By Kim Johnson
Posted: Tuesday, February 03, 2003
Our most social of senses is hearing. Through our ears language joins us to others. Sight feeds our acquisitiveness but hearing socialises us.
Contrariwise, deafness embodied the solitude which Dr Eric Williams both wrestled with and embraced, until death freed him.
Deafness was one with another well-known characteristic, his flat, monotone delivery. In a culture whose speech relies on tone and lilt to convey emotion, Williams was doubly hampered.
His greatest speeches were bereft of inflexion and gesture. That they were still as passionate and moving as his best writing, was Williams' brilliance.
Their passion was conveyed through a bitter sarcasm, the drier the better:
"It was not that [Thomas] Carlyle hated the Negro. No, he liked him, and found that ‘with a pennyworth of oil, you can make a handsome glossy thing of poor Quashee'." (Capitalism & Slavery)
"To his slave workers from Africa the symbol of Massa's power was the whip, liberally applied; records exist showing that 200 lashes were not infrequent and a tremendous howl was raised by Massa when British law tried to step in and limit punishment to 39 lashes under supervision." (Massa Day Done speech)
Williams' mental and psychological strength enabled him to collect and assimilate a vast mountain of information, quotes, statistics. These he retrieved at will, throwing facts like rocks to build a strong argument. Or to bamboozle, destroy and bury an opponent.
His brilliance was not a gift, as was CLR James'. It was strenuously, painfully acquired, a natural talent leavened by Herculean self-discipline and labour.
Those years of gruelling study shaped Williams' personality.
It made him more optimistic of what a child could achieve (as he did) by sheer will power, but less tolerant of adult failure.
It also made him highly competitive. He had to be the best cricketer, the best footballer, his team had to win.
"Eric was the captian of football at QRC. During the scholarship exams in high school, his father was worried that he would hurt himself during one of the football matches... so his father asked him not to play one afternoon. So Eric came to the stands to look at the match," recalled Dr Halsey McShine, his friend from childhood.
"Our team was losing and Eric said he couldn't stand it. he went home and got his clothes. Heh played so great tht we scored the winning goal."
Outside of a competitive situation, however, Williams was quiet and shy.
Both his competitiveness and shyness lasted from boyhood right into his political years.
"I have always lacked the social graces, and had never cultivated—as good colonials must and do—the elegant art of balancing the coffee—or tea-cup whilst one's legs were crossed," he boasted in Inward Hunger.
Social awkwardness was thus cast in an heroic light, as if it was merely the product of snobbery or racist humbug. But Williams' rawness was more than skin-colour deep, for he was genuinely, deeply, unsocial.
Williams was uneasy in society. The dark glasses of his earlier years hid a blindness to the motives of ordinary folk, whose minds he could never read.
He could inspire and lead people, he could intimidate them, and even listen to and learn from them, but never could he see into their hearts.
"Eric was the worst judge of character," says Rolf Moyou, his brother in law. "He'd give a man power and nine out of ten times that person would disappoint him, and every time Eric got more suspicious."
Accordingly, Williams oscillated between naivete and cynicism. Ken Boodhoo, for instance, describes him in The Elusive Eric Williams as "a soft touch", easily taken in by a sad story.
His private secretary, Diane Dupres, similarly said, "Eric believed people to his detriment. He could not believe that anybody could openly and boldfacedly come and lie to him."
Blind to dissimulation, so too Williams could not dissimulate. He communicated only what he possessed internally, his austere idealism.
It struck a chord in the society, which idolised him. His admirers sensed his distance, which just increased his stature in their eyes.
"They saw him as a modern day Christ," said Ferdie Ferreira, one of his closest advisors until the early 1970s. "He was never identified as one of them… we didn't want him to be identified with them. They look upon [Williams] with awe—like a charismatic leader."
Williams' idealism innoculated him against the corruption of power.
"We used to have to insist that Eric go to Fitz Blackman to get a suit," recalls Moyou. "He didn't have clothes, he was completely non-materialistic."
He was austere, but not out of self-denial. He was no robotic worker without indulgences and pleasures.
He loved reading and listening to music, and his collection of books and records was immense.
Even more prosaically, he loved cars.
The Buick Dynaflow in which he toured the US with his wife-to-be, Suilan Soy Moyou, was for years the poshest car in Trinidad. The colonial government borrowed it for Princess Margaret's visit.
After Suilan died in May 26, 1953, he shipped the car to Europe and drove around the continent for weeks.
"He was a car man, that was his baby," says Erica Connell-Williams.
Already psychologically isolated, power when it came further imprisoned Williams. It made him more vulnerable to gossip. He swallowed it whole, or didn't listen. He could neither filter nor interpret mauvais langue.
According to Boodhoo, that susceptibility, existing long before politics, made him doubt his first daughter's paternity. "Here Williams' characteristic, his affinity for gossip, displayed itself; it would later be the source of some of his most serious problems as a political leader."
As Moyou put it, "People learnt what he wanted to hear and whsipered it to him."
Suspicious and eventually paranoid, Williams created an institution which suited his personality: the doghouse. This allowed him to remain faithful to his democratic instincts while removing someone in whom he'd lost confidence.
Every confidante of Williams was abruptly cut off at some time. Some were dismissed. Many were simply deprived of their functions and—an experience he knew intimately—isolated.
Rarely was this the result of open disagreement. Indeed, there are many who claimed that Williams respected them more for their differing points of view.
"He was receptive, but he was a very proud man… he would not only accept the criticism, but he would implement the ideas. After careful consideration, things that were suggested to him would be implemented," says Ferdie Ferreira.
"He would stand there while you were talking to him and he would doodle. I don't know if that was him transmitting something to his brain. You could see that deep thought was going into what you were telling him."
Banishment was more caused by intrigue, gossip or plain paranoia. Some of its victims never learnt what had alienated him.
"Up to today I have tried to find out, but I still don't know," Ferreira said of his own removal from Williams' good books. "I always looked forward to his retirement from politics because it would provide us with an opportunity for reconciliation."
Those with the thickest skins, such as Kamal Mohammed, ignored it and continued, sometimes for years, until restored to favour.
"I was in the doghouse for nine years… Somebody had told him something about me. But I never stopped working and he never stopped giving me work," says Dupres.
"How I found out I was in the dog house was after maybe a week he sent a note requesting something to be done. The note had no address, no name, no date, no signature. I looked at it and told my friend, ‘I think I'm in the dog house.'
"One night, I was called out to tea at Parliament. I walked into the tea room and there was a meeting going on. He started talking to me as if we had spoken only ten minutes ago. And I hadn't spoken to him in eight years!"
That did not halt the corruption which took root early on and came to dominate the government in the oil boom.
Williams' volatility was too arbitrary, he was too blind to human motives. The innocent suffered as much if not more than the guilty.
Recognising his own helplessness, he distanced himself even further from those around him. Before the 1976 elections Williams attacked his own party's candidates on the platform.
That attitude to even his closest colleagues— "Get to hell out of here!" "When I talk no damn dog bark!" — convinced many that Williams was a dictator, if a generally benevolent one.
But Williams was no dictator. He built democratic institutions, such as the independent judicial system, which were stronger than even his rages.
He failed to stem the corruption which flowed through the party, government and the entire society. That would have taken a different man with a different personality to even partly succeed.
But where he was successful—in establishing a tradition of party politics where none had existed, in building strong institutions of a democratic state, and in allowing each and every group a chance to better itself—no one else could have done so.