The commemoration of the nation's Jubilee of Independence has been useful in at least one respect: it has made many think (and write) about the past. It has encouraged the habit of looking back to understand the present, a history-consciousness which is not on the whole very well developed here.
One of the ways of thinking about the past has been the interest in making lists of heroes, pioneers and role models; of builders of the nation; of "icons" and, generally, of notable persons of the last 50 (or more) years who have made an important contribution to what became the nation of T&T.
Not everyone felt that this was such a good idea. A few writers in the papers thought that this was futile at best, or that the search for "icons" and "heroes" marginalised the ordinary men and women who contributed so much to our development. And there is something to be said for this argument. For me, however, the value of thinking about notable individuals in our history lies precisely in the interest in the past which it can stimulate.
In any list made of the persons who have helped to build the nation and contributed to Independence, two names are almost sure to be there: AA Cipriani and CLR James.
Cipriani was the first really important labour leader in T&T. His organisation, the Trinidad Workingmen's Association (TWA), later renamed the Trinidad Labour Party (TLP), was the first organised mass party (no, NOT the PNM!) He agitated for self-government and for a West Indian Federation, though he didn't live to see either (he died in 1945).
James was an internationally known writer and political theorist. His many books deal with a very wide range of subjects—cricket, Caribbean history, literature, popular culture, the history of world revolutions, Marxist theory. He was an important contributor to 20th-century Marxist thought and one of the most notable thinkers and writers the region has produced.
Interestingly, there is a link between the two Trinidadians, one (Cipriani) born in 1875, the other (James) in 1901. The first book James published, and his first attempt to analyse West Indian and Trinidadian society and politics, was a biography of Cipriani. It was called The Life of Captain Cipriani: An Account of British Government in the West Indies, and it was published in 1932, when Cipriani was at the height of his influence as a labour leader and politician.
People often confuse this book with a much shorter abridged version, published by James in 1933 under the title The Case for West-Indian Self Government. This pamphlet reproduced some of the general analysis of society and politics in T&T from the earlier book, cut out all the material specifically on Cipriani, and made a direct plea to Britain to grant the British West Indies self-government.
Why did James, a young teacher, cricketer and aspiring writer in Trinidad around 1929-31, decide to write a biography of Cipriani as his first work of non-fiction? (He had already written and published several short stories, and a novel, Minty Alley, which was published in 1936).
On many occasions, James has written that he was not really interested in local politics as a young man in Trinidad (he left for England early in 1932). He was mainly interested in literature, in writing, and in cricket. Nor was he a follower of Cipriani, or a member of the TWA. He has said that in the 1920s, he had little interest either in the "race question" or in what he called the "national" question—that is, the issue of self-government for colonies like T&T.
But James was an active member of a small group of young writers and thinkers who have come to be known as the Beacon group after the name of the magazine they put out for a time in the early 1930s. These young people certainly had political views and generally sympathised with radical ideas. And by the late 1920s, the group had become fascinated with Cipriani, the white "French Creole" who had unexpectedly emerged as the leader of the TWA and of the colony's labour movement.
James decided to write a book about Cipriani, a political biography that would illustrate through one man's struggle the nature of crown colony government in T&T and the need for self-rule. He approached the Captain—as Cipriani was always known from his military rank during World War 1—who agreed at once, granted him several interviews, and provided many documents as materials for the book.
Researching and writing the book, which was complete by the time James left Trinidad early in 1932, was an eye-opener for him. As he wrote many years after, "my hitherto vague ideas of freedom crystalised around a political conviction: we should be free to govern ourselves".
The planned biography broadened into an attack on the whole theory and practice of colonial rule and a sweeping analysis of society and politics in Trinidad.
Yet the core of the book was the life of the Captain. In my next piece I'll try to explain what it was about Cipriani which so impressed James—and thousands of followers.
lBridget Brereton is emerita
professor of history at UWI,
St Augustine, and has studied and written about the history of T&T, and the Caribbean, for many decades