A Review By KEVIN BALDEOSINGH
Gerard A. Besson
Paria Company Publishing Ltd, 2010
ISBN 978-976-8054-82-1; 283 pages.
This is really two books masquerading as one. In the first part, writer and publisher Gerard Besson gives a skilful demonstration of the historian’s art in microcosm, tracing through official records and personal family history the story of the Bessons’ settling in Trinidad. The second part, which is more polemic than history, examines the background and rise of Dr Eric Williams to become the first Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago.
The putative link between the two books is the custom of “placage” (concubinage) which created the mixed class in early Trinidad, since both Besson and Williams are products of this particular history. So the “will” in the title is a pun: the fortunes of the progeny of concubinage often depended on whether they were included in the wills of their white fathers or not. Williams’ family was mixed, but they had been left out of their ancestors’ inheritance. Thus, writes Besson, “I will suggest that Dr Williams’ political personality was constructed around 18th and 19th century events and that his perception of these events would eventually produce a political culture in which the role of the victim and the perpetuation of guilt were as readily embraced as they were easily politicised.”
One of the interesting sub-texts in Besson’s study, which unfortunately remains undeveloped, is the portrait of Trinidad’s white and black elites. “Some of the French patois-speaking Free Blacks and People of Colour had been wealthy land and slave-owners. By the early 19th century, Trinidad’s Afro-French/English Creole society had produced a small black and coloured educated middle class, which boasted a few university-trained professionals. Compared to other black and mixed people in the neighbouring islands, they had already gained a head start. Among these were the well-known Philippe, Romain, Beaubrun, Saturnin, Cadet, Boissière, Regis, Bicais, Rambert, and Langton families.” Similarly, the names of formerly prominent French-Creole and other whites – Collens, Bowen, de la Bastide, Wight, etc – give a rough idea of social mobility in the island.
Besson ends Part One of the book with an account of his father who, he writes, “was brought up by his mother’s brother, Simon Josse de l’Isle, and his family in Arima in unfortunate circumstances.” Joe Besson, also known as Boysie, was largely excluded from the family, wearing hand-me-downs from his older cousins, ill-treated by his uncle, and given only a rudimentary education. According to Besson, he was “left to fend for himself and make his way in the world, which he did with considerable charm.” Besson offers no speculation on how his father was able to overcome this disadvantaged childhood —a reticence that is perhaps understandable, but which stands in marked contrast to the extensive speculations about Williams that run through Part Two of the book.
Besson blames Williams and the PNM for many of the ills plaguing Trinidad and Tobago now. In his introduction to the second part, he writes, “I am attempting to alter the criteria of identity formation of Caribbean people along the lines of what I call the ‘cult of the will’. This cult or obsession, and the politics it has produced, apportions a false sense of inherited victimhood and entitlement to some, and to others inherited guilt and social embarrassment. It locks us in a perpetual state of irresponsibility and powerlessness, and makes us prisoners of the past.”
Besson adopts the “great man” theory of history, which assumes that individuals shape events rather than events facilitating individuals of particular skills and outlooks. He also has an explicit agenda in respect to the proper approach to history: “…the condemnation of what, in my view, amounts to the corruption of the scientific methodology of history for the popularisation of nationalistic politics in the mid-20th century.” But Besson himself is not entirely rigorous in his historical analysis since he has didactic ends in writing his study.
He devotes some pages, for example, to rejecting Williams’ thesis that the abolition of slavery was driven by economic rather than humanitarian motives, yet cites none of the scholars, not even Seymour Drescher, who have provided hard data undermining the argument. Besson also claims that in the 20 to 30 years after 1970, there was a “coarsening” of the society which he attributes to “Williams’ idea (which was accepted and carried forward by his successors) that the people of Trinidad and Tobago were still victims, and therefore could not be held individually accountable for their actions and that they were entitled to unearned benefits. This led to the collapse of civic and moral responsibility and expressed itself in the breakdown of civil society and the institutions that serve it.”
But Besson does not define what “coarsening” means, nor does he cite statistics or any other data to prove his argument that there was once an era of “civic and moral responsibility” in T&T which has now vanished. He could have referred to the rise in murders over the past decade, but how does the drop in infant mortality over the past 50 years, the reduction in race barriers, or the increase in literacy rates fit into his thesis? And does this coarsening, whatever it is, apply to Trinidad and Tobago as a whole or just to the Afro-Trinidadian segment? Besson also criticises what he terms the “moral relativism” of leftists, claiming that the PNM political culture is founded on this philosophy, without seeming aware that the logical obverse of “moral absolutism” has been responsible for greater historical evils and ignoring the fact that the core of PNM supporters are Christians. He is equally oblivious to the philosophical paradox of asserting that ideas in history and politics determine people’s attitudes, but that people should take individual responsibility for their actions.
So the first part of Besson’s book is a valuable, albeit limited, contribution to Trinidad’s history, delineating as it does the background of the island’s foundational elites. The second part may be interesting as polemic, but Besson fails to ground his argument in a manner which will persuade anyone who doesn’t want to be persuaded.