Wednesday, January 17, 2018

In the midst of it

One encouraging sign that T&T is becoming more interested in documenting the past is the number of autobiographies and biographies which have been appearing recently. Autobiographies and memoirs are when a person writes down his/her own story: you are writing your own life (or a part of it, as with a "growing-up" memoir). Biographies are studies of someone's life written by another person; the subject may be living or dead.

Both types of life stories are very valuable in the process of recording and analyzing the past. After all, history is made by individuals. So it's good to notice the publication, over the last few months, of biographies of Charles Le Cadre by Anthony de Verteuil—the subject of my last piece—and of business magnate Sydney Knox by Robert Clarke. Famous artist Jackie Hinkson published his autobiography just last month.

But certainly the most eagerly awaited autobiography to appear recently is that by Mr ANR Robinson. With the striking title In the Midst of It, and long in the planning and writing, it was launched in September. And no one has been more in the midst of it than Mr Robinson, whose active political career stretched from 1956 to 2003, and who held the offices of Chairman of the Tobago House of Assembly, Prime Minister and President of the Republic.

I suspect most readers will be especially interested in the narrative of Mr Robinson's political career and may overlook chapter 1 on his childhood and young manhood in Tobago. For me, a social rather than a political historian, this chapter—which is actually the longest in the book—was perhaps the most rewarding of all.

It paints an almost idyllic picture of village life in Tobago in the 1930s. Castara and the other villages were self-sufficient rural communities which produced (or caught) much of what they consumed, and exchanged commodities in a highly personalised, face to face economy of "exchange". Rooted in the land and the sea, these folk were cash-poor but rich in a sense of heritage, community and values: hard work, mutual support, Christian faith. The Tobago of Mr Robinson's youth resonates with the richly detailed account given by Susan Craig in the second volume of her wonderful book The Changing Society of Tobago.

Of course, Tobago is important all through the book, for it has always been Mr Robinson's political base, and its status, its struggle for autonomy, has been one of his main causes. What I've called "The Tobago Narrative"—the sense that Tobago has long suffered from neglect and discrimination in the union with Trinidad imposed during the colonial era in the late 1800s—is well expressed in his autobiography.

Mr Robinson devotes only a few pages to the struggle to establish the THA (1980) and his time as its first Chairman. He makes it clear, however, that he has never supported independence for Tobago, only a workable autonomy in a unitary state. In any case, he was soon called away from Tobago politics to become the leader of the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR), the coalition which swept into power with a landslide at the end of 1986.

Mr Robinson's account of the rapid dissolution of NAR, though interesting, doesn't really, in my view, advance our understanding of this event, which in many ways still haunts the nation. He seems to accept no responsibility for the disaster. It was all the fault of the Panday faction, especially Humphrey, Sudama and Panday himself. Of course, I have no doubt that Mr Robinson sincerely believes that this was the case.

There are other key events or decisions of his political life which don't receive the critical analysis that they seem to deserve. For instance, he does not explain why, as an active party politician and very senior Cabinet minister, he felt it was right to accept the presidency in 1997.

Above all, the most controversial decision of his presidency—the decision to appoint Mr Manning as Prime Minister after the 18/18 tied election in December 2001—is certainly not clarified by the way Mr Robinson deals with it in his book. He writes that he was greatly surprised by the "commotion" which arose because of his famous reference to "moral and spiritual values" in his address to the nation, and that "the most peculiar interpretations" were put on that reference. But he merely tells us that he "had no doubt that, if MPs had adhered to their oath of office, they would advise me to appoint Mr Manning". This, in my view, is to further mystify an already mysterious decision, even if it was clearly justified in his own mind.

Perhaps Mr Robinson could have been more candid in his treatment of some key episodes in his political career. But there is much to admire here: his heroism in 1990, and his stellar contribution to the International Criminal Court, to take just two examples. Everyone interested in the history of T&T over the last 50 years should read this book, and form their own opinions about the long and often controversial public life of ANR Robinson.