This study deals with the complex issues of race, history and politics in Caribbean society.
In its first part, “François Besson”, it examines the fortunes of a French creole family between the mid-18th and early 20th centuries, and describes their experiences against the backdrop of the social and political conflicts occasioned by the excesses of plantation slavery and the upheavals of the French revolution. It looks at Julien Fédon’s revolution of 1795 in Grenada, examines the nature of the relationship between master and slave, the children of these unions, and the deadly divisions that were at times engendered as a result of the custom of the plaçage (concubinage), causing ‘victors’ or ‘victims’ of “The Cult of the Will” to emerge; thus influencing at times the destiny of these islands. The second part of the book, “Eric Williams”, studies the manner in which an historian-turned-politician, tragically afflicted by “The Cult of the Will” and perhaps convinced that history is destiny, used, in Trinidad and Tobago, the politics of inherited guilt and inherited victimhood to create scapegoats in an attempt to assuage his “Inward Hunger”, while making clever use of ‘Black Nationalism’ that was becoming popular in the 1950s.
Revisionist in its scope, this book undertakes to change our understanding of the past, so that we may create a more useful future. It examines the points in time when the historical narratives of the country changed, occasioned by a shift in moral values, bringing about a different interpretation of its history. It ponders the question whether the presidency of Barack Obama may mark the end of the Eric Williams narrative of victimhood, scapegoating and irresponsibility as expressed in its politics, and herald the start of a new, New World narrative endowed with empowerment and responsibility.
Reviews of The Cult of the Will:
How Rookery Nook came to be named
Review of ‘The Cult of the Will’ By Gerard A Besson, Paria Publishing, 2010
Published: Trinidad Guardian 13 June 2010, no longer posted on the Guardian website, read article below
Before reading this book, one needs to familiarise oneself with three concepts that continuously inform the writing. These are “the narrative,” “plaçage” and “the cult of the will.” These concepts become clear by the time one reaches the second part of the book, but they should have been explained at the beginning. “Narrative” in this text is not mere narration; it is not just a recounting of the French Creole and the Afro-French Creole past, but rather the spin that is put to that recalling. Narrative here means who is included and who is excluded, and the book deals at length with the consequences of that deliberately-created narrative. It is the argument of this book that Eric Williams, the historian, tailored his narrative to exclude or underplay the role of major contributions to the creation of Trinbago.
“Plaçage” refers to the high incidence of concubinage practised by European merchants, planters, military men, civil officials and the motley crowd of adventurers who came to this side of the water where European women were in very short supply, and took full advantage of slave women over whom they had total control. Later on, they pounced on the mixed-race, coloured women produced by these first encounters. Quite often, these coloured offspring were invited to share their fathers’ houses alongside his legitimate children, to be cared for by the lawful wife. There was little effort to hide placage. Besson recounts the case of John Nicholas Boissiere, who had married a woman of colour with whom he had several children, living in a posh home opposite his father’s mansion at Champs Elysées in Maraval.
In this abode, his outside, plaçage children also lived, and when some local wags commented on the number of crows (blacks) who lived in this rookery, his response was to name the residence “Rookery Nook,” which name the place proudly bears to this day. The third term that requires explanation is “the cult of the will,” which derives from the practice of plaçage. In the tangled history of the Caribbean, where paternity was often disputed, the offspring of these macho men faced an uncertain future. The will became a major determinant of either a good start in life or the prospect of abandonment. Those who were favourably treated in the will could go on to live a comfortable life, but those who were not had to paddle their own canoe in a society where skin colour and/or the kind of hair were major criteria of social and economic mobility.
Even so, being included in the will did not mean that benefits could be reaped. Besson argues that Eric Williams’ forebears, coming from this Afro-French Creole stream, were twice denied benefits that should have accrued to them by ancestors who did not consider them deserving of any patrimony. Such deprivation forced Eric’s parents into a penurious living, and this impacted negatively on the young man. Williams, the historian, made frequent references to his parents’ strained circumstances, and this sense of victimhood became a major feature of his writing, as well as his political philosophy. The cult of the will, therefore, which determined who benefited and who did not, forms a major theme of Bessons’ work. The book is divided into two parts. Part one is a carefully-gathered genealogy in which the saga of the Besson dynasty is painstakingly traced, beginning 1,000 years ago with the establishment of a church at Besson in the Auvergne region in France.
