Eric Williams’ East Indian Pursuits

I expressed curiosity about his selective emphases upon the Negro with parsimonious reference to other racial groups in the post-war Caribbean … The racial emphasis, he insisted, was purely incidental. He was writing about Negro slavery. There was no reason why I should not document the story of Indian indenture.
—Winston Mahabir In And Out Of Politics,
Imprint Caribbean Ltd. Trinidad. 1976. P. 14


The prevailing view in the Caribbean has been that Eric Williams’ main academic emphasis was on the African-American experience in the New World. Most of his published work reflects that perspective. What is hardly known is his keen interest in documenting the Asian experience in the Caribbean. Because of his pre-occupation with African-American history he found little timeto document the Asian-Caribbean experience. However, he encouraged others to do so and made strenuous efforts to organize for the publication of the first thesis ever written (1932) about Indian indentureship in the Caribbean.

In addition he withheld publication of his last manuscript, “The Blackest Thing In Slavery Was Not The Black Man” (1973) pending the addition of his own research on East Indians in the Caribbean. By 1976 he had done the necessary work and had written an additional long chapter entitled “Coolieism”.

This paper looks at these two efforts namely, Williams’ work to publish the 1932 dissertation and the addition of a chapter to his earlier (1973) manuscript. Neither manuscript was published; this paper posits possible reasons for these unfortunate absences.


The West Indian people are a people in the making. Totally devoid as yet of the historical sense, lacking in historical appreciation, they have yet to become interested in their own history which is not yet written. When it is – as written it will be in the West Indies as elsewhere, men and women will look at the past through the spectacles of the present.
—Eric Williams, Discovery and West Indian Day Brochure 1498-1952 Vol 2 No 2. Surprise Print Trinidad. 1952

The major thrust of the research and writing of Eric Williams has been in the telling and interpretation of the black experience in the New World. This avid search for explanations of the manner of the unfolding of the experience of slavery and of its aftermath, caused him to delve deeply into European history, the deus ex machina which motivated the search for new sources of raw materials and markets as well as the creation of hewers of wood and drawers of water.
However, Williams was always aware of the need to tell the story of the Asian migrants, particularly Chinese and Indian, in order to fill the historical void. In this essay we look at the determined efforts of Dr. Williams from the early 1950s to the late 1970s to encourage research and publication of work on the Indian experience. With an eye, no doubt, on his own intended writing on the subject, he gathered a considerable collection of literature on Asian, particularly Indian, immigration and on India’s post-1947 emergence. Such literature is now available for scholarly use at the Eric Williams Memorial Collection on the St. Augustine campus of the University of the West Indies.


In 1932 Edgar Erickson successfully submitted a doctoral thesis entitled “East Indian Coolies In The British West Indies 1838-1870” to the University of Wisconsin. Subsequently, in 1934 Erickson published a paper in which he summarized the major findings of that work.

Apparently Williams read this paper and in August 1951 wrote Erickson through his supervisor, Prof. Paul Knaplund, requesting a copy of the thesis for possible publication. In February 1952 Erickson sent the thesis to Williams who was then President of the Historical Society of Trinidad and Tobago. In December 1952 Williams wrote to Erickson, again via Knaplund, indicating that he was interested in having the thesis published in Trinidad and that he intended to ask the Indian High Commissioner in Trinidad to provide a foreword after he had read the work.

Erickson was delighted with this initiative and assured that “I shall co-operate in every way possible to assist you in bringing the matter of publications to a successful conclusion”.

In late February 1953 a commendatory endorsement was submitted by Indian Commissioner A.M. Sahay. At the same time Williams prepared a flyer which strongly recommended the book to a host of prominent citizens. The plan was to print 1000 copies which would sell at TT$2.50 (then half a pound sterling) per copy. With his usual thoroughness the historian outlined the six chapters of the proposed 164-page book:

  1. The experiment with private immigration
  2. The removal of the barriers to West Indian immigration
  3. The period of laissez-faire
  4. Emigration from India to the West Indies, 1851 to 1870
  5. The machinery and methods of regulating emigration from India
  6. The development of the indenture system in British Guiana

This promotional document then went into further detail indicating the archival sources used and the special topics discussed e.g. the recruiting of emigrants, mortality on the ships, sex-ratio and repatriation and re-indenture. In his commentary Williams described the text as a vital document not only in the history of the British West Indies but also in British and Indian history.

