Friday 2nd June, 2006


Wesley George

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A legacy of greatness

The passing of Dr Eric Williams on March 29, 1981, brought to an end an era in the history of our nation. Dr Williams’ legacy is everything but a memory as it continues to thrive on in the psyche of his party (the PNM), the nation and the Caribbean region.

To many of us born after his passing, Dr Williams was the man who led the country to independence but most of us fail to appreciate him and understand the legacy he has left us. It is only when we are made aware of the challenges he had to overcome, can we really appreciate the gift he has left us today.

His childhood

Dr Williams was born on September 25, 1911, the son of a minor civil servant. He was the eldest of 11 children. His childhood was no different from his peers at the time. Being the eldest he had responsibility for selling his mother cakes in the neighbourhood every morning before going to school.

He attended Queen’s Royal College in Port-of-Spain. He was always very neat in his attire and sported a centre path hairstyle which was popular in those days. He also excelled in academics, so much so that he won an island scholarship in 1932, which allowed him to attend Oxford University in England.

Dr Williams the scholar

At Oxford, Dr Williams placed first in the first class of the History Honours School and received his Doctor of Philosophy degree in 1938. In 1939, he accepted a position at Howard University in the US as an assistant professor of social and political sciences and organised several courses, especially a humanities course for which he developed a three-volume work called Documents Illustrating the Development of Civilisation.

After becoming a full professor in 1947, Dr Williams was appointed to the Angelo-American Caribbean Commission, a body set up after World War II to study the future of the region. He left Howard to head the Research Branch of the commission. After disagreements between himself and the commission in 1955, Dr Williams resigned in protest against its “crypto-colonialist policies” and returned to Trinidad.

From his time at Oxford to his resignation from the commission, Dr Williams delivered a series of educational lectures and wrote several books and theses for which he became famous, such as The Economic Aspect of the West Indian Slave Trade and Capitalism and Slavery.

He was internationally recognised as a major scholar and is acknowledged as one of the fathers of regional integration.

Dr Williams the man

Dr Williams was a larger than life figure and a winner. He also had his frailties. One of them was relationships, according to a former Cabinet minister who was close to him in the early years of the party. He claimed Dr Williams always had problems with love relationships.

It is reported that during Dr Williams’ stormy marriage to his first wife, the former Elsie Ribiero, a Portuguese woman from St Vincent, the man who had an unenviable reputation for intimidating cabinet ministers, party members, relatives and servants and just about everybody, was routinely dominated by his no-nonsense wife.

His second marriage, unfortunately, ended with the early death of his wife, the former Euline Moyou. A secret wedding to Frederick Street dentist Mayleen Mook Sang in 1959 did not last longer than the proverbial Red House fire.

It was reported that Dr Williams was a bit difficult to get along with at times and sometimes insisted on having his own way. In the Caribbean, he was not on speaking terms with Barbadian leader Errol Barrow. He was a very outspoken and to-the-point person and his treatment of the press was no different, his acid tongue often humiliating newsmen.

Dr Williams the politician

On January 15, 1956, Dr Williams inaugurated his own political party, the People’s National Movement. Until this his campaign of lectures had been carried out under the auspices of the Political Education Movement, a branch of the Teachers Education and Cultural Association.

The PNM’s first document was its constitution. Unlike the other political parties of the time, the PNM was a highly organised hierarchical body.

Dr Williams’ political astuteness ensured the party victory at the polls only eight months after becoming a party, winning 13 out 24 elected seats and defeating six of 16 incumbents that ran for re-election.

After becoming chief minister, Dr Williams was instrumental in the formation of the West Indies Federation along with Norman Manley and Sir Alexander Bustamante both from Jamaica.

The 1961 elections gave the PNM 57 per cent of the votes and 20 of 30 seats. This two-thirds majority allowed the government to draft the independence constitution without input from the then opposition DLP. However, independence was blocked by the DLP until Dr Williams was able to make a deal with Opposition Leader Rud-ranath Capildeo and T&T became independent on August 31, 1962.

In conclusion

Dr Williams was a statesman who somehow found the time to write books and build the PNM into an impregnable political force. He was an excellent communicator, fascinating the masses with his oratory, addressing his peers at Oxford in Latin or impressing them with his brilliant discourses.

He had his faults and his idiosyncrasies which did not dilute his enormous success as a politician or perceived greatness as a statesman. His distinctive monotone hearing aid, which was food for comedians, will remain forever with those who lived in his era.

Wesley George is the education officer of the PNM National Youth League





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