The research is thorough; the author was able to locate authentic documents in France, in England and in Grenada, and to organise this diverse material into a coherent narrative. He gives reasons for the Bessons’ migration from France to the Caribbean. In the wake of the French Revolution, Royalists fled to Santo Domingo and to the southern Caribbean, particularly to Grenada. Under the Cedula of Population (1783), hundreds of French settlers migrated to a sparsely-settled Trinidad. François Besson was one of these, and in 1788 he received a grant of 256 acres in South Naparima. Within a few years, he was able to acquire La Romaine, La Fortunée and Bellevue (at Guapo) where, with his many slaves, he prospered. Buoyed up by this mini-empire, François moved north to Port-of-Spain, acquiring a number of prime properties, including one at Besson Street, where his descendants lived, up to the 1920s.
This prosperity continued until the second half of the 19th century, when the depression of the sugar industry hit the French Creoles hard. Some lost their properties or had to sell cheaply to the English investors, and others went into the cocoa industry. The first part of the book contains much detailed information on the fortunes of the French and French Creole settlers and the accompanying miscegenation, which spawned the Afro-French Creole segment. It tells of their spreading influence everywhere, even as far as Mayaro. It is a micro-study that complements the exacting macro-studies, providing hard evidence that supplements the general, known framework. Many of the pictures are published for the first time, and these are embellished by the family trees that can be of use for people whose ancestry derives from the French Creole input.
The copies of wills that form the appendices are treasure troves of information. These wills emphasise the importance of the cult of the will. The second part of the book, one suspects, will be of major interest to most readers. For it is in this section that Besson’s thesis is expostulated. He sees an aggressive streak in the male offspring of plaçage, evident, for example, in the mixed-race Grenadian revolutionary Fedon, who led a bitterly-fought uprising against European domination in Grenada in 1795. That rebellious spirit is later transferred to Trinidad, and is manifested in the rise of a number of people of colour who rise to positions of eminence here. Eric Williams, as a 20th-century descendant of that Afro-French Creole matrix, falls within that same tradition.
As a student in England, he came under the influence of the black nationalist CLR James, who impressed on his mind that revolutionary tendency in the leaders of the Haitian revolution, so passionately espoused in James’ The Black Jacobins. Besson believes that Williams combined these elements of thought with his own personal sense of victimhood, evidenced by his family’s excision from the cult of the will, to create an ideology based on righting the wrongs visited upon Caribbean people. Thus, when he gave us the slogan, “Massa Day Done,” he was indicating that all of the remaining descendants of the Europeans must take note of the new reality. The term “French Creole” now meant all persons of European descent, without regard to their actual ancestry. By the same token, Besson argues, East Indians were no more than marginal in Williams’ calculation.
For this reason, they are virtually excluded from the Eric Williams narrative. They are no more than peripheral to the story of our development. This theme, the major thesis of The Cult of the Will, is, to say the least, highly-controversial, and will no doubt be the subject of intense scrutiny over the next few decades. It is a major addition to the Williams debate, not to be dismissed lightly. So what does one make of the book as a whole? The first part is a compendium of carefully-gathered information, detailing a major hitherto unwritten dimension of our history. The cultural and economic contributions of the French Creole and Afro-French Creole community is detailed, and we learn much of their social life and interactions with the larger society.
This useful introduction then leads us into the second part, which deals with Williams’ transference of his own historical hurt into his writing of history and into his practice of politics. Because of the decisive role of politics in small societies such as ours, that assertion of personal pain into the business of governance has had damaging consequences on our efforts to create unity and productivity out of our diversity. The book argues that diversity was used to create division rather than harmony. The Cult of the Will now seeks to add that broad group who are called French Creole into the discourse, so that there can be greater balance in the chronicle of our nation. The book is, therefore, a welcome addition to the literature of development, and must now be included in our national dialogue.
