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Capitalism and Slavery

Eric Williams pt 2: Each One Teach One
By Kim Johnson
Posted: Saturday, January 25, 2003

"At each stage of his educational experience... he had sought out and developed a close relationship with a particular teacher who would serve as his mentor," observes Ken Boodhoo in The Elusive Eric Williams. "Perhaps these mentors provided Williams with the emotional connection that he did not have with his father."

The first was the soft-spoken WD "Billy" Inniss, the assistant master of history and Latin, and one of QRC's first black teachers, who nurtured Williams' love for history.

Williams won the island scholarship in 1931. "He had contributed much more," he said of Inniss, "than any other individual except myself." Williams' rebellious decision to renounce the professions in favour of becoming a teacher of history, was also inspired by Inniss.

At Oxford he began Latin, French, European History and Political Economy, and his history tutor, H Trevor Davies, became, "my guide, philosopher and friend, during my three undergraduate years." Williams studied intensively, even in the vacation, but made time to read novels and poetry, attend plays, visit art galleries.

An excellent sportsman in school, captain of the football team, Williams remained one at university. "He has not been a mere book-worm," wrote his principal at Oxford, "but has distinguished himself both in cricket and football. He plainly must be an exceptionally able man."

And in 1935 he won a First Class in Modern History.

Williams thought he'd conquered Oxford. He enrolled to study philosophy, economics and politics with an eye on a Fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford.

Williams enjoyed politics and was close to his tutor DW Brogan. But he hated the other two courses and knew he'd never fit into the social life of All Souls. And when the assembled Fellows guffawed at his botched French orals, Williams' raw racial sensitivity was wounded to the core.

He abandoned his tattered dream of an English university career. Instead Williams turned passionately to research. He joyfully got his revenge by exploding the historical myth that slavery was abolished by British humanitarianism.

The Economic Aspect of the Abolition of the West Indian Slave Trade and Slavery, rigorously argued, minutely, almost obsessively detailed, earned Williams his PhD in December 1938.

Unable to land a lecturing job in England, and "overqualified" for QRC, he desperately tried India, Burma, even Japan. Late in 1939, on the eve of the war, Williams was finally offered a post at Howard University in Washington.

Long had he angled for the job. Since 1936 three influential scholars there, Ralph Brunche, Abram Harris and—one of his "godfathers"—philosopher Alain Locke, had lobbied for him. "He had come to know Locke only through an exchange of letters," observes Boodhoo. "And even though in June 1939 he had not yet had a face-to-face meeting, he had certainly selected Locke to play a [mentor's] role."

Such relationships were invaluable. It quickly brought Williams funding to expand his thesis into a book.

Even so these men were less father-figure mentors than the network of an ambitious academic, when compared with Williams' relationship with CLR James.

Williams later denied him. When James visited Trinidad in 1965 and became involved with various leftists, including Basdeo Panday, Williams put him under house arrest.

Inward Hunger dismisses James. "West Indians had traditionally deserted the West Indies—Padmore for Africa, James for the absurdities of world revolution," Williams said, and then he trashed James' editing of the PNM paper, The Nation.

But it was't always so. At one time Williams described himself to James as "your godchild."

Without knowing James Health Minister Dr Winston Mahabir saw him in 1958 as, "the man whom Williams was imitating... His manner of speech, his ideas, his mannerisms—they were all Williams magnified."

Born 1901, ten years before Williams, James also won a college exhibition to QRC. Brilliant beyond compare James concentrated on cricket and literature, and still just missed the island scholarship. James then taught at QRC, where he met Williams. He also wrote stories and edited a literary journal, From Trinidad.

In 1932 James left for England to help his friend Learie Constantine write an autobiography. Already he had written Minty Alley and The Life of Captain Cipriani.

Vastly read, James began writing cricket for the Manchester Guardian. He also launched into marxist politics, lecturing with George Padmore at the West Indian African Students Union to men such as Jomo Kenyatta, Arthur Lewis and Eric Williams.

From this remove it is difficult to appreciate James' Olympian charisma. He was considered one of the greatest Marxist speakers in the world, on a par with Trotsky.

His erudition was unrivalled. He never bothered with university because he assumed he was above it anyway. It's likely that James influenced Williams' appreciation of literature, art and drama. "[Williams] used to send me his papers from Oxford on Rousseau, on Plato and Aristotle for my comments," recalled James.

And when Williams asked for a topic for his doctoral thesis, James advised:
"I have done the economic basis of slavery emancipation as it was in France. But that has never been done in Great Britain... a lot of people think the British showed goodwill. There were lots of people who had goodwill, but it was the basis, the economic basis, that allowed the goodwill to function."

For his part James wrote Toussaint L'Ouverture, a play in which he appeared with Paul Robeson, in 1936; World Revolution in 1937; The Black Jacobins (taking along Williams to Paris to do research) and A History of Negro Revolt in 1938. He translated Boris Souvraine's Stalin from French in 1939. But what must have attracted Williams to him was not only his intellect but also James' absolute lack of racial insecurities, or any for that matter.

After guiding Williams' doctoral research, James left for the US late in 1938. Ten months later Williams was at Howard. Again he drew on James' encyclopaedic knowledge. They compiled three massive volumes of readings on the evolution of civilization, a new course Williams had to teach.

A single volume's 567 pages, for instance, had 852 excerpts. "I have three special ‘pupils'," he confided in a friend. "There is Bill Williams. He is a Ph.D from Oxford. He has already written and published some brilliant work... When you see Bill's book you will understand."

James also worked closely on Capitalism & Slavery. Although James considered it to be a masterpiece, he felt it needed an additional chapter on the role of the slaves. Williams dutifully asked his editor to hold back the printer until he wrote another chapter.

Yet Williams' acknowledgement in the book was oblique:
"On pages 38-41 [of The Black Jacobins] the thesis advanced in this book is stated clearly and concisely and, as far as I know, for the first time in English."

Still, the two met often or corresponded.

"What a good pupil to have," James said in 1945. And not only intellectually. James obtained a Reno divorce in 1948, and so did Williams in 1950.

By then Williams was working in Trinidad with the Caribbean Commission, and James about to be deported to England.

The connection endured their separation, however. In 1956 Williams visited James in London to consult on the programme and constitution for a new party about to be launched, the PNM.

The following year it is most likely James influenced Williams' radicalised position on the Chaguaramas agreement. And although top PNM members were wary of James, a communist, in 1958 Williams invited him to Trinidad to edit the party newspaper.

Back home James prepared a report on the party, which Williams shaped into Perspectives for our Party, a major party document.

The political high point of the relationship was a mass rally in Woodford Square, whose speakers include known Marxists Lennox Pierre and Janet Jagan; and the famous April 1960 "March in the Rain" to demand the US return Chaguaramas.

Five weeks after Williams publicly disavowed the socialist camp. James resigned from The Nation and called Williams to discuss matters. Williams cut him short: "There is nothing to discuss!" A breach was inevitable and even necessary.

James idealistically believed in the power of the masses, whereas Williams pragmatically saw power in leadership.

Besides, the relationship alienated Williams closest advisors, and made him suspect in American eyes.

And maybe Williams did perceive in James a political threat. But the reverse is also likely: he must have now felt equal to his former mentor, no logner his pupil, which psychologically James could never accept.

Boodhoo simplifies too much in concluding that "Williams never had a problem severing a relationship if doing so protected his own interests."

On the contrary, the break with James cut Williams off from intellectual companionship and locked him into a solitude which lasted until his lonely death 21 years later.

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