In the summer of 1940, as the Nazi war machine launched its furious assault on France and Britain in an effort to inflict a decisive victory on its European opponents, the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration and the British wartime government, headed by Winston Churchill, negotiated an exchange of surplus destroyers and other military supplies for several naval bases in the British West Indian colonies and Bermuda. The exchange of notes between the two governments on September 2, 1940, marked a major turning point in Anglo-American relations and in the course of the war against the Axis powers. In effect, the British West Indian colonies had become a cornerstone of the "Special Relationship" that would be consolidated over the course of World War II and the Cold War that arose after 1945.
As part of the exchange the United States obtained the right to establish a military base in Chaguaramas on the northwest peninsula of Trinidad and Tobago—a relatively secluded region with easy access to the Caribbean Sea. The choice of the site was met with less than enthusiasm by the existing colonial administration, and, despite the reservations of the governor of the British colony, the area was ceded to American control for ninety-nine years. The wartime context did not disguise the Imperial government's lack of concern for local sentiment; in fact, it emphasized the arbitrary nature of colonial rule and the willingness of the United States to profit from Britain's increasing dependence upon American support for its war effort.
It was a decision that would return to haunt both the British and American governments when West Indian nationalists sought to achieve political independence from the British government in the 1950s and 1960s. The American attempts to retain the base in the 1950s were perceived as a symbol of the colonial order under which the rights and wishes of the inhabitants of the colony were treated dismissively. Chaguaramas also represented, in the eyes of West Indian nationalists, the heavy-handed effort by the United States to establish a new quasicolonial order in the West Indies in the waning years of British colonial rule.
The eruption of the Anglo-American–West Indian dispute over Chaguaramas occurred in 1956 as plans were being finalized to bring the West Indies Federation into existence. The British government and West Indian nationalists had agreed that the West Indies Federation would constitute the basis for the transfer of power in the Caribbean and the accession to independence by the colonies. In 1956 the issue of identifying a suitable site for the federal capital was entrusted by West Indian leaders to a group of British officials who were to identify a list of suitable sites. In Trinidad, a wide cross section of local opinion championed the island as the site for the federal capital, and in the 1956 national election campaign, Eric Williams, the leader of the victorious People's National Movement, endorsed the idea of Trinidad as the future capital. Unfortunately, the British commission was not impressed by Trinidad's appeal to its citizens, and its report ranked Trinidad as the third choice for the capital site. In explaining the low ranking for Trinidad, the commission's report was scathing about the colony's political life and disparaging in its specific references to the Indian community on the island. It was a decisive moment in the development of West Indian nationalism, and the commission's report was emblematic of the discomfiture that West Indian nationalism had created for British officials. In February 1957 the West Indian leadership decided to endorse Trinidad as the site of the future capital—a decisive rejection of the commission's report.
As a consequence, the West Indian leaders requested that the British government convene a tripartite meeting among the West Indies, the United Kingdom, and the United States to discuss: (1) releasing the naval base at Chaguaramas for the establishment of the federal capital, and (2) a defense agreement among the three parties. The West Indian leaders were making it clear that they would not accept the inequities of the agreement of 1940 and that they were prepared to renegotiate the American presence in Trinidad and the wider region.
Over the next three years the dispute would escalate as Eric Williams used the Chaguaramas issue to establish his credentials as a committed Trinidadian nationalist who was prepared to challenge both the United Kingdom and the United States on the legacies of the colonial order. Williams's challenge would force both the United States and Britain to agree to renegotiate the terms of the Chaguaramas lease and to accept that West Indian nationalism had redefined the terms of the Anglo-American relationship in the Caribbean. Just as important, it expanded the number of independent states in the Caribbean that stood as a model of political development in which people of African descent were key players (in marked contrast to the continued weight of Jim Crow on American life). The Chaguaramas issue formed part of the ongoing effort to consolidate the idea of freedom for African-descent populations in the Americas.
Fraser, Cary. Ambivalent Anti-Colonialism: The United States and the Genesis of West Indian Independence, 1940–1964. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1994.
Mordecai, John. The West Indies: The Federal Negotiations. London: Allen & Unwin, 1968.
Ryan, Selwyn. Race and Nationalism in Trinidad and Tobago. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972.
cary fraser (2005)