October 2015

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Reginald Dumas has been described as a mandarin: a member of a scholarly elite devoted to public service, perhaps an endangered species in these days. His contributions to nation-building in his own T&T and to regional and international causes have been multifaceted, distinguished, and sustained over a lifetime.

Now he has published a memoir—he calls it a retrospective—covering his first 30 years. (We must hope that subsequent installments will amount to a full-fledged autobiography.) Dumas says in his preface that he has focused more on the social environments he inhabited than on details of his personal life, and he provides many pages of valuable historical background and context for the different stages of his education and career up to age 30.

As a historian, my main interest in Dumas’ memoir is its value as a source for T&T’s history in the twentieth century. Now, historians are trained to be wary of this kind of source. When someone writes a memoir or autobiography, he is crafting his own life story, he is hoping to make his readers see it as he sees it, and we are all naturally biased in our own favour.

At the same time memoirs can open a window into the past; through one life, which may or may not be typical of its times, we can enter the society in which that person lived. This is definitely the case here; we learn a great deal about T&T during the 1940s to 1960s through the pages of Dumas’ memoir.

For me (but probably not for many readers), the first three chapters, taking the boy and young man up to the time he went to Cambridge (chapters 1 to 3), are especially rich. Dumas was the classic ‘scholarship boy.’ The son of an ambitious, educated, but far from rich mother (his father died when he was quite young and seems to have been less influential on the boy), he won them all: college exhibition to Queen’s Royal College (QRC), house scholarship to go on to sixth form, and the supreme prize, the Island Scholarship which took him to Cambridge.

Though both his parents were Tobagonian, the young Dumas grew up in Chaguanas, where his formidable mother was the district midwife and government nurse. His was a middle-class household by virtue of her profession and local influence, and her lifestyle, but it was often cash-poor, especially after his father’s death when he was ten. Dumas remembers a racially mixed neighbourhood but no racial friction. His most influential teacher at Chaguanas Government School was a Presbyterian Indo-Trinidadian, Isaac Sinanan.

The move to Tunapuna when he was 14 (in 1949) brought the youth to a much more ‘modern’ town, with electricity, piped water in the homes, cinemas, a library, and many schools and religious and social institutions. In 1952 there was much rejoicing in Tunapuna when the three boys who were first placed for the Island Scholarship all came from that lively and multi-racial town: Lloyd Best, John Neehall and Dumas.

The chapters on growing up in Chaguanas and Tunapuna in the 1940s and early 1950s are excellent sources for social history. Many readers will be especially interested in the chapter on Dumas at QRC. He was there in its glory days (1946-53) and he gives a rich description of the ethos of the school, its traditions and its masters, which can be compared with C. L. R. James’ celebrated account from an earlier generation.

After Cambridge (1954-58), described in chapter 4, Dumas goes on to write on his posting in the civil service of the Federal Government (1959-62). Like so many young West Indians who had been educated abroad in the 1950s, he was deeply disappointed when the Federation collapsed in 1962. It was the shattering of the dreams of so many. Altogether, his time in the Federal civil service does not seem to have been especially challenging; but the course of his future career was set when he was selected for training in Geneva as a diplomat, to serve in the (future) Federal Foreign Service.

This never came to pass, since the Federation collapsed before it gained independence and thus control of its foreign affairs, but the year’s training meant that Dumas was an obvious choice for the new Foreign Service of independent T&T. Many readers will be especially interested in the last chapter, which deals with his experiences between 1962 and 1965, and his relationships with Ellis Clarke and Eric Williams.

He was sent to Washington as a junior member of the new Embassy there, headed by Clarke. Dumas gives a lively account of life as a very junior diplomat under Clarke, who greatly influenced him, and writes of his shock at being exposed for the first time to American racism—Washington in the early 1960s was still very much a southern and segregated city, despite being the national capital.

This last chapter includes an eye-opening account of how foreign policy in the new nation was developed, with Williams (of course) as the chief architect of that policy no matter who happened to be the minister of the day. The new ministry had little input into policy making and ambassadors like Clarke usually had no clear instructions: Clarke simply “deduced” that T&T should take a non-aligned position when the nation entered the UN.

Probably because of Clarke’s close personal relationship with Williams, Dumas was chosen to make the on-site arrangements for the Prime Minister’s celebrated trip to Africa in 1964—his first experience of Africa—and then to open a T&T Embassy in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) in 1965. He was just 30 when he left on this mission

This memoir gives us a valuable source document for understanding T&T’s social and political history in the 1940s to 1960s, when the modern nation, for good and for ill, was in process of formation. And it also illuminates the early years of a distinguished son who has contributed to nation-building in so many ways, and continues to do so in these troubled times.

Bridget Brereton is Professor Emerita at The UWI, specialising in Caribbean History.