Williams, Eric 1911–1981
Eric Eustace Williams was chief minister, premier, and prime minister respectively of Trinidad and Tobago from 1956 to 1981. He was also one of the Anglophone Caribbean’s first professionally trained historians. Several outstanding self-trained historians preceded him. Edward Wilmot Blyden (1832–1912) of Saint Thomas, J. J. Thomas (1840–1889) of Trinidad, J. A. Rogers (c. 1883–1966) of Jamaica, Theophilus A. Marryshow (1887–1958) of Grenada, C. L. R. James (1901–1989) and George Padmore (1903–1959) of Trinidad, and Norman Eustace Cameron (1903–1983) of Guyana were among his precursors and contemporaries. Most of these men had no university training or had studied subjects other than history. When Eric Williams graduated first among the firsts at Oxford University in 1935 and went on to obtain his D.Phil. there in 1938, he ushered in a new era in Anglophone Caribbean historical scholarship.
Williams grew up in Port of Spain, the son of a minor civil servant. He had a distinguished academic record from childhood and won an island scholarship, the ultimate achievement of high school excellence. This entitled him to a free university education, and he broke with tradition by choosing to read history, rather than the law or medicine favored by scholarship winners before and after him. Along the way Williams experienced an unusually eclectic array of influences. C. Augustin Petioni, later a pioneer of Marcus Garvey’s (1887–1940) Universal Negro Improvement Association and a leader of the Caribbean independence movement in the United States, was a friend of his father. So was T. A. Marryshow, a pioneer journalist and the “father of West Indian federation.” Williams’s brilliance in elementary school brought him the long-standing patronage of Englishman J. O. Cutteridge, arguably the most important figure in the era of colonial education in Trinidad, but a man much disliked in nationalist circles. At Queens Royal College in Port of Spain, C. L. R. James, later one of the outstanding intellectual figures of his generation, was both Williams’s teacher and a fellow member of the school’s cricket team.
While at Oxford, Williams interacted extensively with James, Padmore, and their coterie of Pan-Africanist (and often Marxist) radicals. He interested himself in the affairs of various nationalist groups, including those of Indian students. As an Afro-Caribbean person in England he inevitably came into contact with racism.
In 1939 Williams began teaching at Howard University, America’s most prestigious African American university at the time. Here he interacted with a cast of brilliant scholars, among them Alain Locke (1886–1954), Ralph Bunche (1886–1954), Rayford Logan (1897–1982), and E. Franklin Frazier (1894– 1962). Williams distinguished himself even in this distinguished crowd. Two Rosenwald fellowships enabled him to pay research visits to the non-English speaking territories of the Greater Antilles. He won the Journal of Negro History ’s prize for best article of 1940. His first book, The Negro in the Caribbean, appeared in 1942 in a series edited by Locke. His second, The Economic Future of the Caribbean, coedited with Frazier, was published in 1944. In 1944 his magnum opus, Capitalism and Slavery, was published by the University of North Carolina Press.
Capitalism and Slavery, a revised version of Williams’s doctoral dissertation, assured him a position of preeminence in Caribbean historiography. It demonstrated in exhaustive detail how the unprecedented profits generated by the slave trade in Africans provided the economic wherewithal for the Industrial Revolution in England. Williams argued that the productive forces unleashed by the Industrial Revolution in turn eventually made slavery itself obsolete. For the new industrial and technological age, slavery had become an outmoded form of production and a brake on development. Slavery was abolished in the British Empire as a result of these economic forces. The abolitionist “saints” of British historiography were not primarily responsible for abolitionism. Theirs was a secondary role, which, happily for them, happened to coincide with the economic necessity of the time. Capitalism and Slavery was hailed as a masterpiece in some quarters and as an unwarranted attack on cherished orthodoxy in others. The battle over this book has never subsided.
Williams’s book was doubtless influenced by his very unique attributes. Here was an Afro-Caribbean colonial who had beaten the best that the mother country had to offer, in the most prestigious of English universities. He had also indulged actively in the radical anticolonial activity of the time. He acknowledged C. L. R. James as the source of the thesis that underlay his book. James’s The Black Jacobins (1938) had posited a similar idea for the French colonial empire, and Williams had helped James work on this book. Williams’s years in the United States, while he revised his dissertation, were also a period of constant contact with Caribbean and African American radicals, as well as with such establishment institutions as the Anglo-American Caribbean Commission and the Organization for Strategic Services, a U.S. espionage agency (for both of which Williams worked). Williams was a full-time official for the Anglo-American Caribbean Commission (later the Caribbean Commission) from 1946 to 1955. In this capacity he crisscrossed the Caribbean and researched a huge swath of Caribbean economic and social life. This complemented his already deep knowledge of the area’s history. There was probably no one else who could rival his historical and contemporary knowledge of the area.
The excellence of Capitalism and Slavery and Williams’s many articles in scholarly journals did not open the door to major publishers. The University of North Carolina Press required him to pay a considerable subsidy, which he was able to raise only after several months of effort. It would be a quarter of a century before another major publisher would do the first printing on any of his books. Various subsequent publishing proposals came to naught. His manuscript on Education in the British West Indies remained unpublished for years until he published it in Trinidad in 1950. Between 1944 and 1969 Williams nevertheless authored or edited nine important works, all published directly or indirectly through his own efforts. Some were published under the auspices of his Historical Society of Trinidad and Tobago. Some were published by the press of the Peoples National Movement (PNM), the political party that took him to political power in Trinidad in 1956. In 1969 André Deutsch published Williams’s autobiography, Inward Hunger, the first of his books to be initially released by a major publisher in twenty-five years.
