Saturday, February 24, 2018

The passing of a historian

 Researching and writing history is a cumulative process: it depends on the output of generations of historians, whose work builds upon -even when it also challenges or criticises- that of their predecessors.

And there are different kinds of historians: those with several degrees in the subject who are usually based in a university, those who research and write outside academia, those who are “oral historians” whose knowledge about the past can be captured by listening to them speaking or reciting. But, so long as they write (or speak), their work will outlive them.

So I want to notice the recent death of an important T&T historian, Keith Laurence (1933-2014). He was a professional, academic historian who was based at the St Augustine campus of UWI from 1972 (he had previously spent several years at the Jamaican campus). He taught West Indian (and other) history to generations of students, but here I want to deal with his contribution to the writing of Caribbean history.

Laurence was one of a small group of West Indians who earned doctorates in history from British universities in the 1950s (others included Elsa Goveia, Douglas Hall and Roy Augier). His 1958 Cambridge thesis was a pioneering study of “Immigration into Trinidad and British Guiana, 1834-1871”.

But his first book, Immigration into the West Indies in the 19th century, was much broader than the thesis, for it was an account of all the different kinds of migration to the region after the end of slavery. This short book, published in 1971, is still widely read, especially by students. 

Generations of A Level, CAPE and university students have quoted (or misquoted) Laurence’s statement in that book: “In the 1850s and 1860s indentured immigration first stopped the headlong economic decline of British Guiana and Trinidad and then brought them to substantial prosperity by 1870 as sugar production began to grow in direct proportion to immigration. As a colleague wrote to me, how many historians can say they have written an “iconic sentence” which has been so often quoted by students over 40-plus years?

But Laurence’s most important book was A Question of Labour (1994), the authoritative study of indentured Indian immigration to Guyana and Trinidad between 1875 and 1917. His thesis and several published articles had dealt with the 1834-1871 period, but in this book, he chose to start in 1875, when the system had entered its “mature phase” after earlier decades of trial and error. It is also a fact that the large majority of indentured Indians arrived after 1875.

This long book is a meticulously researched and balanced account and analysis of how the system of indentured Indian immigration actually functioned, from recruitment in India, to the voyage to the Caribbean, to the management of the indentured labourers in Guyana and Trinidad, to the events that led to its final termination in 1917.

Laurence examines the situation of the indentured Indians in the two colonies during this period, and notes both the successes and failures of the attempts by British officials to protect them from flagrant abuse by planters. And he considers how the ex-indentured labourers managed (up to 1917) to create settled communities outside the plantations, especially in Trinidad.

Though post-slavery immigration was Laurence’s major research field, he also published an important book on the sister island: Tobago in Wartime, 1793-1815 (1995). This well researched study looks at Tobago’s history during a period of turbulence and uncertainty as the island was caught between British and French colonialism.

Keith Laurence’s books and many articles made a significant contribution to the writing of Caribbean history; he was one of the pioneering group of West Indian historians whose work laid the foundations for those of us who followed.

Bridget Brereton is  professor 

emerita of history at University

of the West Indies, St Augustine