Newsday, Sunday, July 25 2010
A Review by Dr John La Guerre
The Cult of the Will By Gerard Besson Paria Publishing Co. Port-of-Spain, Trinidad The Cult of the Will by Gerard Besson is a most welcome, timely and useful book at this juncture of our history, for it comes at a time when epochal and dramatic changes are taking place ushering in, it seems, yet another ‘narrative’ in the unfolding development of Trinidad and Tobago, as groups supersede one another as dominant forces in the evolution of the society and state. The main concern of the book is to debunk a ‘narrative’ in which the European-descended, or those appearing that way – Trinidadians all – were made scapegoats for injustices of the past by the politics of the Williams ‘narrative’. Besson writes, “The notion of inherited guilt is, however, fundamentally wrong, morally unjustified and distinctly unscientific. Collective guilt is a basic fallacy of Marxism, which denies the individual of importance, only seeing him or her as a member of a class. It also seeks to condone racism, and to convey the notion that it is alright to alienate Indians and hate white people in general and French Creoles in particular.” (p234) Besson’s book is accordingly an exploration of the progression and trajectory of race relations from the time of the conquest, through early colonisation and into independence. It thus follows on earlier explorations in the French Caribbean by Kovats-Beaulieu, in her work Les Blancs Crèoles de la Martinique, Souquet-Basiege in his work Le Prèjuge de Race aux Antilles Franáaise, Brereton in the case of Trinidad in her book “Race Relations in Trinidad” as well as Maingot’s thesis on the French creoles. Besson’s book, however, is the first by a local white in recent times to speak out and comment directly on the various ‘narratives’ on offer over the years. Clearly the time for assessment has come and his book must accordingly be read as a contribution to that assessment. Apart from Fr de Verteuil and Mrs Franco, the persons who are perceived as whites have been conspicuously absent from the debates on race relations over the years. It is possible that the treatment of Albert Gomes in and after 1956, or that of the McArthys at Sangre Grande during the incidents of 1970, induced them to retreat into near oblivion. Yet as every student will understand, race relations are essentially about tribalism and there is a tendency for all tribes to make scapegoats of others. This is essentially a defence mechanism by one group against the other. It is now commonplace to recognise that no race or tribe has a monopoly of virtue and that all groups will have their heroes and their villains. Nor is it fair to judge the actions of a particular century by standardising the values of the 20th or 21st. Life is universally regarded as morally sacred but different cultures have displayed differing treatment of life over the centuries. The Cult of the Will, more importantly, shows how inheritance of property plays an important role in keeping families together, and also how the shortage of European women, particularly among the French, led to mÈtissage and the rise of a mulatto class. That class was to play an important role in the various challenges to the social and political order over the years. Besson has also enlightened us on the extent to which the early French settler class originated from Grenada and the extent to which the development of the cocoa industry depended on them. They too were some of the early pioneers in the economic development of Trinidad and Tobago. Indeed it is well to recall that it was French, British and Spanish capital along with Amerindian, African and Indian labour that developed Trinidad and Tobago. Yet the French, like the African, Indian and other groups, encountered their share of discrimination. Then as now there was a pecking order. The English discriminated against the French and both discriminated against the Indians and Africans. Africans discriminated against Indians who reciprocated in their own way. The house slave discriminated against the field slave, free against unfree, large slave owners against petit blancs. Colonial society clearly had its subtleties and various gradations of discrimination. As the Trinidadian sociologist Braithwaite reminded us in his pioneering work in Social Stratification in Trinidad and Tobago, it was this subtle discrimination, based on the values of colour and status, which held the society together. Indeed some of the lasting legacies of colonial rule was the enthronement of colour and status. White slave owners discriminated against black slave owners. Colour became an addiction that was impossible to eradicate. It ensnared all, even the advocates of Black Power who showed a preference for lighter skins. Some of the discrimination to which Besson points was inherent in the system of colonial rule, based as it was on superordination and subordination. The Indians who came to Trinidad were already prepared for some of these distinctions by their experiences of caste in India. Besson, however, recognises that some of the more perceptive critics of the Williams “narrative” were themselves African-descended, like Laurence, Rohlehr and Goveia. That “narrative” could also be seen, not as a failure to inherit, but as the behaviour of the “marginal personality”. Dickie-Clark has employed this concept drawn from psychology to illuminate the