Part one | The duties of Caribbean intellectuals

What does it mean to live in countries in which landscape and history are shadowed by genocide, chattel slavery and indentureship? How does one reconcile beauty with poverty and violence?

Almost every summer, as the academic year ends, I am drawn towards re-reading a short, compelling article published over 75 years ago. The article is little remembered or referenced even among the Caribbean intelligentsia, though its author, Eric Williams, will be known as long as there is a scuffling of islands and territories we call the Caribbean. Published in The Journal of Negro Education, that formidable scholarly tome that did so much to stimulate black intellectual production in the 20th century, the article was published in 1944, under the title “Establishment of a University of the West Indies” – the same year that saw the first edition of Williams’ book, Capitalism and Slavery.

The first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Eric Williams presents one of the most intriguing puzzles for students of the region. The first person from the Anglophone Caribbean to receive a doctorate in history from Oxford University in 1938, Williams’ thesis would, on publication in America as Capitalism and Slavery, become the most debated and influential book of 20th-century Caribbean history. 

It is hard not to feel a sense of awe at the charismatic appeal of Williams, which in 1956 allowed him to found the People’s National Movement and win elections within a year, one of the most striking stories of nationalist mobilisation around a new political party in the Caribbean’s history. Yet simultaneously, the other side of the Williams legacy is all too well known – his authoritarian impulses that became clear within a couple years of independence; his later polemical writings on Caribbean history, which Guyanese historian Elsa Goveia famously described as new shibboleths for old.

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Yet in “Establishment of a University of the West Indies”, an argument published with a world war still in progress and the future of the colonial world uncertain, we can glimpse the contours of Williams at his best, the critic of the social and political deprivations caused by colonialism in the Caribbean, with the resolute conviction of the changes needed to arrest exploitation and transform the region.

Williams commences his article by noting that the West Indies has waited a long time for a university, doubtlessly aware of the presence of universities in Canada, Australia and other colonies under British dominion since the 19th century, and the establishment of the University of Havana in 1728. He attributes this to the status of the British West Indies as colonies of exploitation, “sugar plantations, not colonies”, which when coupled with the absentee landlord status of the plantation elites resulted in an almost complete disavowal of interest in the establishment of institutions of higher learning within the region. Yet in this delay Williams perceives an advantage, as the West Indian university will not be burdened by the mistakes of the past, and thus able to respond to the compelling demands of the post-World War conjuncture.

Williams believes four main features are essential in the then future West Indian university. He commences with the declaration that “the West Indian university must serve the needs of the West Indian community”, announcing federation as the singular and most important of these goals. Nor is the dream of federation limited to the Anglophone territories, as “the West Indian University will have to act … as the rallying centre for the entire Caribbean, from Cuba to French Guiana”. This is incomprehensible absent a decolonising mission, and as a result “the West Indian University must be a centre for the culture of the Caribbean area”, it “should aim at developing and extending our own unique culture” rather than simply facilitating the local transformation of knowledge that could be acquired overseas. 

Amidst the accelerating pace of production and nationalist competition, Williams positions the West Indian university as a citadel of Caribbean consciousness, an expression of the “ideals and aspirations of the West Indian people” in an uncertain world. Finally, Williams states that the West Indian university must be a “popular university, a university of the people” – an aspiration for an institution rooted in service to its community. The goal here would be to provide Caribbean solutions to Caribbean problems, and decisively contribute to the evolution of an authentic, decolonised Caribbean citizenry.

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There is a candour and brilliance in each one of these suggestions by Williams, but they are not his most compelling comment on higher education, which came in his later autobiography. Published a quarter of a century after the earlier article, by which time Williams had spent a baker’s dozen years as chief minister and later prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Williams’ 1969 autobiography, Inward Hunger, is boastful, iconoclastic, and filled simultaneously with glaring omissions and stunning prose. This is best seen in his reflections on his decision to return to the Caribbean while in the United States as recounted in the following passage:

But I had decided on my future. I would stick to the West Indies. West Indians had traditionally deserted the region, (George) Padmore for Africa, (CLR) James for the absurdities of world revolution, the traditional West Indians for the law and medicine. I would cultivate the Caribbean garden from Cuba to French Guiana. And when time came for the West Indian university, as come it must, I would be prepared to play my part and to leave Washington.

