Doctor, doctor

By Judy Raymond

Eric Williams and the Making of the Modern Caribbean,
by Colin A. Palmer
Ian Randle Publishers, ISBN 976-637-244-6, 354 pp

There’s a now elderly joke that goes: one day, Margaret Thatcher takes her Cabinet out to lunch. After taking her order for an entrée, the waiter asks the prime minister, “What about the vegetables?”

“Oh, them,” she says, glancing disdainfully at her colleagues. “They’ll have what I’m having.”

The same joke could have been told about Eric Williams and the Cabinet of Trinidad and Tobago. But not, sadly, in Colin Palmer’s book.

No doubt Professor Palmer would be affronted at the idea that it might. After all, he teaches history at Princeton, and his Eric Williams and the Making of the Modern Caribbean is a scholarly work — and if there are jokes in it, they are certainly not of his making.

But the best jokes, like the one about Mrs Thatcher, however corny, have a kernel of hard truth at the centre. Conversely, when Dr Williams writes, for instance: “The British historians wrote almost as if Britain had introduced Negro slavery solely for the satisfaction of abolishing it,” he is making not only a serious professional judgment, but at the same time a bitterly funny and absolutely typical joke.

There’s nothing to indicate, however, that Palmer notices, when he quotes that comment, that it was meant to be funny; for if he did, he would say so. As he does when he quotes an anecdote that Williams tells in his autobiography about how, as a small boy, he had to serve drinks to his parents’ friends at the christening of one of his siblings. Young Eric sneakily helped himself to drinks all the while, until he woke up some hours later, under the table, to find someone pouring soda water on his face.

Williams tells the story, Palmer finds it necessary to point out, “obviously with a humorous intent.” Indeed, Professor Palmer. Obviously.

When Jamaica seceded from the West Indian Federation and Williams concluded, “One from ten leaves nought,” the puzzled professor proposes, “Eric Williams’s command of arithmetic, at least in this instance, was questionable.” No, it wasn’t, and as for his command of humour, that was note-perfect.

Equally lost on Palmer is the dry wit of some of Williams’s contemporaries, the colonial civil servants whose reports he quotes extensively and disapprovingly. The perceptive British high commissioner Norman Costar, for instance, told his principals in London, “In recent weeks Dr Williams has said nothing nasty about Jamaica, which for Dr Williams is almost a mark of favour.” Palmer dismisses as “most vitriolic” observations on Williams’s “rotating enmities” or Costar’s droll and accurate prediction that if the UK failed to offer his country a satisfactory “golden handshake” on its independence, “the result . . . will be that Britain, and I in particular, will be put in the doghouse for the next six months.”

At least the pinch of humour thus inadvertently sprinkled through the book has the effect of leavening Palmer’s own drab and plodding prose. But his insensitivity to the tone of the writers he quotes leads to more serious misunderstandings than his sense-of-humour failure alone.

Costar — who studied Williams’s character closely and fruitfully — wrote that the Doctor’s famous speeches in Woodford Square “are rated high as entertainment by those for whose benefit they are uttered.” This judgement is beyond the pale as far as Palmer is concerned: he considers it “contemptuous,” “extraordinary,” “uncharitable.”

It is none of those things; it is actually a perfectly apt compliment, since without a doubt entertaining his audience was one of the effects for which Williams, a brilliant orator, was aiming. But Colin Palmer is a Jamaican, and seems to have no inkling of the outright jokiness, much of it deliberate, of a great deal of Trinidad politics — surely an unfortunate blind spot in one who has set out to analyse an important period in the political history of Trinidad.

This book covers roughly the period from 1956, when Williams and the People’s National Movement won their first election, to 1970, when Williams was wrong-footed by the Black Power movement, a stumble from which he never really recovered. Palmer also describes it as an intellectual history of Williams’s thought and the thinking of the times.

Importantly, the author does not claim what the book’s blurb does, that it is the “first scholarly biography” of Williams. There are several reasons why it is no such thing, and not only because it covers a limited period of Williams’s life.

