February 5, 1902
December 4, 2000
Philip Manderson Sherlock was a historian, civil leader, and vice chancellor of the University of the West Indies. A characteristic of his remarkable public career was that each job seemed to have prepared him for the next. Born in Jamaica, he was a young teacher in a small private secondary school (Calabar High School) from 1919 to 1927. He then went on to become the youthful headmaster of a small private rural secondary school, and then the headmaster of large, long-established urban secondary school (Wolmers Boys School). Subsequently, he became a civil servant, taking the post of secretary of the Institute of Jamaica (1939–1944). This was followed by a short stint as an education officer with a nongovernmental social welfare organization. After serving as a member of the Irvine Committee, which set up the University College of the West Indies in 1944, he was appointed director of the university's Department of Extra-Mural Studies from 1947 to 1960. Sherlock was by then known as a writer of short history books for schools, as a folklorist, as a minor poet, and as a quiet legislator in Jamaica's Legislative Council. A higher university position followed when he was made principal of the Trinidad and Tobago campus of the University College of the West Indies from 1960 to 1963. This was followed by his assumption of the top job of vice chancellor of the autonomous University of the West Indies, a position he held until 1969. Sherlock then established a regional grouping of Caribbean universities, which he directed from 1969 to 1979.
Sherlock's most notable achievement as a young man of twenty-five years was to gain a first class honors degree in English as an external student of the University of London. This underlined his talent, discipline, and energy. Nevertheless, his color (he was nearly white in appearance) probably assisted him in achieving a high public salience in official circles as head of the institute, then the island's premier cultural institution.
Sherlock himself consistently rejected the conservative social, racial, and political values of race-conscious Jamaica, and developed a liberal viewpoint. He was not carried away by political radicalism, however, but committed to cultural nationalism. Influenced positively by Garveyism in his younger days, Sherlock became a patriotic promoter of cultural activism, in the process acquiring an understanding and acceptance of the African-rooted culture of the black masses.
Assessments of Sherlock as a university administrator were also positive. In the early days of the university, the Extra-Mural Department under his leadership committed itself to the cultural development of the West Indies, with a view to self-government and even a federation of the territories. As vice chancellor he presided over an expansion of the university and dealt with government challenges to its autonomy. As a historian, Sherlock's first significant work (coauthored with John Parry) was A Short History of the West Indies (1956). Its importance is that it was a part of an effort by West Indian historians in the 1950s and 1960s to create a corpus of historical works to liberate West Indian history from the hands of British imperial historians and to give it a truly West Indian focus.
Sherlock's greatest service to the region as a historian was to have been a persistent popularizer of its history. From his earliest short books for children, such as Caribbean Citizen (1957), to his postretirement tourist guidebooks on Jamaica, Sherlock cultivated a simple narrative style, avoiding all the major controversies about slavery or emancipation and delivering as his main message his conviction that, despite the fragmented island histories, they were in the process of building unified multiracial communities and federal associations across the region. He believed in the need to use history as a tool in multiracial democratic nation building. He turned to West Indian literature, folklore, song, and the environment, not just to official historical documents, to weave his stories about West Indian history. He was preeminently a historian and a storyteller, and he was without equal as a radio broadcaster in the 1960s. His talks in Trinidad in the 1960s and later in Jamaica were anecdotal, insightful, and lucid, and still highly readable in typescript.
Yet Sherlock is not recognized as a major historian, mostly because he did not write an outstanding book of his own until near his death. At the age of ninety-six, Sherlock (with a junior coauthor) produced what was his only radical work, The Story of the Jamaican People (1998). In this work he placed African culture and the experiences of the black masses—identified unequivocally as African—in the center of his interpretation of Jamaica's historical development. It is this revisionist book, written to stimulate patriotism, that in the long run will mark his own individual contribution to West Indian historiography.
See also Historians and Historiography; University of the West Indies
Baugh, Edward. "Caribbean Man: The Life and Times of Philip Sherlock" (interview). Jamaica Journal 16, no. 3 (1983): 22–30.
Sherlock, Philip. Norman Manley. London: Macmillan, 1980.
Sherlock, Philip, and Hazel Bennett. The Story of the Jamaican People. Kingston, Jamaica: Ian Randle, 1998.
carl c. campbell (2005)