It was strictly factual and analytical “and is not disparaging to Indians”. He had enlisted the assistance of Stephen Moosai-Maharaj an eminent Presbyterian educator, and together they had excised words and expressions which were objectionable to the East Indian community. This flyer was distributed to a number of prominent East Indians who in turn canvassed their compatriots. One such person was Dr. Ibbit Mosaheb, now a dentist, who had been one of Williams’ students at Howard, later an organizer of Williams’ lectures at Montrea1. The drive was successful; there is a list of professionals who contributed, often more than the price of the book. Yussuff Mohamed, head-teacher at the Charlieville Muslim School ordered 50 copies for the teachers of his district and Erickson himself booked 100 copies. Things were moving along nicely.

Academic Amendments

Williams’ keen interest in seeing the early publication of the thesis caused him to urgently comb the thesis, re-arranging paragraphs, sharpening footnotes and changing “offensive” words. For example he advised Erickson to avoid the words “coolie”, “blacks” and “natives” and to replace these with “Indian”, “Negro”, native “Indian” or “West Indian” as the case warranted. He recommended that names should be substituted for phrases such as “His Lordship” and “The Noble Lord” which were sarcastic phrases in the West Indies. Perhaps he was alluding to the fact that such titles were used by calypsonians and Midnight Robber mas’ men. The archaic names of colonies should be replaced by modem ones: St. Kitts for St. Christopher and British Guiana for Demerara. Footnotes should come at the end of each chapter and not at the end of each page and the names of ships were to be underlined.

Erickson agreed to all of these changes except Demerara which was the district of British Guiana to which the Indians went initially. Therefore to change Demerara would be to distort the meaning. Additionally, there were two pages which, Williams claimed, were offensive to Indo-Trinidadians. On page 97 Erickson had quoted Dr. George Bonyun, a government medical officer, who, after a tour of the estates in Demerara had reported that the Madrasi labourers were inferior to those of Calcutta and could be seen picking up carcasses from the nastiest trenches and currying such putrid meat. Williams noted that all his Indo-Trinidadian readers had disapproved of that statement. Erickson should categorically state that this was a quotation or, better still, relegate it to a footnote.

The other page causing offence was page 186 in which Erickson, quoting the 1871 Des Voeux Report had described the estate manager’s problems in dealing with “silent, observant and often unpredictable Chinese; the amiable but often avenging Indian and the lackadaisical, jealous and superior-feeling Negroes. As a group the managers were resourceful, intelligent and quite humane individuals”. Williams pointed out that it was not tactful in the context of developing West Indian democracy “to refer to the Chinese as capricious, the Indians as untruthful and the Negroes as indifferent … whilst you call the managers intelligent”.

In this case too, he urged Erickson to make it abundantly clear that he was quoting from the 1871 Report.
Finally, the Indian High Commissioner had objected to the words “East Indians”. Would Erickson agree to the deletion of “East”. This objection, of course, re-ignited the perennial problem of correcting Columbus’ horrible error.
Then misfortune struck.

On the 25th of January 1954 Williams wrote what must have been the saddest letter in his life:

Your letter of May 20,1953 reached me on the day of my wife’s unexpected and sudden death. Its successor of July 15 reached me in Madrid; I continued my plans for my trip on my doctor’s advice.

I had every intention in the world of replying to you during the trip, but a serous lethargy coupled with the physical strain of driving all over Europe sapped all my energies, and I only recovered my balance somewhat after seven weeks of the placid life of Switzerland. I was required to return to Trinidad two months ago, before my furlough ended, because of a meeting of the Commission, and I have found myself since that time immersed not only in the steadily increasing volume of current work but also in the pile which accumulated during my six months’ absence, to the point where 75 percent of my time outside of office hours has been given to office work. If all of this is not sufficient to excuse my delay in writing to you, perhaps you can appreciate the strain of having a two-year old daughter, with no house to live in, and books, files and papers scattered in a number of places which have only one thing in common – they are for the most part inaccessible. I cannot imagine anyone with a lower rating in public relations than myself.

The letter informed Erickson that Williams no longer had the stomach or the energy to lobby people for financial support for the book. He now intended to talk to officials of the Government Printing Press to have the book printed by them under the auspices of the Historical Society.

However, the press was slow but he hoped that the book would be published in 1954. In reply to this letter Erickson expressed his deepest sympathy for Williams’ “personal tragedy”. He was pleased that arrangements were being made to have the book printed by the Government printer “provided that the quality of the work does not have to suffer”. He also wanted to know about the kind of cover that was intended for the book.