behaviour of a number of challengers to existing social and political orders. According to Dickie-Clark, the “marginal man” or “marginal personality”, is one who is never properly integrated within a culture or a society. They are persons who face rejection by one group or another. Thus Jews, half-castes, mulattoes and other minority groups are prone to radical behaviour, because psychic integration is impossible for them. Thus, like “Mohamet’s coffin”, they remain suspended in mid-air, prone to move in one way or the other, or to take in at short notice. Williams clearly falls within this category as the various biographical studies so far make clear. Plural societies tend to produce such types. Besson is rightly concerned with the legacy of the Williams era and its “narrative”. For Besson, it has bequeathed us the”gimme gimme” and dependency syndromes. It must be recalled, however, that slavery also produced a dependency syndrome. The master was required to provide appropriate accommodation, meet medical expenses and provide provision grounds and holidays. Indentureship continued the tradition, so that the Williams’ contribution was just one factor. The party system of government also has a role to play as well as ideologies from abroad. As parties compete for votes they tend to out-promise each other. The Williams narrative and accompanying policies did have its positive as well as negative side, and Besson does acknowledge some of them with regard to the private sector. As for scapegoats, this was the favourite pastime of most colonial politicians. In Africa, the Caribbean and elsewhere the politicians begged for power from their colonial masters. Nkrumah urged his followers “Seek ye first the political kingdom and all other things will be added unto you”. To achieve power they could not put blame where it rightly lay. So external and phantom enemies had to be constructed. As Fanon clearly argued, during the early 60s the nationalists with their cries of redemption, statehood and racism merely wanted to step in the settlers’ shoes and relax in the verandahs of their bungalows. Nor must we forget that Singapore and Hong Kong at one time were colonies of Britain, and that China was also one time a colony of Japan. Politicians in their thirst for power recognised that race was a powerful weapon because it appealed to a very basic ingredient of identity. This is why in the whole of the Caribbean it is employed largely in Trinidad and Guyana for political traction. Williams or his handlers used it where they did because it made political capital at the time. It is true that Williams was preoccupied with slavery and became a slave of slavery. Yet this is the curse of those who do serious PhDs on social and political topics. They become colonised by their theses and spend the rest of their lives delving deeper and deeper on their chosen topic. The idea of inheritance is nevertheless a useful construct by which to understand the changing nature of race relations in Trinidad and Tobago. Besson has undoubtedly written a useful book. It is to be hoped that it will encourage others who now remain in self-imposed exile to have their say and illuminate our history, which is after all about the history of all the groups and persons who have contributed to the development of Trinidad and Tobago.
by Prof. Selwyn Ryan (Trinidad Express 4 July 2010)
It is perhaps a coincidence that the publication of Gerard Besson's controversial book, The Cult of the Will, should occur at the same time as the defeat of the People's National Movement (PNM) in the recently concluded general elections. The book is also being outdoored at a time—Friday 9—when the Eric Williams Memorial Lecture is scheduled to be delivered at the Central Bank. One of the basic arguments of the book is that Eric Williams and the PNM are "dead" or, if not, deserve to be. The book consists of two basic parts. The first deals with rise and fall of the family of Francois Besson to which the author belongs. That family portrait is however not a vain exercise. Drawing on a wealth of documentary data, including wills, Besson fashions a tapestry of the black and white French creole community in Grenada and later in Trinidad from which one learns a great deal. The second part of the book deals, inter alia, with wills and Williams, and argues that wills had a lot to do with who got what in Trinidad's racially stratified society. It argues further that two wills in particular, involving Eric Williams and his white forbears, had a significant impact on the post independence politics of Trinidad and Tobago. Our analysis is confined to three of the books main arguments. The first is that Eric Williams and his intellectual patron, CLR James, wilfully and deliberately conspired to produce a contrived account of the British anti-slavery movement which Williams misused for political purposes. According to Besson, a significant aspect of the narrative, much of which is found in Capitalism and Slavery and The History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago, tends to stereotype the European planters and their descendents as "villains", and characterises the African slaves, and latterly their descendants, as "victims". Besson's argument is that Williams consciously revised the British narrative about the abolition of the slave trade and emancipation to counter the conventional version which anchors the anti-slavery