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Williams, Eric Eustace

Eric Eustace Williams


Prime minister, historian

Eric Eustace Williams served as prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago for more than two decades until his death in 1981. Before entering politics, Williams had been a respected historian on Caribbean topics and continued to write about the region during his time in office. "Perhaps one of the strongest tributes to the liberal democratic society he built over 25 years," noted his 1981 Times of London obituary, "was the smooth, efficient and constitutional transfer of power to a successor in the 12 hours after his death."

Williams was born in 1911 in Trinidad and Tobago's capital city, Port of Spain, whose name reflects Trinidad's earlier status as a Spanish colonial possession. The country's population, however, is a mixture of French and other European groups, along with blacks whose ancestors were slaves either on the island or settled there later. The country that Williams would later rule was actually two islands: Trinidad, named by Christopher Columbus after the Holy Trinity, and the much smaller Tobago. Trinidad became a possession of Britain in 1797, and Tobago followed in 1814; in 1888 the two islands were made into a single crown colony.

Trinidad is a predominantly Roman Catholic country, a legacy of the Spanish era when colonial authorities allowed any European to move there, provided they were of that faith, to encourage settlement. Williams's family was Roman Catholic, and he was the first of twelve children. His father, Thomas, was a postal clerk, and at the age of eleven Williams won a scholarship to Queen's Royal College, a private academy founded in 1870 with a rigorous curriculum. A top student, he won one of the so-called Island Scholarships to Oxford University in England, where he earned an honors degree in history from St. Catherine's College in 1935. He went on to pursue a doctorate at the college, submitting a dissertation on slavery and its role in the economic history of the British West Indies that earned him his doctorate, again with first-class honors, in 1938. Williams put forth a rather radical idea in his dissertation, arguing that Britain's abolition of slavery in its colonies came about because of economic necessity, not from any great moral awakening.

Spent the 1940s in America

Jobs for black academics were scarce in the late 1930s, and Williams took a teaching position at Howard University, a historically African-American college in Washington, D.C. He became a full professor of social and political science in 1947 and, through his published works, became known as one of the foremost experts on the Caribbean world. He returned to Trinidad in 1952, when he was named deputy chair of the Caribbean Commission, established by the United States, Britain, the Netherlands, and France to create a development plan for the region. He grew dissatisfied with the commission's progress, however, and came to believe it was unable to move forward in a way that would be best for the citizens, not the colonial masters. In 1955 he resigned from Howard University's faculty to devote himself full time to improving the lot of Trinidadians and Tobagans. "I have dealt too much in the past years with the historical background of problems and with the statistics," the Times of London quoted him as saying. "What I intend to do now is to see the living humanity behind the statistics."

In 1956 Williams founded a political party, the People's National Movement (PNM), which won a majority of seats in the Legislative Council in the general elections that year. The PNM was somewhat of a rarity in West Indian politics in that it was not allied with any trade union. As its leader, he "called for an end to government corruption, aid for sugar cane workers, universal, secular and compulsory education, birth control and economic and industrial development," wrote C. Gerald Fraser in the New York Times.

With the 1956 PNM win, Williams became chief minister of Trinidad and Tobago, a position similar to that of prime minister but used in places that were still British Crown colonies. For the next five years, he also served as the country's minister of finance, planning, and development. One of the first major acts of his government was to abolish school fees and make education compulsory but free of charge. This proved to be a tremendous boon to the nonwhite population of both islands. He opposed the establishment of a U.S. naval base on the Chaguaramas peninsula, and he championed the creation of the West Indies Federation in 1958. His nation was the second to pull out of the federation four years later, however, when consensus proved impossible to achieve. This pullout followed Jamaica's withdrawal, and Williams uttered one of the more famous statements of his public career with the quip, "One from ten leaves nought [zero]," reflecting the idea that the federation was undone without the leadership and financial resources of Jamaica.

Became Prime Minister

In August of 1962, three months after withdrawing from the federation, Trinidad and Tobago achieved independence from Britain, and Williams became the first prime minister of the newly sovereign state of Trinidad and Tobago. He remained in office until his death in 1981 and usually held a cabinet position or two besides his duties as prime minister and party leader. He was the country's minister of external affairs in the early 1960s and again from 1973 to 1974, then served as minister of finance, planning, and development from 1967 to 1971, as well as minister of national security during that same period. From 1975 until his death, he was minister for finance. He held power through a period of great change and economic growth in the country, which has a relatively high standard of living thanks to its oil exports. Bouts of labor and political unrest periodically flared, but Williams dealt with these firmly. One such incident was a 1970 uprising that included strikes, marches, and the mutiny of a regiment that had become politicized as part of the Black Power movement sweeping through several Caribbean countries. Williams declared a state of emergency and pushed through a law that outlawed all strikes. An oil boom after 1973, prompted by a worldwide oil crisis, helped him remain in power.

