Dr Eric Eustace Williams (1911 - 1981)
The Order of the Companions of O.R. Tambo in
Profile of Dr Eric Eustace Williams
Dr Eric Eustace Williams was born to Elisa and Henry Williams on 25 September 1911 in the West Indies. He acquired his schooling at Queen’s Royal College and won the Island Scholarship to Oxford University, where he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree in 1938.
A brilliant scholar, he did his doctoral thesis on the relations between slavery, the slave trade and economics, which was the first systemic study of the relationship between slavery and capitalism by a non-British scholar.
This subject captivated his attention and in 1944 his book Capitalism and Slavery argued that the British abolition of their Atlantic slave trade in 1807 was motivated primarily by economics; by extension, so was the emancipation of the slaves and the fight against the trading in slaves by other nations.
Williams was a philosopher, scholar, political leader and a foremost thinker and he wrote many articles and books on the Caribbean, education and politics. He migrated to the United States in 1939 to teach at Howard University, becoming an assistant professor of social and political sciences, organising several courses on humanities. Diligent and multi-talented, Williams also worked as a consultant to the Anglo-American Caribbean Commission, which was established to study the future of the region. He left teaching at Howard in 1948 to lead the Research Branch of the Caribbean Commission but resigned in 1955 over the commission’s nuanced colonialist designs.
Returning to Trinidad and Tobago in 1948, he cut his teeth in politics, believing that he could make a difference in the material conditions of the people of his country. On his return to Trinidad, he became the commission’s deputy chairperson of the Caribbean Research Council. Exuding intellectual energy, Williams delivered a series of educational lectures for which he became famous and deeply respected among Trinidadians. He formed the political party, the People's National Movement (PNM). His party won the national elections and he became the chief minister from 1956 to 1959, premier from 1959 to 1962 and prime minister from 1962 to 1981. Taking the political scene by storm, the PNM won 13 of the 24 elected seats in the Legislative Council, defeating six of the 16 incumbents running for re-election.
With the notion of black consciousness at its height shortly after the decolonisation process had begun, Williams openly embraced the Black Power Movement and made three speeches in which he sought to identify himself with the aims of the movement.
During his tenure as prime minister, he took Trinidad and Tobago to the Federation of the West Indies, as well as independence within the Commonwealth, in 1962. Presiding over a country not long gone from the bondage of slavery, Williams knew that he would have to put much premium on education for his country to progress. He concentrated his efforts on the improvement of education and the development and diversification of industry and agriculture.
This foresight and deep political acumen, together with the attempts to shape the future of Trinidad and Tobago, earned him the title of ‘the Father of the Nation’. 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).
Dr Eric Williams spent his life in pursuit of education and the development of his people. Selfless and supremely principled, he forfeited much that he inherited in his polished educational standing, refusing to be seduced by the trappings of capitalism so that the oppressed people could have a better future for themselves. With incredible energy he put his remarkable educational achievements at the service of his country. He remains one of the most significant leaders in the history of modern Trinidad and Tobago, and a hero of the developing world.
He died on 29 March 1981 in his beloved country, Trinidad and Tobago.