Williams wrote history with a passion matched by few professional historians. For him history was a tool of the anticolonial struggle and a stepping stone to politics. His Historical Society of Trinidad and Tobago brought history to the masses in the early 1950s. He spread the society’s work with the same energy that had characterized his efforts to promote Capitalism and Slavery. (He bought copies from the publishers and resold them himself through a network of friends and helpers). His Education in the British West Indies (1950) was a manifesto for a Caribbean university. His History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago (1962) was an independence gift to his nation written, in between his political duties, in one month.
The professional Anglophone historians who followed Williams were often ambivalent toward his historical activism. Elsa Gouveia, the doyenne of the first generation of indigenous historians at the University of the West Indies, vitriolically denounced his British Historians and the West Indies (1964) for substituting “new shibboleths for old.” Williams envisaged this work as an exposé of the “prejudices of metropolitan historians.”
Williams’s last major work, From Columbus to Castro (1970), was a survey textbook for university students. He had worked on it for years. It was vintage Williams, with a lively dogmatic style and a heavy bias toward economic history. It reflected his strengths in the colonial period, but was less detailed on the twentieth century.
Williams’s many important works do not provide a complete picture of his historical activity. He published voluminously in academic and popular publications, and issued many of his political speeches as pamphlets. The Caribbean Historical Review, published under the auspices of his Historical Society of Trinidad and Tobago, released four issues between 1950 and 1954.
SEE ALSO Anticolonial Movements; Capitalism; Industrialization; James, C. L. R.; Plantation; Plantation Economy Model; Slavery
Williams, Eric. 1942. The Negro in the Caribbean. Washington, DC: Associates in Negro Folk Education.
Williams, Eric. 1944. Capitalism and Slavery. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. Rev. ed. 1994, with new introduction by Colin A. Palmer.
Williams, Eric. 1950. Education in the British West Indies. Port of Spain, Trinidad: Guardian Commercial Printery.
Williams, Eric, ed. 1952. Documents on British West Indian History, 1807-1833. Port of Spain, Trinidad: Trinidad Publishing.
Williams, Eric, ed. 1954. The British West Indies at Westminster: Extracts from the Debates in Parliament. Port of Spain, Trinidad: Historical Society of Trinidad and Tobago.
Williams, Eric. 1962. History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago. Port of Spain, Trinidad: PNM Publishing Company.
Williams, Eric. 1963. Documents of West Indian History. Port of Spain, Trinidad: PNM Publishing Company.
Williams, Eric. 1964. British Historians and the West Indies. Port of Spain, Trinidad: PNM Publishing Company.
Williams, Eric. 1969. Inward Hunger: The Education of a Prime Minister. London: Deutsch.
Williams, Eric. 1970. From Columbus to Castro: The History of the Caribbean, 1492 –1969. London: Deutsch.
Frazier, E. Franklin, and Eric Williams, eds. 1944. The Economic Future of the Caribbean. Washington, DC: Howard University Press. Reprinted 2004. Dover, MA: The Majority Press.
Martin, Tony. 2003. Eric Williams and the Anglo-American Caribbean Commission: Trinidad’s Future Nationalist Leader as Aspiring Imperial Bureaucrat. Journal of African American History 88 (3): 274–290.
Palmer, Colin. 2006. Eric Williams and the Making of the Modern Caribbean. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Solow, Barbara L., and Stanley L. Engerman, eds. 1987. British Capitalism and Caribbean Slavery: The Legacy of Eric Williams. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
Sutton, Paul K., ed. 1981. Forged from the Love of Liberty: Selected Speeches of Dr. Eric Williams. Port of Spain, Trinidad: Longmans Caribbean.
"Williams, Eric." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 28, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/williams-eric
"Williams, Eric." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved June 28, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/williams-eric
Eric Williams, 1911–81, prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago (1961–81). He attended Oxford and taught at Howard Univ. in Washington, D.C. (1939–53). Returning to Trinidad, he founded (1955) the country's first formal political party. He became chief minister in 1956 and prime minister in 1961. Elections in 1966 and 1971 reaffirmed his position. He led his country to independence within the Commonwealth of Nations (1962). Williams launched several ambitious five-year development plans, attracting foreign capital through tax incentives and acquiring foreign aid. He concentrated his efforts on the improvement of education and the development and diversification of industry and agriculture. Although of African descent, he faced increasing black militant opposition to his government. His numerous writings include The Negro in the Caribbean (1942, repr. 1970); History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago (1964); British Historians and the West Indies (1964); and From Columbus to Castro (1970, repr. 1983).
See his autobiography, Inward Hunger (1969).
"Williams, Eric." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 28, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/williams-eric
"Williams, Eric." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved June 28, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/williams-eric
Fenby, Eric (William)
"Fenby, Eric (William)." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 28, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/fenby-eric-william
"Fenby, Eric (William)." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music. . Retrieved June 28, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/fenby-eric-william