Prof Selwyn Ryan has opened a debate about whether or not
Dr Eric Williams, the countrys first prime minister,
was mentally stable.
In his paper presented at the Caribbean Studies Association
conference in Port-of-Spain, two weeks ago, he said:
Medical practitioners and insiders consulted during
my study disagree sharply about the extent and nature of Williams
One of his doctors advised the author that the Prime
Minister was not a depressive, but that he himself had formed
a judgment that he became paranoid in later life.
Almost all the others consulted were of the view that
he was a depressive.
Some claimed that Williams bipolar problem was
mild, but was aggravated by the problems that he had to face,
and the corrupt behaviour of some of the men who formed part
of his inner circle.
Others strongly disagreed with this diagnosis, and saw it
as part of a lying conspiracy to protect a tribal icon
and a national brand name.
Now that the subject of Williams mental health is being
debated, one must wonder about what else there is to find
out about a man who led this country for 25 years.
In a letter to the Editor of the Sunday Express for June 4,
Prof Courtenay Bartholomew challenges Ryans view about
whether Williams was treated by a psychiatrist. Bartholomew
also goes on to say:
Now, it was a sample of blood taken after his death
that revealed for the first time that he had obviously been
a late onset diabetic without reporting certain tell-tale
symptoms to anyone.
This view would clearly confirm how intensely private Williams
was about himself. With his doctors making a post-mortem discovery
that he was a diabetic would raise all kinds of questions.
However, the most startling aspect of Bartholomews letter
was the final paragraph, which read:
Blood taken after he died revealed that his blood sugar
was 1,600mg. The normal blood sugar is up to 200 mg/dl! It
was, by far, the highest level ever seen by Ince and myself.
He died in a diabetic coma, and his high blood sugar
over his last two years or so would also have slowly and progressively
altered his mental function.
The confirmation that Williams died in a diabetic coma is
provided by Bartholomew, but his statement that Williams
mental function would have been altered over his
last two years would seem to confirm a part of Ryans
thesis that Williams mental health was suspect.
The debate would really be about whether there was a problem
earlier in his life, or whether it would be confined to the
years immediately preceding his death.
The other part of this debate between Ryan and Bartholomew
is the question of whether Williams knew he was a diabetic
or not. Bartholomew clearly states that Williams did not report
the tell-tale symptoms of his diabetes to anyone, and that
he had inadvertently and severely aggravated his condition
(as was discovered later) by drinking glucose drinks, sweetened
daiquiris, and eating ice cream and cake in large quantities
while Ryan argues that Williams was fully aware of his diabetic
condition and refused to medicate himself, thereby suggesting
that Williams committed suicide.
Was his diabetic coma caused through inadvertent or deliberate
Ryan further argues that Williams may have been bipolar, but
diminishes the harshness of such an opinion by saying that
bipolarity is not a character flaw, and that many of
the great men and women of history have been afflicted with
In conceding that Williams had a mental disorder, Ryan walks
a tight line when he suggests that many have argued
that there is a link between charismatic leadership and mental
illness, and that the two are dialectically related.
It is interesting that this debate has emerged during the
50th anniversary year of the formation of the PNM by Eric
It challenges some of the mythical qualities that have been
ascribed to Eric Williams and, indeed, reduces him to the
status of a mere mortal.
There are thousands who ascribed superhuman qualities to Williams
as a strategist, thinker, orator and leader. Does this debate
smash the glass case surrounding those qualities?
The PNM has steered clear of the debate, while Ryan is about
to publish a book on the subject.
His passing comment about the corrupt behaviour of some
of the men who formed part of his inner circle has not
drawn any response, but it is significant.
One wonders whether Ryan is making a general comment or is
hinting at something more substantial.
Ryan provides his audience with a view that suggests Williams
was mentally ill almost from the time that he captured power.
His wide-ranging research embraces the early period of PNM
rule through his references to the views of Dr Winston Mahabir,
who served in the first PNM Cabinet, and Sir Solomon Hochoy,
who was Colonial Secretary, then Governor and then Governor-General.
He continues through the years of PNM rule by offering opinions
from Sir Ellis Clarke and ANR Robinson that suggest a man
whose moods were not stable.
Indeed, the opinions of Norman Manley and a former British
High Commissioner to T&T, Norman Costar, were included
in his paper to provide some consistency with the other views
This tremendous fascination with Eric Williams continues to
this day, primarily because there was so much mystique that
surrounded him, even in death.
Ryan is, indeed, mortalising Eric Williams. However,
he may have started a firestorm over the issue of Williams
being mentally ill.