May 2018

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The discipline of history, like all branches of knowledge, develops through the training and mentoring of young scholars, usually within institutions of tertiary education which offer graduate programmes in the field. Promising graduate students are really the “seed corn” of the historian’s profession.

So I was pleased to read a new volume of essays, titled Ideology, Regionalism, and Society in Caribbean History, edited by Shane Pantin and Jerome Teelucksingh. Pantin is a UWI graduate in both history and law and a budding attorney, while Teelucksingh is a lecturer in the History Department at St Augustine. Unlike most academic collections of this kind, six out of the ten contributors are either currently enrolled in post-graduate programmes or received their PhD fairly recently. That this was a deliberate strategy is confirmed by the book’s dedication: To young academics and scholars.

Another interesting aspect is that most of the essays deal with recent history, the second half of the last century. Historians have traditionally been rather reluctant to write about the recent past, preferring to leave it to the political scientists, so this emphasis is especially welcome.

everal essays deal with T&T history. A valuable piece by American historian Matthew Quest examines the New Beginning Movement of the 1970s – to my knowledge the first serious analysis of this small but important revolutionary group, whose leaders were mostly intellectuals and academics deeply influenced by C.L.R. James’ ideas. Quest uses the group’s publications and oral history interviews to probe its ideas and its creation of a network of like-minded, left-wing intellectuals based in the Caribbean, Canada, the USA and Britain. One of the advantages of studying the recent past is that you can employ the oral history methodology – using the spoken memories of people still alive who witnessed or took part in the events you are examining as a key source.

St. Augustine PhD History student Danalee Jahgoo writes about the campaign led by Eric Williams for the return of Chaguaramas, the World War II base, in the 1950s and early 1960s. She considers both the reasons for the campaign, and the American responses in the context of the Cold War and concerns about security. Her thesis will examine the role of United States security-driven strategies in shaping the development of T&T from World War II to the 1980s.

Dealing with the same period, the 1950s, another PhD student (and St. Augustine graduate), Dexnell Peters, who is completing his thesis at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, analyses the popular responses in Trinidad to the West Indian Federation of 1958-62. His main sources are the T&T Guardian, calypsos, and oral history interviews. He shows how enthusiasm for the Federation – of course its government and legislature were situated in Port of Spain – co-existed uneasily with growing T&T nationalism.

Coming right down to the early 2000s, Teelucksingh and Georgina Chami, who is based at the Institute of International Relations at St. Augustine, look at how the Trinidad Carnival has become a global phenomenon. They see this as an example of “cultural diplomacy” in action, what has come to be known as the exercise of “soft power” in the international arena.

A leading authority on C.L.R. James, the British scholar Christian Høgsbjerg, writes about the International African Service Bureau, a London-based Pan-African group which James once called “the most striking West Indian creation between the wars.” Established in 1937, it was led by fellow-Trini George Padmore, and James wrote for and edited its journal before he left for the USA in 1938.

Other essays deal with aspects of regional history. An essay by recent UWI (Mona) PhD Renee Nelson, which nicely complements that by Peters, examines the work of the Federal Information Service between 1957 and 1962. Led by Trinidadian William Richardson, it had the difficult task of trying to spread knowledge about, and enthusiasm for, the short-lived West Indian Federation. One of the interesting things about this essay is the use she makes of letters written by West Indians to the “Federal Letterbox” – the public was encouraged to write with questions, concerns and comments about the Federation, and the letters were read and replied to on the radio programme that Richardson ran. These letters, in the archives of the Federation now held by the Cave Hill campus of UWI, provide rich testimony of ordinary people’s ideas and concerns at this period.

Dane Morton-Gittens, a recent St. Augustine History PhD, writes about a governor of Barbados and the Windward Islands in the 1870s who tried (and failed) to get the Barbadian elites to accept a new “Confederation” scheme, while Fareena Alladin, a PhD candidate in Sociology at St. Augustine, looks at the place of food in Caribbean development.

Finally, co-editor Pantin contributes an interesting piece about how history writing could promote regional integration. Using the multi-volume UNESCO General History of the Caribbean (1997-2011) as his starting point, he argues that history remains an important force in shaping the region’s identity and so historical research and writing (like this book) can help to develop a robust regional consciousness. He believes that “the extensive use of history as an analytical tool to comprehend the region’s philosophy, sociology, legal environment and economy” is a vital aspect in the ongoing process of Caribbean integration.