Bridget Brereton

I want to notice the recent death of an eminent Caribbean historian, Colin A Palmer.

Palmer was born in Jamaica in 1944, and obtained his BA in history from the Mona campus of The UWI in 1964 (two years ahead of me). He received his MA and PhD degrees from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in the USA. Palmer went on to teach at several US universities, including the University of North Carolina (where he was the first black chair of the history department), the City University of New York Graduate School, and finally Princeton. During his time at Princeton he also served as Director of the Scholars in Residence programme at the famous Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York.

Though Palmer lived and worked in the USA for most of his adult life, he kept in close touch with his first alma mater, The UWI. He served as an external examiner in history, he gave the Goveia Memorial Lecture at Mona in 1996, and he was given an honorary D.Litt by The UWI in 2009.

Palmer was an astonishingly prolific scholar with a truly remarkable list of books which he wrote, or edited. His first book, Slaves of the White God: Blacks in Mexico 1570-1650 (1976), was a pioneering study of African slavery in early colonial Mexico; it became a classic. Over the next 40 years, he produced a stream of books and articles, on a very wide range of topics: he researched and wrote on the history of Latin America, the Caribbean, and the USA, always with a focus on the African Diaspora.

In the last 15 years of his life—remarkably prolific years despite very serious health challenges—Palmer turned his focus to the English-speaking Caribbean in the 20th century. He produced a “trilogy” of major books on the period leading up to national independence in T&T, Guyana and Jamaica.

First was Eric Williams & the Making of the Modern Caribbean (2006), a sympathetic though not entirely uncritical study of Williams up to 1970. (I remember asking him why he ended his book in 1970; he confessed that he’d been unable to understand Williams’ behaviour in the last ten years of his life.) Next was Cheddi Jagan and the Politics of Power (2010), a study of Guyana’s tortured struggle for national independence.

Palmer returned home to Jamaica for his last two books. Freedom’s Children (2014) examined the 1938 labour rebellion there and the struggle for independence, dominated by the duel between the cousins Norman Manley and Alexander Bustamante (he clearly admired the former much more than the latter). His final book, Inward Yearnings: Jamaica’s Journey to Nationhood (2016), was a sort of spin-off or sequel to Freedom’s Children; it examines the search by Jamaicans after 1938 for a sense of racial and political identity.

Palmer’s admiration for Williams led him to work closely with Erica Williams Connell and the Eric Williams Memorial Collection. He was the co-organiser of the 2011 conference at Oxford University to commemorate Williams’ centenary and edited the book of conference papers, The Legacy of Eric Williams (2015). In 2011 he also delivered the Central Bank’s annual Williams Memorial Lecture.

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From all I have heard and read, Palmer was an inspiring teacher, mentor and supervisor to his many students, and always worked on behalf of black and minority students in the US universities where he taught. But above all he was a passionate researcher; it was no surprise that just two days before he died in Kingston, he had been working in Jamaica’s National Archives.

Palmer was an outstanding member of his (and my) generation of historians of the Caribbean; he’s left a fine legacy in his books and his students.

—Bridget Brereton is professor emerita of History at The UWI, St Augustine


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