movements in British humanitarian concerns. Williams claimed that he had unmasked a "gross historical lie" and had unmasked "a great academic conspiracy" which had lent credibility to the British claim that they were humanitarians who had a moral right to govern and civilise the colonies. These arguments have, of course, long been the subject of academic argument and counterargument. For Besson, however, they are not matters that concern only academics. They have had great political consequences for Trinidad and Tobago and the Caribbean. As he complains, Dr Williams would carry his conspiracy theory about the abolition of the slave trade and emancipation forward into his political life. He would develop a political programme that would exploit these ideas. His revisionist narrative pilloried the European population in Trinidad and Tobago not only as descended from slave owners, but also of inheriting their guilt, while ignoring the complicity of the Africans who had sold their fellow Africans in exchange for trade goods. Besson makes two other basic points which are germane to his argument. One is that Williams' neurotic behaviour was informed by hostility to the white creole group to which his family belonged. In sum, his personality was misshaped by his belief that his family were "victims of the Will". The complaint was that the family was robbed or deprived of the various bequests that were made by their white relatives. This obsessive reaction was projected unto the "true inheritors" of history's bequest, viz the Afro-creole masses. His politics was thus about "revenge" and racial entitlements. "He conveniently forgot that his own forbears, his father's people, had been slave owners." Besson further argues that his "massa day" diatribe in 1960-61 was an attempt to exorcise his demons. It also excited the gullible and those inclined towards anti-white and anti-Indian racism. As Besson writes, "the Afro-creole masses would inherit what he and his family could not. He may possibly have seen his personal history as the country's destiny. He utilised political control to compensate the Afro-Creole population for the inheritance that they had long been denied. This was the basis of Williams' interpretation of the ideal welfare state, and would later form an integral part of the political culture of the PNM and of the entire country over the next 50 years." Besson's third thematic argument is that the paradigm that emerged from his version of history and which shaped the post independence politics of Trinidad and Tobago has now run its course. It is now time, he argued, to articulate an integrated New World narrative which treats all constituent groups as part of a whole. All should be beneficiaries of the will, figuratively speaking. As he argues, and we quote him at some length, "the PNM's version of who was legitimate politicised victimhood and guilt and the scapegoating of certain of its members…and served to erode ethnic harmony, respect for law and order and notions of moral and civic responsibility in the collective mind of contemporary society. The Williams narrative has contributed to the feeling that everything is outside the law and is up for grabs or reinterpretation. Many civil institutions (the police force, the administration of justice, the education system) have lost credibility and are hardly capable of conveying meaning or confidence in civil society." In sum, Williams and the PNM are seen to be largely responsible for most of our past and present discontents. Salvation lies in exposing the fallacies and the policies that emerge therefrom. Besson claims support in the experiences of Obama who, in his Audacity of Hope, also called for a new moral dispensation. As Obama had argued, "the role of victim was too readily embraced as a means of shedding responsibility, or asserting entitlement or claiming moral superiority over those not so victimised". There are some who would dismiss the book a as an anti-PNM rant, which would be a mistake. The book does debunk as myth a lot of what Williams and his supporters have said and did. There is however much in the book that is of great interest and which one would find intellectually provocative. It should spark public debate. The mood of the country in fact parallels some of the arguments of the book. It is also clear that while Williams was responsible for much that was positive about our national development, we are also paying the price for some of the behaviours which he authorised and legitimised. It is however too easy to blame almost everything that has gone wrong on the Williams narrative. Williams was part of a worldwide anti-colonial movement. His Massa Day Done rhetoric and his personal and cultural hubris fed on this worldwide Bandung spirit which would have flourished, stolen bequest or no stolen bequest. The discourse about the cult of the will make interesting reading, but is made to carry too much of the burden of what could be explained in other ways as I have attempted to do in my Eric Williams: The Myth and The Man.
by Prof. Ramesh Deosaran (Newsday, 28 November 2010)
PATHOLOGY. This refers to a branch of medicine regarding the causes and effects of diseases. Those of you who have been reading about or seeing the strange, often bizarre things done by some politicians, especially those in power for many years, might have often asked the question: Is he mad? What has gone wrong with him?
