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Inward Hunger: The Ballad of Bad Bill
Eric Williams is revered like a god amongst sections of the population, usually the sections which know the least about him. But there’s some truth to the characterisation; for Christians, the best analogy might be the vengeful god of the Old Testament, who smote, slaughtered, and sent his people into slavery when they pissed him off.
It’s a good analogy as we approach our 50th, because, like Trinidad & Tobago today, if there’s one thing Inward Hunger has, it’s pissed off-ed-ness. But unlike T&T, you don’t hear much about Bad Bill’s darker side from UWI academics and ethnic nationalists. And it begins with the title, Inward Hunger, a line from The Inferno, spoken by Ulysses.
The title alone says much about the kind of man Williams saw himself to be. Dante created Hell for his enemies. Ulysses was a ruthless king and a bad father who spent years abroad at war, leaving his wife fending off suitors at rumours of his death, and a son wallowing in bitterness. Similarly, Williams saw himself as messiah and avenger.
Because his father “lacked the necessary pliancy to ingratiate himself with the powers who controlled his destiny, he looked upon my victory as a decisive proof of his manhood.” This early charge would shape his psyche, with disastrous effects for his fatherhood of the nation.
The trigger for this dysfunctional paternalism was resentment, beginning in the dining room at All Souls, his professors bidding him back to Trinidad, to preserve Englishmen’s jobs, and the Caribbean Commission, where he ran afoul of reactionary colonials, who gave him the topic for his first public lecture in Trinidad, and a launch pad into politics.
In Trinidad, the paternal revenge drama had a perfect backdrop for denouement. Williams, ever striving for epic scale, fused the nation’s pride (nationalism) with his father’s manhood. By his second lecture at the public library (he wrote), his audience was “listening to the intellectual expression of their own basic convictions” which he was sent to articulate. Later, he became the instrument of that nationalism: “If Imperialism attacked from Kent House, nationalism would counter from the Public Library.”
If this sounds like robber talk, it wasn’t out of place given the tenor of the times— when the coloniser was in retreat from fiery black intellectuals (or so the intellectuals thought). However, Williams's robber talk was motivated by a deep psychosis, which didn’t become evident until he actually had the power to realise his ideals.
And what of those ideals? One of the few inspiring parts of Hunger is the description of his undergraduate days at Oxford. He writes of his affection for the arts and their being “sources for the understanding and appraisal of historical development,” since “history was not a record of battles and politicians…but rather a record of the development of humanity.” But as father of the nation, he denies his children this enlightenment.
Even as he wrote “the principal background of the nationalist struggle was in school,” he observed of the PNM masses: “I wanted our party members to read. They lacked the money to buy books, or the time or inclination to read them. So I did their reading for them.” This is not indulgence, it’s contempt, made clear as he observed that his “people’s lives are bound by narrow, materialistic considerations” to which he would not succumb.
What Williams gave his children was Carnival, which, not coincidentally, was the most effective medium through which he communicated with them. His main means of education was the mass lecture, which featured robber talk, performance, and pyromania (burning documents).
His audience took this literally, the lines between rhetoric and reality, irony and satire, being blurred, if not erased. These performances shaped their collective memory and personality with resentment and revenge, and so it remains today.
Williams’s attitude to those who actually lived his ideals was illustrated in his treatment of CLR James, his intellectual father. James taught him at QRC, and provided the germ of the idea for his doctoral thesis, but in Hunger, he’s abominably treated.
Williams paints him as an agitator, and immortalises the slander that James “used the party newspaper to build up himself and his family.” Describing the 1966 election (with no mention of his orchestrating his arrest) Williams wrote that James “like the flushing of a WC, ran with the rest.”
But more revealing than what’s included is what’s omitted—like Williams’s first wife and children in the US, whom he abandoned and did not support. Neither does he mention his second and third wives. The second was a secretary (Soy), apparently the love of his life, and the third was a dentist who entrapped him into marriage by faking pregnancy.
But there is more to Williams as a father. You can’t but be touched by Erica Williams-Connell’s account of her dad’s taking care of her, putting her to bed, feeding her, and fussing over her when she came home, hungover, one Carnival.
Naturally, this is a small sliver of a rich text. Many people alive today remember Williams as a gregarious, funny, and acerbically entertaining man. In the early days of his premiership, he was open, accessible and charming. But Williams’s tragedy is that as he became immersed in power he fell victim to the very tradition of slave immorality he decried.
On our 50th anniversary it seems evident that the nation is still paying for Williams’s sins, especially his sidelining of the project of creating intellectually able citizens. (A much more eloquent critical essay on Williams’s personality is Gordon Rohlehr’s History as Absurdity, written in 1971, published in My Strangled City. That essay was an act of heroism, as back then, Williams didn’t hesitate to revoke a work permit for much less.)
• To be continued
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