He had been born Alphonso Philbert Theophilus James at Patience Hill in Tobago in 1901. He went to the Roman Catholic School in the village and worked in his stepfather’s garden. The Tobago in which he grew up in still lingered in the 19th century twilight, and the bashful giant of a boy, in search of a little more education had to fit in as a ‘pupil teacher’, gleaning what he could in the fields of knowledge by being around the more educated, the more self-assured. Copies of the Port of Spain Gazette, sometimes weeks old, found their way into the hands of the young man at Patience Hill.
The year was 1919. Trinidad and Tobago’s contingents were returning from the wars in Europe. The air was full of stories of the adventurous tales of foreign travel, far away places with strange sounding names. With the money he had saved, the furthest James could travel was to Trinidad. Jobs such as they were, were in the oil belt, and he journeyed south to see what he could get. From tranquil Tobago he soon found himself in the turmoil of Trinidad of the 1920s. The men who had come home from the trenches had seen the great leveler of war at work. For them, the stereotype of master and servant in terms of skin colour was gone. The word ‘socialist’ had entered the lexicon of terms of the common man. The repatriation of men who had worked on the Panama Canal brought the flash and spending of ready cash to the eyes of some who had only known the large silver coins of the British empire, and the almost square low denominations of the Colonial Bank. The spread of Garvey’s ideas amongst the working class, the influence of the ‘Left Book Club’, and the emergence of the new papers such as ‘The Beacon’ and the ‘Teacher’s Journal;’ all made for the quickening of political consciousness.
A.P.T. James landed a job as a stevedore at Brighton Lake Asphalt. He lived at ‘quarters’ for government workers in the ‘New Jersey’ area. The iron grip of the Great Depression had found its way to Trinidad by the late 1920s. There was generally a fall in wages, retrenchment and a steady rise in cost of living. ‘Black Pride’ was heightened by the news of the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. In the boxing ring, Joe Lewis’ triumph over Max Baer and Primo Carnera in that year was seen as victories for the black man. James aligned himself first with Captain Arthur Cipriani and the Workingmen’s Association, and eventually with the Federated Workers Trade Union (F.W.T.U.) under the guidance of Albert Gomes and Quintin O’Connor. He worked for the union and established branch office at La Brea.
James represented not only stevedores, but oilfield workers on the whole. His energy was tremendous, and his charisma attracted people to him.
He made money and spent it. Women loved him. His vanity was not his greatest charm. He had married his village sweetheart before leaving to seek his fortune, and did not fail to support her, but his life’s path now took him far afield. He got a divorce and subsequently remarried ‘a La Brea girl’.
James’ involvement with the labour movement of the time did not hinder his enterprising spirit. In 1941, he won a contract to supply labour to the oil fields. He became a stevedore contractor during the war years and worked from his office at 47 Henry Street in Port of Spain. The harbour of the city and at Brighton was the hub for all transatlantic shipping originating in the south Atlantic. The convoys of merchant men came and went despite the ongoing threat of submarine attacks. Port of Spain in the war years had assumed for the gentlefolk of the town, an astounding character. Thousands of American army personnel thronged its streets. Gangsterism, unknown before, dominated gambling and prostitution. Men like Boysie Singh controlled the city, our very own home-grown murder incorporated!
A.P.T. James made a fortune. He also made a lot of children. He limed in the Chinese shop at La Brea playing checkers. He often won back from his workers what he had only just paid them. But he was generous and as people said “His loans were very soft”. James bought property, houses, an estate, a hotel. He bought land in Tobago and his friends and relatives were allowed to build homes on it.
He owned thoroughbred race horses and financially supported many trade unions, paying their bills and the salaries of the executive. His contribution to the Democratic Labour Party was such that it was rumoured that he had financed their campaign in 1961. Andre Philips, who wrote a short biography on A.P.T. James in 1993, recounts that James in the company of his friends attended a ‘social’ fete in Port of Spain when the barman refused his ‘black friends’ at the bar. James bought the whole bar for them. His hard work and common touch in Tobago earned him a seat on the Legislative Council in 1946. He would be returned in two subsequent elections in 1950 and 1956, until in 1961, when he lost to the P.N.M.
In the Legislative Council, he acted as deputy leader of the opposition, when Bhadase Sagan Maraj was away. He served the Butler Party, the Caribbean Socialist Party, the Trinidad Labour Party and the D.L.P.
It was under the banner of the Butler Party that Fargo along with Timothy Roodal and Chanka Maraj sat in the expanded legislature of 12 elected members. James became a deputy leader of the party during Butler’s incarceration in the 1940s. Their relationship, however, soured, and James allied himself with Dr. Patrick Solomon’s Caribbean Socialist Party. His contemporaries were ... Victor Bryan, ... Norman James, musician Raymond Quevedo (‘Attila the Hun’), .. Ray Joseph and ... Dr. David Pitt.
James worked for Tobago like no one had ever done before. Carlton Ottley wrote:
“Tobago neglect was halted to a minor extent when there appeared on the scene a Tobagonian who deserves honour in the island’s hall of fame.”
Andre Phillips concludes his paper on A.P.T.:
“Alphonso P.T. James died of a stroke on January 5, 1962, after a seven hour long struggle for survival, only a month after the elections. As he lived, so did he die - a fighter to the end.”
Fargo A.P.T. James is today, like so many others in this country that is made up of people with incredible short memories, an almost unknown figure. Ridiculed by those who came later, his memory is maintained only by a handful of friends and relatives. This is a great shame, because now, at this time, we are in need of heroes, role models to point the way, to say to young people: “Watch me, I did this, all this, my way.”