This question usually arises because there seems to be no reasonable explanation. There is growing evidence that political power leads to diseases of the mind. What Kenneth Clark calls in his seminal work, The Pathos of Power. This is an old, old story of politics and leaders of all kinds. What inspired me to think about this is a 282-page book titled Cult of the Will, published by Gerard A Besson, and containing strident remarks about the deceptions and the “deranged” political personality of the late Dr Eric Williams.
But before we get into some aspects of Besson’s book, I feel obliged to comment very briefly on the “pathology of politics,” a subject which caused JL Talmon to write a book titled The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy. Last September in Jamaica, during my address to Caribbean political party officials on election financing and democracy, a Grenadian party official asked me: “Why is it in the Caribbean, people appear and behave one way and as soon as they become elected as politicians they grow so arrogant, so different as if something gone wrong with them?”
The audience burst out laughing. PNM Opposition Leader, Dr Keith Rowley and Professor Selwyn Ryan, also present, smiled, knowingly it seemed. Yes, I too have seen the phenomenon in some of my own university colleagues who got elected. This ego-enhancing transformation has been a fascinating subject in psychopathology for ages, quite notably by Harold Lasswell, Sigmund Freud, Abraham Maslow and Carl Jung.
More and more, nurtured by excessive hero-worshipping and unchecked patronage, the diseased manifestations of political power — self-delusion, self-acclamations, bruising arrogance, unwarranted extravagance, thin-skinned, vengeful, etc. — all begin to inflict themselves upon a rather helpless public — at least for a time. Soon, the politician becomes a prisoner, a victim really, of his or her, search for further but scarcer gratifications, meandering between fleeting ecstasy and deep depression. Some get the sickness sooner than others.
With irritating insecurity, the politician gets a craving for more and more praise and reassurances, easily falling prey to a tightened circle of benefitting flatterers. This latter condition has been ascribed to Besson’s major subject, Eric Williams, by quite a few local commentators. However, as we also know, Williams still has his admirers who see his personality and deeds in more flattering terms. Besson’s book got reviews by John La Guerre, Selwyn Cudjoe, Brinsley Samarro and Selwyn Ryan. Then by columnists Marion O’Callaghan and Kevin Baldeosingh. For reasons of space, I will deal briefly with the second part of his two-part book — an explanation of victimhood and political mobilisation. Besson made a bold denunciation of the late Dr Eric Williams’ economic explanation for the abolition of slavery. Rather, Besson asserted both Williams and CLR James conveniently ignored the humanitarian anti-slavery movement and that Williams in particular, used a “victimhood” ideology to arouse black nationalism and achieve political victory. The reviewers could not resist dealing with the “victimhood” argument by Besson. The cult of the will, as he argues, creates a rather permanent condition of historically-generated victimhood, over one hundred years, and as sold by Williams and enthusiastically purchased by blacks. Cudjoe called this “a cruel accusation.”
If Besson had used Williams’ victimhood framework as a platform, then used contemporary political patronage, along the East West corridor for example, to link victimhood with what Besson clearly sees as continued “psychological dependency,” then his overall thesis might have gained further ground. But generally, in such subjects, social science inquiry, which is what Besson attempted in the later part of his book, finds great difficulty in linking cause and effect.
If Williams’ was an example of victimhood, it seemed to originate not so much from the historically-driven “cult” but self-inflicted through the psychological trappings of saturated political power. The way in which Besson presents his arguments is more courageous than many of us who prefer to be a bit more circumspect on such matters. And perhaps, there lies part of the value of his book. You know where he stands and you therefore know where to shoot. In a sense, Besson was trying to establish a level playing field for the society, a dismembering of a troublesome past for a more harmonious civic comradeship. But with early capitalism, slavery and indentureship as they were, how many will listen to this?
Professor Ramesh Deosaran (Emeritus) is author of “A Portrait of Political Power,” and Former Independent Senator
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