At a Glance …

Born on September 25, 1911, in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago; died of a heart attack on March 29, 1981, in St. Anne, Trinidad; son of Thomas Henry Williams and Eliza Boissiere; married Elsie Ribeiro, c. 1939 (divorced, 1951); married Soy Moyeau, c. 1951 (divorced, 1953); married Mayleen Mook-Soong, 1957 (divorced, c. 1958); children: (with Ribeiro) Alistair, Pamela, (with Moyeau) Erica. Education: Attended Queen's Royal College, 1922-31; St. Catherine's College, Oxford, BA (first-class honors), 1935, DPhil (first-class honors), 1938.

Career: Queen's Royal College (Trinidad and Tobago), acting master, and acting lecturer for the Government Training College for Teachers, 1931; Howard University, assistant professor, 1939-44, associate professor, 1944-47, professor of social and political science, 1947-55; Caribbean Commission, deputy chair, 1952-55; adviser to Trinidad government, 1954-55; People's National Movement, founder, 1956; chief minister and minister of finance, planning, and development of Trinidad and Tobago, 1956-61; first prime minister of independent state of Trinidad and Tobago, 1962-81, also minister of external affairs, 1961-64, 1973-74, minister of community development, 1964-67, minister of Tobago affairs, minister of finance, planning, and development, and minister of national security, 1967-71, minister for finance, beginning in 1975.

Memberships: Historical Society of Trinidad and Tobago (former president).

Awards: Made Privy Councillor of the British Commonwealth, 1964; Companion of Honour, 1969.

One significant threat to the PNM's rule was a growing dissension among East Indians in Trinidad and Tobago and their desire to play a larger political role in the country. Their United Labour Front group had support from Cuba, and the group became a significant chal- lenge to Williams and the PNM in the late 1970s. As prime minister, Williams pleaded for an end to ethnic unrest with another famous quip: "Forget mother Africa; forget mother India," he was fond of saying, according to Americas writer James Patrick Kiernan. "Think of mother Trinidad. She does not discriminate among her children."

In 1976 Williams declared Trinidad and Tobago a republic, and under the new system a president would serve as head of state, while the prime minister would be the head of government. Following the elections that year, however, he retreated from the public eye, urging the PNM to designate a successor to him as party leader, and he refused to attend regional conferences. He had been the most famous person in the dual-island nation for a generation, known for the ever-present dark glasses he favored and a hearing aid that resembled a Secret-Service earpiece. He died of a heart attack on March 29, 1981, in St. Anne, a suburb of Port of Spain.

Throughout his years as prime minister, Williams continued to publish tomes on history and the economic development of the Caribbean. These included a History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago from 1962 and From Columbus to Castro: The History of the Caribbean, 1492-1969, Inward Hunger: The Education of a Prime Minister, British Capitalism and Caribbean Slavery: The Legacy of Eric Williams. This collection of essays discusses the impact of his doctoral dissertation, which was published in book form in 1944 as Capitalism and Slavery. "Despite almost a half-century of revisionism," remarked Ralph A. Austen in Business History Review,

Selected writings


The Negro in the Caribbean, Associates in Negro Folk Education, 1942.

Capitalism and Slavery, University of North Carolina Press, 1944.

Education in the British West Indies, Guardian Commercial Printery, 1950.

History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago, People's National Movement Publishing, 1962.

Documents of West Indian History, People's National Movement Publishing, 1963.

British Historians and the West Indies, People's National Movement Publishing, 1964.

Britain and the West Indies, Longmans, 1969.

Inward Hunger: The Education of a Prime Minister, Deutsch, 1969.

From Columbus to Castro: The History of the Caribbean, 1492-1969, Deutsch, 1970.

Forged from the Love of Liberty: Selected Speeches of Dr. Eric Williams, compiled by Paul K. Sutton, Longman Caribbean, 1981.



Americas, July 1999.

Business History Review, Winter 1988.

Miami Herald, June 15, 2007.

New Statesman, February 13, 1998.

New York Times, March 31, 1981.

Times (London, England), March 31, 1981.

—Carol Brennan

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