Imperialism after Colonialism
Long-lost Words on Trinidad
November 15, 2023
Spectre is thrilled to publish here an interview with C.L.R. James that was largely unknown for half a century. The interview appeared in 1970 in an Ottawa-based radical newspaper called Octopus. We have kept spelling and punctuation as in the original for the sake of historical accuracy, although we have identified historical figures in parentheses. “On Trinidad” was a spoken interview and carries many of the traits of oral speech. It remains a fascinating document.
Several people were instrumental in allowing us to bring this to print. Ravi Malhotra, professor of law at the University of Ottawa, first alerted us to this piece and proposed that Spectre publish it. David Austin, a Montreal-based C.L.R. James scholar, helped identify the source of this article. Robert A. Hill, literary executor of the C.L.R. James Estate, kindly granted Spectre permission to publish this piece. We thank them all for their assistance and solidarity.
Selma James REF1, renowned socialist-feminist writer and activist, generously offered Spectre her perceptive introduction to “On Trinidad.”1 Based on her close knowledge of this phase in C.L.R. James’s life, and her own involvement with him in the movement for Caribbean independence, Selma James gives us unique insights into James’s internationalist approach to anticolonial struggle. We thank her for this, and for being an inspiration in the struggle for global justice.
Introduction to C.L.R. James’s “On Trinidad”
When C.L.R. James returned home to Trinidad in 1958, after twenty-six years in the UK and the US, he was invited to stay and help the independence movement headed by Dr. Eric Williams, his old student. At that time, we saw independence as not only possible but inevitable and did not see the dangers of being part of a movement which was not anticapitalist. The Cuban revolution had not yet happened.
C.L.R. supported Williams against the British and for the return of the military base at Chaguaramas, which the British had given to the US during World War II. Though C.L.R. went along with Williams’s nationalism, what he focused on and campaigned for was internationalist. The British government had brought the islands into a federation in order to offload their Caribbean colonies. C.L.R. saw the possibility for the populations of the islands to work together to develop their own internal economy and power by regenerating agriculture away from sugar, first of all growing their own food, and pursuing other aspects of their natural resources to which each island could contribute.
It seemed to us that the only way the Caribbean could stand against the imperial power to the north was to develop an independent politics based on economic independence which could only be attempted through a federation built by the populations working together for themselves and each other. C.L.R. campaigned from British Guiana (later Guyana) to Jamaica for this federation.
But the politicians who took the power that the movement had won from the British Empire were so greedy that they refused to share that power even amongst themselves, making deals with the imperialists instead. Williams, who had asked C.L.R. to stay and help, soon wanted to be “king of Trinidad,” as I saw it then, and was ready to sell out on Chaguaramas (the US military base) and much else, and to shed C.L.R.
Up against the personal ambition of the politicians, the federation fell apart. It was that tragic defeat that taught C.L.R. (and me) that nationalist politics without a class perspective would undermine the movement and enable a new form of colonialism. The capitalist colonial structure that had been imposed on the society and which the elite had been educated to assume had to be rejected and destroyed.
By 1970, C.L.R. had seen and embraced the Cuban revolution, which has held its own for the past sixty-five years against the monster to the north. He had met Julius Nyerere, the president of Tanzania, who in 1967 had produced The Arusha Declaration based on the policy of ujamaa—the mobilisation of the majority rural population. (Despite Nyerere’s efforts, by 1969 that movement was destroyed by the same ambition within his party that the independence movement faced everywhere.) Later we were all to see what President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was able to do with Haitian grassroots creativity until the Haitian elite, backed by the US, Canada, and France, overthrew the people’s power which he had helped to build.
Before we left Trinidad in 1962, the offer came to republish The Black Jacobins, C.L.R.’s history of the victorious Haitian revolution which abolished slavery and created the first independent Black republic. It had been out of print for years. C.L.R.’s 1970 remarks “On Trinidad” is his considered view of what anticolonial movements anywhere result in unless the society they aim to create is based on the self-mobilization of the population to recreate society anew.
C.L.R. James (1970)
This will tell you what Trinidad is like. You get off at Piarco (Airport) and you take a taxi to the chief town which is Port-of-Spain. You turn up the main street and within 200 yards, you stop. Independence Square. Good! So you pull up the taxi and you say. Well, this is a fine square. You have some magnificent buildings here. Yes. You ask him, What is the building? He says, That is Barclay’s Bank. And what is that building? That is the Canadian Bank of Commerce. And what is the big one next to it? That’s the Royal Bank of Canada. And what is the big one over there? That is Chase Manhattan. And what is that one? That is the Bank of London and Montreal. And that one? That is the Bank of London and Halifax. In other words, Independence Square is surrounded by some of the most magnificent buildings in the territory and all of them are foreign banks. That’s how we live. They rule the place. That’s why Cuba’s Castro is doing so well. All the money that used to go abroad stays there now. So that the purchasing power of the population has increased by many hundreds of millions of pesos. But that’s where we are in Trinidad. ..If you are in the taxi he puts on his radio. You say, You have a fine radio station here. That belongs to Lord Thompson. You say, Well at any rate this paper, this Trinidad Guardian, this is your paper? He says, No, that belongs to Lord Thompson, too. You say, For God sake take me out of here, please! I thought I had left Lord Thompson behind me in London. Take me out of here. Drive me through the country. And then you see mile after mile of sugar-cane. You say, O this is lovely, this is native to the place. He tells you, No it belongs to Tate and Lyle. And then you say, O God, take me to the sea. He takes you to the sea, and there are the oil derricks and he says, that belongs to Texaco….so that is how we live….there is nothing else. And those men who are political leaders carry out the instructions of these people, Texaco, Barclay’s Bank, Chase Manhatton [sic] and these are masters of those islands, as they were before we had the flag, before we had independence, before we had the national anthem, that is Trinidad!