The book, rather, examines some of Williams’s major preoccupations and his role in shaping the development of the region. This is not the list a Trinidadian would have compiled, even if trying to adopt a wider, Caribbean perspective; and some of Palmer’s choices seem reasonable and others not. They include:

• West Indian federation (which failed)
• political union with Grenada (came to nothing)
• the “golden handshake” that Williams felt Britain owed Trinidad and Tobago as it became independent (he didn’t get it)
• helping solve the political and racial turmoil in Guyana (failed again).

Certainly for a reader in Port of Spain, it’s hard to agree simpliciter with Palmer’s conclusion that: “The domestic issues [Williams] championed and the larger Caribbean causes he advocated — with the possible exception of a political federation — remain the essential concerns of the contemporary administrations.”

Palmer is on firmer ground when he writes of Williams’s campaign for decolonisation, both political and psychological; and, perhaps, the fight to win back Chaguaramas from American control, which Palmer records as his most important battle — although again he does not see this as a Trinidadian would. The famous “march in the rain” to the US consulate was undertaken not as it is remembered in Trinidad and Tobago today, for the sake of the country’s sovereignty over its own territory, but because the federation committee had determined that Chaguaramas was the best site for the capital of the federation. And by the time Chaguaramas was handed back, years later, the Americans had decided they didn’t want it anyway, and the federation was only a painful memory.

Palmer lists every skirmish in that long war (he’s good at reporting the facts; it’s their implications he sometimes doesn’t grasp). No one comes out of that episode smelling of roses. Williams did an about-turn, agreeing to respect the contract with the US over its bases in Trinidad — even after the federation committee chose Chaguaramas — until he discovered that the governor of Trinidad at the time, Sir Hubert Young, had been vehemently opposed to the 1941 deal, but had been overruled. Palmer itemises the cloak-and-dagger manoeuvres that followed, such as the bogus telegram sent to Governor Beetham by the Colonial Office with the aim of rewriting history while colluding with the Americans.

As for Williams, he finally resorted to charging that there were radiation leaks at the Chaguaramas base which might endanger locals. Palmer claims, “Although he had no firm evidence about the veracity of the charges . . . he had to [my italics] speak in such a way as to give the impression that he did.” That was a ploy which Williams’s health minister Winston Mahabir — who supported him anyway — later admitted was an “immaculate deception,” to Palmer’s disgust; although other observers might describe it, less diplomatically, as a sensational and scandalous lie.

Palmer, however, argues that Williams was not crying wolf, since the Americans did not know whether or not there were such leaks. But although he quotes from a report by a British “technical expert” about the “hazard zone,” he doesn’t cite any evidence that there were actual radiation leaks.

Palmer, then, is on Williams’s side, which is, for the most part, fair enough. But he veers wildly off course early in the book when he announces that in researching it, he decided to avoid interviewing Williams’s contemporaries, on the very shaky ground that “my search for the proverbial ‘truth’ would have been made much more difficult by highly partisan accounts of his career.”

Why on earth should the oral accounts that Palmer could have acquired first-hand be any more “partisan” than the written stories of other contemporaries on which he chose to rely instead? Or his own judgments, like the one on the radiation-leak story? And surely the more accounts he gathered, whether written or oral, the more reliable his version of the “truth” might have been. But he seems to have succumbed to the unfortunate notion, which afflicts many academics, that anything printed in a book is automatically more authoritative than the oral recollections of insiders and eyewitnesses.

Instead he draws on Williams’s own testimony, which could hardly be non-partisan and which he sometimes misjudges, and on reports by British or American officials, which are also, naturally, partisan, in a different way — although their biases are not always the ones Palmer reads into them. He frowns on the American consul who described Williams’s attitude to Chaguaramas as bordering on “mania”; yet this is backed up by Sir Solomon Hochoy’s warning that his compatriot Williams was “a madman” and that the British “were not dealing with a rational man.” He lets pass numerous criticisms of other Caribbean leaders, but foreigners are rebuked for finding fault with his subject even when he makes the same criticisms himself.

