From the life

A reading list

The greatest work of scholarship in the English language, it’s often said, is the Dictionary of National Biography (first published in sixty-three volumes between 1885 and 1900). Its only possible rival is the Oxford English Dictionary (ten volumes, 1884–1928). They were both products of Victorian confidence and energy; both became famous enough to be universally known by their initials — DNB and OED; and they are widely considered the ultimate models for what can be achieved by that indispensable species we call works of reference.

The idea of a national biography — a collection of the lives of all the significant figures in a nation’s history — goes at least as far back as Plutarch, but the DNB set a new standard that few scholarly projects have approached, far less equalled. It contained articles on over twenty-nine thousand subjects, written by 653 contributors, and was edited by two leading Victorian men-of-letters in succession, Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee. The latter defined the DNB as a collection of “full, accurate, and concise biographies of all noteworthy inhabitants of the British Islands and the Colonies (exclusive of living persons) from the earliest historical period to the present time.” Supplementary volumes published approximately each decade kept the DNB more or less up-to-date over the course of the twentieth century.

Soon other countries were wanting their own national biographies. The Dictionary of American Biography first appeared in 1927, the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1940, the Indian Dictionary of National Biography in 1972. Australian and Canadian versions, begun in 1957 and 1959 respectively, are still underway. And in the 1990s, Oxford University Press decided to take on the mammoth task of publishing a completely revised edition of the DNB. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (or ODNB), which was published in sixty printed volumes in 2004 and simultaneously online, contains more than fifty thousand articles written by ten thousand contributors.

And what about national biographies covering the Anglophone Caribbean? Unsurprisingly, nothing remotely near the scale and scope of the DNB has ever been attempted in the region, but there are a few dozen biographical reference books covering individual territories with varying degrees of comprehensiveness and accuracy. The best of them may be the two-volume Dictionary of Guyanese Biography (1985) edited by the poet A.J. Seymour and his wife Elma — like so many of Seymour’s books, self-published and, distressingly, out of print. The DGB, if one may call it that, drew on extensive research in the libraries of Georgetown, and its elegantly written articles display Seymour’s quiet wit and modest self-effacement.

The Trinidadian novelist and historian Michael Anthony won an international reputation for his early fiction, but more recently he has produced a series of reference works covering many aspects of the history and culture of Trinidad and Tobago. The most ambitious of them may be his Historical Dictionary of Trinidad and Tobago (1997), which, in addition to capsule biographies, includes entries on places, institutions and events. But the HDTT can be puzzlingly idiosyncratic in its choices about who to include and who to omit. And even a half-careful spot-check reveals a worrying number of errors and inaccuracies. (The most entertaining: Anthony confuses the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge with his nephew William Henry, who visited Trinidad in 1825 and subsequently published a book about his travels. Based on this misidentification, he suggests that the elder Coleridge “immortalised in verse” a young woman he met in Santa Cruz and fell madly in love with.)

Luckily, the HDTT has a far more reliable backup: volume one of the Dictionary of Caribbean Biography (1998), covering Trinidad and Tobago, compiled by Bridget Brereton, Brinsley Samaroo, and Glenroy Taitt. This was supposed to be the first in a series dealing with the whole Caribbean region, but sadly it seems to have been aborted before volume two. It neatly accommodates nearly three hundred subjects in 117 pages; as its editors remark in their preface, “Only a few entries have more than twenty lines.” This concision makes for ease of reference, but doesn’t allow the breadth of detail and anecdote that is biography’s true life and fun.

What of Jamaica? Every few years (most recently in 2002) the Gleaner updates its Jamaica Directory of Personalities — formerly known as Who’s Who Jamaica — but like most who’s-whos, it depends for its data on questionnaires sent to possible subjects, and omits those who shun publicity. Olive Senior’s Encyclopedia of Jamaican Heritage (2004) — a revised edition of her earlier A–Z of Jamaican Heritage (1994) — includes a careful selection of biographical entries among her hundreds of articles on natural history, geography, art, music, food, folklore, and every other conceivable aspect of Jamaican culture.

Macmillan Caribbean publishes a whole A–Z series. A–Z of Grenada Heritage and A–Z of Bahamas Heritage (both 2007) are the most recent, and rather heftier than the A–Z of Barbados Heritage (2nd edition, 2004). Like Senior’s Jamaica book, they mix biography with wide-ranging historical and cultural information, but in the absence of dedicated biographical works they are valuable additions to one’s reference shelf. And they do offer occasional nuggets of delicious weirdness. From the Bahamas A–Z’s entry on the “spectacularly handsome” dancer Paul Meeres, a onetime stage partner of Josephine Baker:

Meeres returned to Nassau in 1945, confident of repeating his success in his home town . . . His first club burned down, and further ventures failed. In a bizarre turn of events he went to jail for a year as a stand-in for his aged mother, who had been convicted of harbouring a runaway criminal.

Where else might biography-hungry Caribbean readers turn for names, dates, and juicy facts? To the ODNB, as it happens, for its editors have followed the original DNB in defining “national” somewhat loosely, and including many important figures from the Commonwealth, especially those who spent some part of their lives in Britain. There are entries on dozens of colonial governors, soldiers, and adventurers, of course, but you’ll also find a healthy cohort of native sons and daughters, especially from the “Independence generation”. Norman Manley, Grantley Adams, Eric Williams, Eric Gairy, Cheddi Jagan are all in there, alongside writers like C.L.R. James and Andrew Salkey, artists like Ronald Moody and Aubrey Williams, cricketers like Learie Constantine and Frank Worrell, and so on.

But doesn’t it seem a pity that for biographical coverage encompassing the whole region we must turn to a reference work compiled and published in the old Mother Country? Wouldn’t it be nice to have a full-scale national biography of our own? So: a modest proposal. In five years’ time, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago will celebrate fifty years of Independence. Four years later, Barbados and Guyana will reach that milestone, followed by all the now-independent former British West Indian colonies, one by one. No doubt the anniversaries will be marked by parades, speeches, and fireworks, and perhaps even a monument or two. But what better monument than a major scholarly project, funded by a dozen Caribbean governments, drawing on the expertise of our best historians, and recording the history of the region through the lives of its most interesting and noteworthy people? A real Dictionary of Caribbean Biography, crammed with information and written with verve. Two volumes on Jamaica and two on Trinidad and Tobago, one each on Guyana and Barbados, one on the Leewards, one on the Windwards, and one covering the Bahamas, the Turks and Caicos, the Caymans, and Belize — all sturdily bound in shimmering sea-blue.


The Caribbean Review of Books, November 2007