Dr. Eric Eustace Williams founded the ‘People’s National Movement’ in the early 1950s. History could argue that both he and the political party that dominated Trinidad and Tobago for almost half a century had its roots ultimately in the French and Patois speaking, free coloured intelligentsia of pre-emancipation days and in the Afro-Franco reform movements of the later 19th century. These came into existence largely as a reaction to British Crown Colony rule. Was this the genesis of party politics along racial lines? That these 19th century ‘movements’ did not include the slowly arriving Indians, whose indentureship kept them on the estates and whose way of life ensured that they remained rural, that this isolation was encouraged by the colonial government and the planters lobby even after 1917?
During this period of indentureship and in the years that followed immediately after, significant leaders on the political stage did not come forward from the Indian community. Dr. Kusha Harraksingh attempts a definition of Indian leadership in the indentureship period, which was published in Caribbean Issues, Dec. 1976 (see pages 36 - 37), where he describes that with immigration to Trinidad, hereditary patterns of authority in family, caste and village were removed and institutional leaders like drivers and shopkeepers stepped into that vacuum, influencing the behaviour of other Indians.
“On the estates, the emergence of people as leaders purely on the basis of personal qualities was rendered difficult by a number of factors which generally coalesced in the atmosphere of coercion which pervaded the system. In reality, the estate managers chose the leaders they wanted and tried to ensure that no other worker achieved prominence as a person with influence. The Indians were always operating at a loss.”
Indian leadership seems to have operated through extended families, religious life and through the trade unions, producing personalities such as Sarran Teelucksingh and Ajodhasingh by the 1930s.
There is a real need to understand these 19th century reformists, what was achieved by them, the legacy that they have left behind and the people who took up the challenge.
J. B. Philippe, who may be described as the first reformist to challenge the British government’s policy in Trinidad in the 1820s, provided leadership with regard to racial prejudice directed at the ‘free blacks and people of colour’ by the Woodford administration, but he was not promoting the liberation of slaves.
The reformists of the second half of the 19th century sought a franchise that would eventually produce a freely elected legislature. They did not lobby for independence, however. They did however oppose indentureship. The arguments of politicians like Sir Henry Alcazar, C. Preudhomme David, Stephen Laurence and others, and of the newspapers such as ‘New Era’ and organisations like The Workingman’s Association, led to the Commissions of Inquiry to investigate indentureship. They rejected the idea that Indian immigration led to unemployment. Already by 1909 the reformists’ positions were hardening.
The chosen slogan for the reformist movement in 1870 was ‘Trinidad for Trinidadians’, meaning black, mixed and French creoles - the creole-born Trinidadians. Indians, however, were seen as transients. Trinidadians were dissatisfied with the British administration’s incompetent and high-handed officials and extravagant spending. The reformists felt that the use of public funds should be monitored by the representative in the Legislative Council, elected by tax payers. They felt strongly that local people with the right qualifications should man the upper levels of the Civil Service. Many of the reformists were either black people or coloured descendants of the free blacks of pre-emancipation days, and these were the people who should be elected. Sir F. Napier Broome, governor from 1891 to 1897, described them as “a middle class upheaval” and saw them as a bunch of lawyers and businessmen who were seeking out their own interests.
Leadership was provided during the 1880s by Phillip Rostant, a French creole, who during his education in Ireland had taken part in Irish radical politics against British occupation in Ireland. He knew the power of mass meetings and understood how the British government would react to huge petitions containing 5,000 signatures. He was however compromised by his heritage. He was descended from the nobility of the Bourbonnais and held a deep respect for the property rights. Rostant could not bring himself to offer the vote to all people. He felt that the vote should be given to the people who were able to understand the responsibilities of citizenship. But as a French creole, he shared in common with the black intellectuals a dislike and distaste for the British administration. He was anti-colonial and he demonstrated that he could organize public support dramatically. This upset and startled the planters, however, who felt threatened that the working class was listening to the beat of another drum, particularly as the drummer was one of there own.
The black leadership that succeeded Rostant was more moderate. They perhaps had more to lose. Sir Henry Alcazar, a lawyer with a strong grasp of local politics, was on one hand ‘black enough’ to be accepted by the working class, and on the other sufficiently brilliant as a thinker and as a speaker to command the respect of the British administration. Alcazar was able to put it plainly in saying “it had not been proposed to place power in the hand of the working class, but only in those of the wealthier middle class.”
It is out of this struggle for self-determination, framed in nationalistic sentiment, that the baton was passed to Captain Arthur André Cipriani, who in turn supported ‘the barefoot man’ and went the next step to put back-bone into the new-born trade union movement, the Trinidad Workingman’s Association, itself a product of the reformists. Cipriani was however compromised by the fact that he was, like his predecessors, a loyal colonial and not a revolutionary. Challenged in his old age by the young, vigorous, out-spoken and ‘man of the people’ Portuguese politician, intellectual and trade unionist Albert Gomes, Cipriani faded from the stage of local politics.
The Gomes years, important to the development of nationalism, stretching from the middle 1930s to the early 1960s, were the period when middle-class trade unionists were allowed to play at politics by the Colonial Office. The ministerial government brought together Gomes, Roy Joseph, Norman Tang, Victor Brian and Ajodhasingh, the ‘Knox Street Quintet’. “We had all been elected to the Legislature,” said Albert Gomes, “from different party platforms and one of us even had socialist aims.” Playing at politics with no real agenda, this representation, meager as it was, had been hard-won with blood in Fyzabad and Apex in 1937, and in the Water riots of 1903, and the Canboulay and Hosay riots in the 1870s. Gomes, according to Owen Baptiste in his work on Cyril Duprey, “slammed the door on trade unionism when he joined the executive council of Sir Bede Clifford, governor in 1946. A year later, he was surprised to see that he had lost the seat in the city council that he had held since 1938. He no longer possessed the support of the working class.”
And this is where Eric Williams appeared on the scene. He was doubtlessly the inheritor of the Afro French creole intelligentsia of the previous century, he proved himself eminent in scholarship, in debate and his command of language. He possessed the common touch, was arrogant enough to deal with both the British and French creole establishment. He was the locus of the entire French/African colonial process. His stature was messianic. What he said, what he did in those formative years are cast, to this day, in iron, immutable, or so it would appear.
Dr. Williams took advantage of the post-war disenchantment of the ‘Gomes government’ and its loss of working class support. But he was now not alone in terms of locally-grown ‘genius’. The first generation of significant Indian leaders on a national level was defining its role on the political scene. The Capildeo brothers, Lionel Seukaran, Mitra Sinanan, Badase Maraj and others ranged from the local estate life and rural politics on through to the Legislative Council in the Red House. An opposition in the waiting.
Was Williams a revolutionary? No, he was a colonial. Did he continue the reform movement? In launching the People’s National Movement in 1956 he said, “you ignored the warnings” and went on to describe the then government as former “leaders of labour who have now become leaders against labour”. Williams attracted black middle-class professionals and the black working class. The PNM, he assured them, would not be a labour party. History may well pose the question whether it was a version of the reformist party in the mid-20th century, a nationalist party, a socialist party? Fact is that in 1956, the PNM found its most formidable opponent in Badase Sagan Maraj’s PDP. Williams emerged victorious with 39% of the vote and 13 of the 24 seats. The PDP won five seats and 20.3% of the vote. The Butler party won two seats and Gomes was annihilated. The era of party politics had begun.