The foreign capital that is there is holding the country up by the throat. And the country is fed up with them. Now there is going to be a very serious situation in Trinidad. The population is one million. The amount of unemployed is 200,000—20 per cent of the population. If there was a similar number of unemployed in America, the unemployed would be 40 million. Now the country is small, but twenty percent of your population unemployed….whether the country is large or small that is a very serious matter….and they have no way of getting out of it….and this money year after year goes away….
Those islands began as sugar plantations and after 300 years they are still sugar plantations! So to change those islands means a fundamental change in the fundamental nature of the society. And these boys win the political plums and enjoy them but they are not going to change anything….
You know you go into a shop in Trinidad and you see food from London, you see food from the United States, you see food from Australia, you see food from Canada, the place where you don’t see food from is Trinidad itself. There is a lot of importation of fresh vegetables. But now this is what happens. The West Indian situation in [sic] very simple. There are people there who import tens of thousands of cans of condensed milk every year. That is one of the easiest ways of making money, because the condensed milk does not spoil. And if you have an extra 20 or 30 thousand….Now these fellows don’t want the milk industry to be developed and a lot of local milk. So they are backing the political parties which say, well we’ll diversify agriculture, but a little later. And part of this money is being paid to them. They want the condensed milk to come and they are bitterly opposed and support the parties which do not develop the local agriculture. It is as simple as that.
In ’37 to ’38 the business began in Trinidad. And it ran straight up the islands to Jamaica. In Trinidad, the Governor and the Colonial Secretary said that the revolt was justified. There was a general strike over the whole island. The people were not conscious of wanting a new society, but what they were determined to do was to show their complete disapprobation for what was going on. The government in Jamaica, Sir Edward Durnham got a stomach ache and died—the pressure. Manley [former Jamaican Prime Minister, Michael Manley was PM from 1972 to 1980 and 1989 to 1992, ed.] has told me that the colonial government in Jamaica fell apart completely, that he and Bustamente [Alexander Bustamante, first Prime Minister of an independent Jamaica, elected originally in 1962, ed.] Prime Minister went around the country telling people, go back home, we’ll see that something is done. You will get, what is likely, is a movement of the population in general, saying we are against this goddamn thing and bring it down. They did it in ’37–’38, they’ll do it again. They don’t want what is going on. What exactly should take its place…? Then the British Government sent hastily a Royal Commission which said this and that…but the people…You see a West Indian island is a very peculiar island. Barbados is 21 miles long by 14 miles broad. And within the average West Indian island there is no difference between urban and rural and you can get from one end of the island to the other within a few hours by paying a bus 48 cents. So that everybody knows everything and what is going on; so any explosion there is complete. That is what happened in Cuba; that is the strength of the Cuban Revolution—geographic and demographic questions—and that can happen in any West Indian island. Even Guyana, which has that tremendous hinterland, the population is all concentrated on the seacoast as if its [sic] a little island; 600,000 of them live there and the rest is all hinterland.
Independence has made the situation more explosive. That’s what independence means.…Because instead of complaining that the British government….before independence you could always lay the blame on the foreign government. They are ruling us, they are in charge. But now they’re gone. The fellows there have to say, Well, what…that is the situation.
Something is going to happen. We have an example of what could happen in Cuba. What has happened in Cuba is a Caribbean Revolution. What took place in San Domingo was the same. When it took place in San Domingo, it resulted in a clean sweep of what was going on. The Cuban Revolution has resulted in a clean sweep of what was going on.
Duvalier in Haiti is kept there with the United States’ assistance. Why? Because although he’s the lowest kind of government in Latin America, nevertheless if he goes, they’re afraid of a Haitian Cuba, a Haitian Castro. They’ll put up with all Duvalier’s nonsense. They rushed hastily to the Dominican Republic to shut that down. But they’re not going to be able to keep sending troops all over the Caribbean.
The armed struggle in the Caribbean will be against those local West Indian rulers who now have taken over. They have a national anthem, they have a national flag, they have the role of Prime Minister; they go to England for the Prime Minister’s conference; they are entertained by the Queen; but the fundamental economic situation that existed under colonialism, still exists and there is likely to be tremendous upheavals against them because the imperialists work through them. They carry on. That is the kind of struggle that is going to take place. I’m pretty sure of that. ×