“Colin Palmer is not alone in choosing to focus on some aspects of Eric Williams’s character and career and glossing over others. No one has yet dared attempt a full-length, close-up, high-resolution portrait”

Palmer tells us that Williams “confessed” that he “took a very independent line” with his tutor at Oxford; but that’s not a confession, it’s a boast. In fact, it’s hard to find any basis for Palmer’s qualification of his observation that “Eric Williams was, ostensibly, not given to humility.” Ostensibly? Even Palmer admits elsewhere that Williams at times undermined his own efforts by alienating those whose support he needed with his “sharp tongue, difficulty in absorbing criticism or dealing with opposing points of view, and his marked intellectual arrogance.” Early in his autobiography, Inward Hunger, Williams wrote: “Greatness, Trinidad style, was thrust upon me from the cradle”; and while that was a joke, that doesn’t mean he didn’t mean it.

But Palmer has his reasons — though not good ones — for being hesitant in drawing conclusions about Williams’s character. He admits, coyly, that his fourth chapter inter alia “discusses Eric Williams the human being and enters the partisan debate on the ingredients of his personality, an intriguing issue that a scholar could hardly avoid.”

Why on earth would a scholar want to avoid the issue of his subject’s personality? Why is debate on it necessarily partisan? It’s owing to this misguided belief that Palmer only overtly raises the topic in the middle of the book, “so as not to prejudice the readers’ perceptions of and responses to him.” He seems to feel that talking about Williams’s personality is indulgence in baseless gossip — even though, as he himself demonstrates, Williams’s personality, as one would expect, was a major factor in the outcome of many of his campaigns. For instance, the prospects for joint diplomatic relations between Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago on the one part and Africa on the other were “stymied,” Palmer tells us, “because of poor personal relations between the leaders of the two countries,” that is, Williams and Alexander Bustamante — and that was far from an isolated incident.

In this area, however, Palmer is handicapped by a blind spot — an inability to interpret character — which leads him to the peculiar conclusion that: “It is difficult to provide a reasonably plausible assessment of the persona of any historical personage.” Not so. It might have been hard to provide an accurate assessment, if he were writing about Alexander the Great, say, or King Arthur; but why should it be hard to assess a man whose children and many of whose family, followers, colleagues, and contemporaries are still alive, and whose deeds and words were extensively and reliably recorded by himself and many others?

It is in any case impossible to separate the character from the man: the character is the man. Palmer seems to believe that Williams can be divided up into separate components. But who then was arguing for independence and federation and forging links with Africa? Eric Williams the robot? Or perhaps Eric Williams the eunuch?

For although in life Williams was a ladykiller, in Palmer’s book two of his wives are mentioned, but the third is not; and none of them is named. Of his children, only Erica appears to exist, momentarily, in this tunnel-visioned view.

Here it’s worthy of notice that Palmer gave an Eric Williams Memorial Lecture last year, and received permission to use photos from the Williams collection, to which this book, oddly, is dedicated. In other words, he has the imprimatur of Erica Williams-Connell, keeper of the flame in her father’s temple. So this was never going to be a warts-and-all biography.

For all these reasons it’s perhaps just as well that Palmer decides this book is “not intended to be a full-scale biography . . . It does have biographical attributes, however.” That is, Palmer describes Williams’s childhood and draws the tentative though obvious conclusion that as the eldest son of his family, he was both privileged and at the same time burdened with domestic responsibilities and high expectations. He argues less convincingly that this position in the family isolated Williams because he had to remain distant from his siblings in order to discipline them. He was also, says Palmer, driven “to keep faith with his father’s high expectations.” Here he overlooks Williams’s express scorn for his father’s failure in life, as well as the deep streak of contrariness — “own-way,” as Trinidadians call it — that first showed itself in Williams’s youth, when he frequently disappointed those expectations, by repeatedly coming third in exams when he needed to come first to win a scholarship, and also, unthinkably, by defying his father’s wishes in choosing to study history rather than medicine or law.

