Today marks the beginning of Black History Month 2012 and in honor of our black stories, we at JAYBLESSED.com have decided to put a spin on the month of February by featuring Caribbean men and women who have made an indelible mark on world history.
For every day in February, we will feature one Caribbean person and their brief story in our version of Black History Month.
To kick it off, we celebrate the God-father of the Caribbean – The Honorable Dr. Eric Williams
Eric Eustace Williams (25 September 1911 – 29 March 1981) served as the first Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago. He served from 1956 until his death in 1981. Dr. Williams was a gifted athlete, a noted Caribbean historian, author, politician, widely regarded as “The Father of The Nation” and “God-Father of the Caribbean.” Williams was a highly complex and controversial figure in Trinidad and Tobago and the Caribbean – revered in some quarters, vilified in others. He is best known for leading Trinidad and Tobago to Independence in 1962.
Eric Williams was the son of Thomas Henry Williams, a minor Post Office official in Trinidad and Tobago, and Eliza Williams, a homemaker, a poor relative of the de Boissières, a white and coloured French creole family in Trinidad. Eric was the eldest of twelve children. He won a College Exhibition, giving him access to free secondary education at Queen’s Royal College in Trinidad, and then won an Island Scholarship to Oxford University in the UK. At Oxford, he placed first in the First Class of the History Honours School and later received his Doctor of Philosophy degree in 1938. His doctoral thesis focused on The Economic Aspects of the Abolition of the Slave Trade and West Indian Slavery (1938), which was the basis for Capitalism and Slavery (University of North Carolina, 1944): a controversial and pioneering work establishing the economic contribution of enslavement to Britain’s development and emphasising the economic rather than humanitarian reasons for the abolition of slavery and the slave trade.
In 1939, Dr. Williams migrated to the United States to teach at Howard University. He became an assistant professor of social and political sciences. While in the United States, he wrote The Negro in the Caribbean (Washington, DC: Associates in Negro Folk Education, 1942) and Education in the British West Indies (Port of Spain: Guardian Commercial Printery, 1950). In addition to teaching full-time at Howard, he began to work as a consultant to the Anglo-American Caribbean Commission, an international organisation established after World War II to study the future of the region. In 1948, Dr. Williams left Howard to work as Deputy Chairman of the Commission’s Caribbean Research Council, leaving behind his wife Elsie and children Alistair and Pamela in Washington DC. After some time in Trinidad, he met Soy Suilan Moyou, a typist at the Commission. They travelled to Reno, Nevada, where he divorced his first wife Elsie and married Soy. Shortly after, Soy gave birth to his youngest daughter, Erica. However, before their daughter’s third birthday, Soy fell ill and died suddenly.
While at the Caribbean Commission – where he was very dissatisfied – Williams embarked on a public education campaign supported by the Teacher’s Education and Cultural Association (TECA) and the Political Education Group (PEG), which, in time, became the Political Education Movement (PEM). With the support of PEM, and members of his former study group, the Bachacs, Dr. Williams publicly declared his entry into politics in his speech My Relations with the Caribbean Commission (1955) in Woodford Square. A year later, he joined members of PEM in forming the People’s National Movement (PNM), and was made the Party’s first political leader. In September 1956, the PNM won the national elections and he became the Chief Minister of the country from 1956 to 1959, and Premier from 1959 to 1962. In 1962, after the failure of West Indian Federation, he led Trinidad and Tobago to independence from Britain.
As Prime Minister of an independent Trinidad and Tobago, Dr. Williams faced many challenges, including industrial conflict, global unrest, and the ongoing impact of colonial hierarchies and neo-colonial economic policies. These led to the Black Power Movement of 1970, the threat of nation-wide strikes, Dr. Williams’ announcement of a State of Emergency, and a short-lived mutiny in the army. The following year, the opposition parties led a No-Vote Campaign, which resulted in the PNM winning all 36 seats in the House of Representatives.
However, in the face of public criticism and contestations within the PNM, Dr. Williams resigned in 1973. In a controversial move within the party, he was reinstated as Party leader by the end of the year. In the months before Dr. Williams withdrew his resignation, Trinidad and Tobago began benefitting from an international rise in oil prices, ushering in an oil boom that enabled him to implement several post-Black Power reforms of the economy: a “national reconstruction” programme that included a lucrative steel, gas, and petrochemical industry with significant State ownership, including the construction of the Point Lisas Industrial Estate. However the oil boom also brought criticism from some quarters for the rapid industrial development of the country, as well as allegations of corruption against certain PNM Ministers. By the end of the 70s, with the oil boom ending, there was increasing labour unrest.
Dr. Williams withdrew increasingly from the public eye. On his last day in Parliament, he left the Chamber early because of illness. That weekend, he grew rapidly more ill. And on Sunday March 29, 1981, Eric Williams died in office as the country’s first Prime Minister. It was later revealed that he was diabetic and had died in a diabetic coma. Often called the “Father of the Nation,” Dr. Williams remains a defining leader in the history of Trinidad and Tobago and the Caribbean.
The Eric Williams Memorial Collection (EWMC) at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad and Tobago was inaugurated in 1998 by former US Secretary of State Colin Powell. In 1999, it was named to UNESCO’s prestigious Memory of the World Register. Secretary Powell heralded Dr. Williams as a tireless warrior in the battle against colonialism, and for his many other achievements as a scholar, politician and international statesman.
Here are few books written by Dr. Eric Williams:
His autobiography - Inward Hunger
The Negro in the Caribbean (Washington, DC: Associates in Negro Folk Education, 1942)
Capitalism and Slavery (University of North Carolina, 1944)
Education in the British West Indies (Port of Spain: Guardian Commercial Printery, 1950)
This year Trinidad and Tobago celebrates it’s 50th anniversary of Independence. View Dr. Eric Williams, the first Prime Minister, as he addresses the country on it’s first Independence.
On September 25th, 2011, the world celebrated the 100th anniversary of his birth.
For more in formation on Dr Eric Williams, contact the Eric Williams Memorial Collection and Museum at The Alma Jordan Library, The University of the West Indies, St Augustine Campus.