cesspit and in one bad case the bailiff appeared."
Boodhoo argues that their circumstances weren't so bad, not worse than most people's, and he adds another important dimension to the story in the personalities of Thomas and, especially, Eliza.
He's correct. Others who grew up under similar conditions, such as CLR James, never looked back on childhood with such unrelenting anger as did Williams. The difference lay in the Williams family.
Thomas placed all his hopes on Eric, the "favoured" son who he rigorously drilled from childhood to win scholarships. Thomas' wound, which he passed on to his son, can be inferred from Eric's bitter memory:
"I was never allowed to forget that I was the rising hope of my stern, unbending relatives."
That gruelling regime has a lot to answer for. Whereas James refused to enter the scholarship race, VS Naipaul did and has also complained of its cruelty.
Once Williams placed third and was given a prize, Charles Dickens' Great Expectations. Thomas sneered. "I should have come first... little did he suspect how often I would come third in other exams before I came first."
Williams eventually won the island schol on his third try, when he was a 20-year-old man.
That, I think, fuelled the determination with which Williams rejected his father's order -unheard of those days-to study medicine. "He was very angry with me. He protested and remonstrated, argued and sneered, cajoled and persuaded. It was all in vain."
Years after, when Williams had his PhD, the disobedience still rankled in Thomas: "So you are a doctor after all."
Reciprocally, when Thomas was dying, Williams refused to leave work in Puerto Rico immediately to see him before he died.
Still, Thomas was not the main influence on Williams' character. Rather, Boodhoo laid that at Eliza's door.
She was cold, unloving, aloof, strict. One of her sayings was, "When I speak let no dogs bark!"
She had no friends and tried to prevent her children from developing any. "The girls were not permitted to walk home with other children," notes Boodhoo: "Eliza ‘did not want to hear complaints from others about us'."
Two teenage daughters were thrown out of the home Eliza ruled with an iron fist, and a third fled to get married.
Boodhoo attributes Williams' inflexible discipline, methodical efficiency, intolerance, and public distance to Eliza's influence.
Maybe, maybe not. Discipline and efficiency could equally have come from the scholarship training, and intolerance and distance out of the solitude of intellectual brilliance and political power.
More intriguing is the origins of Williams acute sensitivity to racial distinctions and slights.
That he could only have got from home. "One (aunt)," Williams wrote in a draft of Inward Hunger, "married a Negro tram driver and was generally regarded as having lost caste; the light skinned woman might marry ‘dark'... but she must not descend lower than the professions...
"When it came to marriage my parents were adamant. One might come from Africa, but there was no point in going back to Africa..."
How much of that was Thomas' sentiments and how much Eliza's? He was dark, little educated and stuck in a low-paid job.
She was haughty and fair-skinned by birth, but "prematurely old, fat and querulous, a constant victim of headaches" by marriage.
How much of Thomas' desperate need to find salvation through his son, was prodded by a bitter Eliza?
Wondering what his father would have thought of his second wife, Soy Moyou (Erica's mother), had he lived, Williams added, "My mother's opinion I have never sought."
Thomas died in 1944. Sick, prematurely aged Eliza outlived him by 32 years. For that her decline was doubly pathetic because it took place when her son was Prime Minister.
"She had never had many friends; now she had even fewer," recounts Boodhoo. "Eventually, she turned to drink; with her French Creole tastes, she enjoyed brandy, but as funds dwindled, she substituted rum. Already a diabetic, she became an alcoholic; after a stay in the public hospital, then Park's Nursing Home, she died in 1972."