Dr. Eric Eustace Williams (September 25, 1911 – March 29, 1981) was the first Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago. He served from 1956 until his death in 1981. He was also a noted Caribbean historian.
Williams was born the son of minor civil servant, but his mother was a descendant of the French Creole elite. He was educated at Queen's Royal College in Port of Spain, where he excelled at academics and football. He won an island scholarship in 1932 which allowed him to attend Oxford University where he received his doctorate in 1938. Williams was in part inspired by C.L.R. James and his doctoral thesis, titled The Economic Aspect of the West Indian Slave Trade and Slavery, owed much to the influence of James's The Black Jacobins (1938)
In 1939 Williams accepted a position at Howard University, becoming a full professor by 1947. In 1944 he was appointed to the Anglo-American Caribbean Commission. In 1948 Williams returned to Trinidad as the Commission's Deputy Chairman of the Caribbean Research Council. In Trinidad Williams delivered a series of educational lectures for which he became famous. In 1955 after disagreements between Williams and the Commission, the Commission elected not to renew his contract.
On January 15, 1956 Williams inaugurated his own political party, the People's National Movement. Until this time his campaign of lectures had been carried out under the auspices of the Political Education Movement (PEM) a branch of the Teachers Education and Cultural Association, a group which had been founded in the 1940s as an alternative to the official teachers’ union. The PNM’s first document was its constitution. Unlike the other political parties of the time, the PNM was a highly organised, hierarchical body. Its second document was The People’s Charter’ in which the party strove to separate itself from the transitory political assemblages which had thus far been the norm in Trinidadian politics.
In elections held eight months later, on September 24, the PNM won 13 of the 24 elected seats in the Legislative Council, defeating 6 of the 16 incumbents running for re-election. Although the PNM did not secure a majority in the 31-member Legislative Council, he was able to convince the Secretary of State for the Colonies to allow him to name the five appointed members of the council (despite the opposition of the Governor Sir Edward Betham Beetham). This gave him a clear majority in the Legislative Council. Williams was thus elected Chief Minister and was also able to get all seven of his ministers elected.
In the post-war mood of decolonisation, the decision was made to create an independent West Indies Federation out of the British West Indies. British Guiana (now Guyana) and British Honduras (now Belize) chose to opt out of the Federation, leaving Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago as the dominant players. Most political parties in the various territories aligned themselves into one of two Federal political parties - the West Indies Federal Labour Party (led by Norman Manley) and the Democratic Labour Party (led by Manley's cousin, Sir Alexander Bustamante). The PNM affiliated with the former, while several of opposition parties (the People's Democratic Party, the Trinidad Labour Party and the Party of Political Progress Groups) aligned themselves with the DLP, and soon merged to form the Democratic Labour Party of Trinidad and Tobago.
Between 1968 and 1970 the Black Power movement gained strength in Trinidad and Tobago. The leadership of the movement developed within the Guild of Undergraduates at the St. Augustine Campus of the University of the West Indies. Led by Geddes Granger, the National Joint Action Committee joined up with trade unionists led by George Weekes of the Oilfields Workers' Trade Union and Basdeo Panday, then a young trade union lawyer and activist. The Black Power Revolution got started during the 1970 Carnival. In response to the challenge, Williams countered with a broadcast entitled I am for Black Power. He introduced a 5% levy to fund unemployment reduction and established the first locally-owned commercial bank. However, this intervention had little impact on the protests.
On April 6, 1970 a protester was killed by the police. This was followed on April 13 by the resignation of A.N.R. Robinson, Member of Parliament for Tobago East. On April 18 sugar workers went on strike, and there was talk of a general strike. In response to this, Williams proclaimed a State of Emergency on April 21 and arrested 15 Black Power leaders. In response to this, a portion of the Trinidad Defense Force, led by Raffique Shah and Rex Lassalle mutinied and took hostages at the army barracks at Teteron. Through the action of the Coast Guard the mutiny was contained and the mutineers surrendered on April 25.
Williams made three additional speeches in which he sought to identify himself with the aims of the Black Power movement. He re-shuffled his Cabinet and removed three Ministers (including two white members) and three senators. He also introduced the Public Order Act which reduced civil liberties in an effort to control protest marches. After public opposition, led by A.N.R. Robinson and his newly created Action Committee of Democratic Citizens (which later became the Democratic Action Congress), the Bill was withdrawn. Attorney General Karl Hudson-Phillips offered to resign over the failure of the Bill, but Williams refused his resignation.