This comment is quite surreal. The withering scorn towards Padmore and James is remarkable. That it is the first mention of James in the autobiography – James the school teacher, mentor and adviser of Williams, James without which there would be no Capitalism and Slavery. Williams is in a hurry to deny any influence by James or Padmore and the anti-colonial movement in England, even though intellectual histories of the period place him as a fellow traveller of the International Friends of Abyssinia Movement. It is this thoroughgoing disavowal of these movements which complicate hagiographic readings of Williams’ legacy.

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But despite all this, there is so much in the power of Williams’ comment on the then unborn institution that would become the University of the West Indies in his autobiography. Rarely have the feelings of a Caribbean citizen in self-enforced exile overseas in the metropolis, yearning for a return to where their truest realisation of life’s meaning and happiness might be found, ever been written. I used it as the signature at the bottom of my email in the heady summer of 2006 as I prepared to leave Toronto on the completion of my doctorate, as I could think of nothing better that encapsulated my urge to leave Canada after four years, and my excitement and worry about returning home. In our travels outward and back, we Caribbean citizens are forever journeying towards an expectation – an expectation that reveals much about the internal exile that is life.

University life is a labour of almost ineffable patience. The process of doing research, of making a significant and new contribution to the lore of human knowledge is not one that comes easily. It involves at least a decade of training through three degrees, a further period of semi-apprenticeship in which your first work is proffered to the world through publication. The arc of every university academic’s career is different. For some that first work is a memorable outburst, their most important contribution, before other responsibilities of life and administration shift their energies in a manner not easily replicated in their career.

For many the second work is the great contribution, created when the angst over writing and career worries have abated somewhat, giving a verve and confidence to what becomes their magnum opus. Some rare talents find meaningful words every day, and assemble them with a discipline and verve that makes us pale with envy and grief about our own shortcomings, others dazzle sparingly but brilliantly over the years. Few though ever feel satisfied, because to fall in love with knowledge is to persistently want more, and to feel a responsibility to something grander than yourself is a rarely comprehended burden.

It is often only lightly addressed, and much unknown, that there is a quiet sorrow in many persons who live a life dedicated to pondering the social and political dilemmas of existence in the contemporary Caribbean. The existential plight of the region raises unanswerable questions and engenders perpetual irreconcilable tensions. What does it mean to live in countries in which landscape and history are shadowed by genocide, chattel slavery and indentureship? How does one reconcile the beauty of this region, the immense seductiveness of its popular culture which transfixes persons throughout the world, with the contemporary realities of poverty and exceptional violence that afflict it? And to know that no matter the steadfastness of will to rededicate oneself over and over against the lies and injustice of colonialism, its sibling, neocolonialism continues to grow with weight and power with each generation. 

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“I did not mind my defeat, I only minded that it had to last so long; I did not see the future, and that is perhaps as it should be,” Jamaica Kincaid once had one of her characters utter. And that is the nature of the Caribbean reality that transfixes us – to not only have to fight a resurgent and stronger neocolonialism and witness the betrayals and lethargy of our time, but to worry at Caribbean futures with no grounded expectation of that future heaven – Caribbean self-determination, freedom, happiness. 

One may rightly demur that it is an incredible privilege to be able to even ponder such things, though knowledge of that privilege does not diminish the complexity of the situation. By accident, talent or luck, those given the strange chance and lot to be considered Caribbean intellectuals are faced with a series of bewildering thoughts which often revolve around a central question: What are the responsibilities of Caribbean intellectuals?

Aaron Kamugisha is Professor of Caribbean and Africana Thought at the University of the West Indies,Cave Hill Campus.

This article was first published in Stabroek News.

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