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Cipriani's Life as CRL Prism

Tuesday, February 23, 2016
In his book about Captain Cipriani, CLR James presents a snapshot into a crucial period in Trinidadian history.

LR James’ early attempt at biography, The Life of Captain Cipriani, is a fascinating piece of work. It presents a snapshot into a period in Trinidadian history, and a perspective that is both new and ordinary, via an episodic study of its subject. 

The Captain is a figure whose name lives on in the name of the labour college, and whose statue stands ever imposingly on the promenade at bottom of Frederick Street. But he’s not present in public consciousness the way, say, TUB Butler is. 

To recall Arthur Cipriani’s life and times is reason enough to appreciate the reissue of James’s fledgling work of 1932, and its spinoff pamphlet, The Case for West-Indian Self Government, which was published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth press in 1933. 

As Bridget Brereton’s excellent introductory essay to the contemporary Duke University Press edition points out, the work is an “apprentice” work. It’s not actually a biography, it’s often shallow, and in places fatally partisan. 

Its value is that it presents an early glimpse of a technique which James would perfect later: intertwining public and personal history and biography to illuminate the unlit corners of history as a whole, as he did masterfully in The Black Jacobins and Beyond a Boundary. 

Cipriani first came to prominence during the First World War when he (as a white officer) stood up for the black West Indian Regiment’s soldiers, who were given menial duties to perform during wartime, and withheld from action on the frontlines. 

The reason for this was racism. A separate contingent from Trinidad, the (white) Merchants and Planters’ Contingent, held themselves apart from the enlisted men. Cipriani was the exception. 

On his return to Trinidad, Cipriani continued his “struggle for the barefoot man.” One of his first public speeches in 1919 which endeared him to the masses was one which pointed out the war profiteering by Trinidadian merchants. 

Cipriani went on to become the leader of The Workingmen’s Association (TWA) and became an elected member of the legislature when limited franchise was granted in 1925. James undertook to write a biography because of his admiration for the Captain, but also evidently because it provided an entrée into the hot topic among West Indian and Trinidadian intellectuals of the time (the 30s and 40s): race, nationalism, and self-rule. 

James was a member of the Beacon Group, which was built on the efforts of the formidable Albert Gomes. Orthodoxy today has it the Beacon Group (James, Alfred Mendes, Gomes, Ralph Mentor and others) represented a literary and political awakening in Trinidad, and was a catalyst for nationalist consciousness via its eponymous journal. 

It’s worth mentioning here that the Indian component of the population figures not at all in James’ consciousness. Indians are given a mere paragraph, although there were active Indo political groups in Trinidad at the time. Cipriani’s assault on Sarran Teelucksingh, one of the vice presidents of TWA over the controversial divorce legislation in the late 20s, fractured the interracial platform to which the TWA aspired. This was glossed over and the attack omitted by James. 

This omission has been noted many times and need not be gone into here, except to say nationalism was (as it remains in some quarters) a black and white affair. In that regard, James dissects the strata and segments of “creole society”—the white British colonials, the French Creole aristocracy, the coloured and mixed-race aspirants to social hierarchy, and the ambitious and talented black middle class.

He shows how each fits into the unstable mosaic, where native talent was suppressed, and mediocre colonials were placed into positions of importance. The disastrous consequences of that, we still live with today. (Incidentally, much of what James reports here was enacted in VS Naipaul’s The Mimic Men. Yet James is praised, Naipaul reviled.) 

James focuses on a few episodes of Cipriani’s life, like the war, or debates in the legislature, to illustrate the absurdities and enormities of Crown Colony government. The system of government was such that all power resided in the governor, and once he wanted something, there was no way around it.  

In effect, governance was a luck and chance game: it all depended on who you got. If the governor was decent, you got progressive government. If not, well, you got what we’ve had since independence. The legislature was comprised of elected and appointed members, and the elected members could never carry a vote because of their small numbers. 

Ironically, James would write in a later volume (Party Politics in the West Indies in 1962) that even when the elusive dream of independence had been achieved, the system continued to work thusly. That is, one man (E Williams) continued to make all the decisions, despite the accoutrements of democratic institutions designed to check and balance. Williams institutionalised this, but Messrs Robinson, Manning and Panday were all eager acolytes of the status quo, and continued the tradition when their turns came. 

One of the elements of the book that’s been praised, but which might not be so well-liked now is James’ contempt for the “brown” and “coloured” mixed-race classes. He speaks about their fawning attempts to seek out the society of the lighter skinned, and their willingness to exist on the fringes of that society, paid for by their wealth, simply for the proximity. 

He writes of the “transports of joy into which men, rich and powerful, are thrown by a few words from the colonial secretary’s wife or the Chief Justice’s daughter.” And less flatteringly, but, one suspects, closer to the truth: “In a Crown Colony, one would find men who would walk down Frederick St in their drawers if the Governor should ask them to do so.”

The political and commercial implications of these attitudes were clubs and cabals which controlled business, society and a great deal of power based on fiat, chance and whim. This sense of helplessness no doubt seeped into the culture of the nation, and remains there today.

That is the value of these seemingly disparaging anecdotal incidents: they show the nature and provenance of the social toxins which infest our society to the present. 

While the business and political worlds may have changed owners and controllers, and the owners and managers are ostensibly native, the fundamental attitudes, the need for obsequiousness, and the fundamental elements of whimsy and ego, and the absence of rationality in matters of the gravest importance, have not changed. Examples of this include the (then) government’s contortions to give a Canadian company tax exemption for its provision of electricity services to Port-of-Spain, and its refusal to introduce trade union legislation in Trinidad.

That’s ordinary corruption, but as for racial discrimination, the issue was more complicated than it would appear. James writes of Cipriani’s raising the issue of discrimination at the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture against coloured men, in the legislature, only to have coloured members contradict him. He writes, tellingly that the nature of the Governor’s appointments led to men filling positions which were more concerned with their own welfare than the people’s.

“A person gaining his first impression of politics from a reading of some of these debates,” he writes, “would conclude that it was not the sole business of government to govern properly, but a favour being conferred upon the people.”

The more things change, the more they stay the same. For these insights into the antecedents of our present social and political culture, the book is worth reading. For historians and sociologists who wish to construct an accurate and not romanticised (if not outright invented) picture of Trinidadian history, this book provides a valuable ingredient. (Interestingly, James does not mention calypso or Carnival as having any political significance.)

Aside from its value to Trinidadians, to scholars, read as part of James’ oeuvre, it is a fascinating point on his mental continuum, an insight into the evolution of that prodigious mind.


CLR James: The Life of Captain Cipriani: An Account of British Government in the West Indies, 
Duke University Press.


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