A descendant of a family which made its fortune illegally trading slaves after 1807 (the de Boissiere family), Williams specialised in the study of the abolition of the slave trade, and some have argued that his work was ground-breaking for the direction which it took.
In 1944 his book Capitalism and Slavery argued that the British abolition of their Atlantic slave trade in 1807 was motivated primarily by economics; by extension, so was the emancipation of the slaves and the fight against the trading in slaves by other nations.
Before Williams the historiography of this issue had been dominated by (mainly) British writers who generally were prone to depict Britain's actions as unimpeachable.
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 Gen. Colin L. Powell. In 1999, it was named to UNESCO’s prestigious Memory of the World Register. Gen. 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.
The Collection consists of the late Dr. Williams' Library and Archives. Available for consultation by researchers, the Collection amply reflects its owner’s eclectic interests, comprising some 7,000 volumes, as well as correspondence, speeches, manuscripts, historical writings, research notes, conference documents and a miscellany of reports. The Museum contains a wealth of emotive memorabilia of the period and copies of the seven translations of Williams’ seminal work, Capitalism and Slavery, (into Russian, Chinese and Japanese [1968, 2004] among them, and a Korean translation was released in 2006). Photographs depicting various aspects of his life and contribution to the development of Trinidad and Tobago complete this extraordinarily rich archive, as does a three-dimensional re-creation of Dr. Williams’ study.
Dr. Colin Palmer, Dodge Professor of History at Princeton University, has said: “as a model for similar archival collections in the Caribbean…I remain very impressed by its breadth...[It] is a national treasure.” Palmer’s new biography of Williams up to 1970 entitled Eric Williams and the Making of the Modern Caribbean, published by the University of North Carolina Press, is dedicated to the Collection.
Many scholars claim that Williams' argument are undermined by the facts of the matter. The decline in the West Indian economies began to manifest itself after slave trading was banned in 1807; prior to this, slavery was flourishing. The economic decline in the West Indies was consequently more likely to have been a direct result of the suppression of the slave trade. Williams' evidence showing falling commodity prices as a rationale can largely be discounted; the falls in price led to an increase in demand, raising overall profits for the importers. Profits for the slave traders remained at around ten percent on investment and displayed no evidence of declining. Land prices in the West Indies, an important tool for analysing the economy of the area did not begin to decrease until after the slave trade was discontinued.
The sugar colonies were not in decline at all, in fact they were at their economic peak in 1807. It should be noted that Williams was heavily involved in the movements for independence of the Caribbean colonies and had a fairly obvious motive to impugn the colonial power. Indeed, Williams' reputation among black West Indian scholars continues to be high, even as white North American and European scholars criticize his historiography.
A third generation of scholars led by Seymour Drescher and Roger Anstey have discounted many of Williams' arguments. They do however acknowledge that morality had to be combined with the forces of politics and economic theory to bring about the end of the slave trade.
On the other hand, Williams' central point that the rise of industrial capitalism in Britain was fueled by West Indian slavery, and that, in turn the new industrial bourgeoisie saw the maintenance of slavery as a drag on their profits, both still have some merit. In particular, we should note that significant decline in the British West Indies dates to after the abolition of the Corn Laws by the British in 1846 (one of the imperial preferences abolished was that in sugar).
Indeed, Williams' impact on the field of study has proved of lasting significance. As Barbara Solow and Stanley Engerman put it in the preface to a compilation of essays on Williams, which is based off of a commemorative symposium held in Italy in 1984, Williams "defined the study of Caribbean history, and its writing affected the course of Caribbean history... Scholars may disagree on his ideas, but they remain the starting point of discussion... Any conference on British capitalism and Caribbean slavery is a conference on Eric Williams."
In addition to Capitalism and Slavery, Williams produced a number of other scholarly works focused on the Caribbean. Of particular significance are two published in the 1960s long after he had abandoned his academic career for public life: British Historians and the West Indies and From Columbus to Castro. The former, based on research done in the 1940s and initially presented at a symposium at Atlanta University, sought to debunk British historiography on the region and to condemn as racist the nineteenth and early twentieth century British perspective on the West Indies. Williams was particularly scathing in his description of the nineteenth century British intellectual Thomas Carlyle.
The latter work is a general history of the Caribbean from the 15th through the mid-20th centuries. Curiously, it appeared at the same time as a similarly titled book (De Cristóbal Colón a Fidel Castro) by another Caribbean scholar-statesman, Juan Bosch of the Dominican Republic.