Also, incredibly, Palmer mentions Williams’s deafness only once or twice in passing, partly because he takes at face value Williams’s joke about being able to switch off his hearing aid whenever he liked. But deafness cuts a deeper chasm between the sufferer and the rest of humanity than almost any other disability. As with many other topics that Williams omits or skims over in Inward Hunger, this silence indicates not a lack of importance, but rather how deeply that wound had damaged him. Perhaps Palmer was led astray by Williams’s own reticence in his autobiography about his emotional and personal life, or his pretence to a lofty indifference even when he is clearly deeply stung.

Palmer also quotes Williams’s gleeful boast of having “a practical training” and “innate good taste [which] has reflected itself in competence in delicate lingerie and feminine accessories for my wife or daughter . . .” This declaration, which is remarkably frank for a man of Williams’s era, and especially in the high-minded context of Inward Hunger, Palmer allows to pass without comment, as though it were trivial or indecent.

It was neither. With his women and his favourite child, Williams is hinting, he achieved a deep and satisfying intimacy, although his domestic happiness was not lasting; his second and best-loved wife died horribly young, and Erica, as children must, grew up and away from him. In the rest of Williams’s life, he was isolated not only by his deafness, but by his own intellect, and by the depth and breadth of his historical understanding, which was rooted in his personal experience of growing up poor and black in a colonial society still ruled by the “aristocracy of the skin.” These left him with a lifelong sympathy for the underdog, ruthlessness towards those who offended him, a profound belief in democracy and at the same time an intolerance of opposition — apparently contradictory qualities which Palmer doesn’t attempt to reconcile, because of his inability to unravel the enigma of personality and his failure to come to terms with the irrational in human affairs. Williams was, too, again confusingly, a shy and lonely man, yet successful with women; a reclusive Oxford scholar who could enthrall and entertain the man in the street.

Thus in 1961, US consul general William Moline drew an astonishing picture of the power of Williams’s hold over the PNM and how he achieved it: “He is the subject of adoration . . . no one wants to make a decision without . . . his approval . . . He is their Leader . . . he can scold, exalt, lead marches, burn documents, turn himself around 180 degrees . . . he cannot do wrong. There is no one in the party with this mystique, charisma or image . . .”

Yet to Palmer, in a stunning misreading, this breathless paean is only a description of Williams’s “considerable intellectual gifts.” The measure of a political leader, Palmer concludes, “should not be his or her personal idiosyncrasies”; true, but to ignore the way such a leader triumphs in spite of those flaws, or even transforms them into strengths, is to underestimate him or her. Great men don’t have to be perfect men, and public figures have private faces; indeed, the inclination nowadays is to assume that the two are one and the same and that the whole of a life should be laid open to the common gaze. Palmer subscribes to a distinctly old-fashioned, contrary view. But the facts of Williams’s private life don’t detract from his achievements, while they explain some of his faults and his failures.

Palmer is not alone in choosing to focus on some aspects of Williams’s character and career and glossing over others. No one has yet dared attempt a full-length, close-up, high-resolution portrait. The nearest thing as yet to a biography has been Ken Boodhoo’s perfectly named The Elusive Eric Williams (2002), which took cautious steps in the right direction and which was considerably enriched by Boodhoo’s interviews with many who knew the man behind the dark glasses. Until a full biography appears, Williams will continue to be idolised and at the same time trivialised in his homeland by the trite slogan “father of the nation.” In an irony that he would appreciate, Williams, an historian, and a man who himself shaped his country and the Caribbean, has so far escaped the grasp of history.


The Caribbean Review of Books, November 2007

Judy Raymond is the editor of Caribbean Beat and the author of a biographical study, Barbara Jardine: Goldsmith, published in 2006.