Williams decision to send the manuscript to the Government Printery was the death knell of the intended publication. The Printery had, during the colonial days and long afterwards, built up a reputation for tardiness. In April 1955 Williams informed Erickson that he had ordered two galley proofs of the manuscript but that the printer was overburdened with working on Hansard, printing programmes for the impending visit of Princess Margaret and the preparation of jury lists. One copy of the galley proofs would be sent to Erickson as soon as it was completed; in the meantime all questions pertaining to the book were to be deferred. There is no evidence that the printer delivered the galley proofs; he proved true to form. In addition 1955 was a turbulent year for Williams; he was in serious conflict with his employers, the Caribbean Commission (which would lead to his dismissal that year) and there was mounting public pressure for him to “throw down his bucket” in the political realm. The book never saw the light of day, contributions were refunded and Caribbean society was deprived of what could have been the pioneering treatise on Indian indentureship in the Caribbean.

This failed effort to oversee the publication of the first narrative of Indian indentureship in the Caribbean did not discourage Williams from pursuing the enquiry into Asian immigration to the American world. Indications are that he wanted to write something himself to complement his research on slavery and its aftermath. From the 1950s he embarked on a vigorous document-collecting campaign in respect of Asian material. In the Memorial Collection at St. Augustine there are many files on this topic such as “Research Notes on Indian Immigration” which deals at length with the recruiting system in India; there is a book on religious instructions in Hinduism.

The collection is rich with the works of Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru, Tagore, V.P. Menon, the Upanishads, the Q’uran and a host of other Hindu and Muslim authors’ works.

On one of his visits to India he discussed with Nehru the idea of the establishment of a Chair in Indian Studies as part of a larger Institute of Afro-Asian Studies; this body was in fact set up at St. Augustine and the Chair in Indian Studies, started during the mid-sixties, has since been augmented by the addition of other areas of study such as the teaching of Hindi at St. Augustine.

‘The Blackest Thing In Slavery Was Not The Black Man’

The final part of this essay will deal with the last major academic enterprise undertaken by Williams, namely the writing of the voluminous tome “The Blackest Thing In Slavery Was Not The Black Man”. The details of that narrative have been dealt with in a separate essay but a contextual summary will be given here. In 1973 Williams submitted a paper to a conference in Puerto Rico which commemorated the centenary of the abolition of slavery in that colony. This paper was published in The Revista Americana in 1973 and Williams sent a copy of same to the historian Basil Davidson and the publisher Andre Deutsch in London, suggesting that he was prepared to elaborate on this theme in a full-length book. Deutsch responded positively to this offer and Williams proceeded to write the book. By 1973 the manuscript was prepared but Williams decided to put it down since he felt that he had omitted the important question of Asian indentured labour. In a television interview in 1976 he indicated that he needed to go to Asia in order to familiarise himself with that environment; this he did between 1973 and 1976 after which he wrote two long chapters on the subject of bonded Asian labour internationally. The heading for both chapters, namely Chapter Ten and Chapter Eleven, is the same: “Coolieism”.

Chapter 10 which focuses on bonded labour in the Caribbean is 50 pages long and Chapter 11 which moves beyond the Caribbean is 82 pages long. For Williams “Coolieism” meant the compulsory labour demanded from Asian workers in Asia and in the Western world during the 19th and 20th centuries. The narrative is informed by the thesis that Europeans or people of European descent convinced themselves that they were the owners of the Earth, carriers of high civilization and therefore entitled to use the earth’s resources to their benefit.

Chapter 10 which highlights the Caribbean scenario starts off with a quotation from Lord Hardinge, Viceroy of India, who in 1915 called Indian indentured workers “miscellaneous scraps of humanity”.

The chapter begins with a panoramic view of Indian labour in Burma, Mauritius, Assam, Ceylon and Fiji. There is a discussion of the Indian interaction with Europeans and Africans in Uganda, Kenya and (then) Tanganyika. This is followed by the problems which Nehru encountered in dealing with diasporic Indians after which the focus on Caribbean Indians broadens. Besides giving considerable details on the mechanics of indentureship, Williams makes a number of incisive observations on the system. Whereas the planters had purchased their slaves, the new immigration was subsidised by the entire community. In the same way that the whip was the discipline of slavery, the jail was the discipline of indentureship. He agreed with those who called indentureship a new form of slavery and pointed out that whilst Indian labourers were being brought into the Caribbean colonies, black workers were leaving in droves for Cuba, Central America as well as North America.

The only two sugar colonies which prospered after slavery were Trinidad and British Guiana which kept up with the progress of science and technology. This chapter emphasized the ways in which planters were happy to use one race as a counterpoise to another and highlighted the high rate of suicide among bonded workers, the adverse gender relations and the high incidence of disease and vagrancy on the plantations. The chapter is sparse on the new cultural streams introduced from the Orient, the new skills which supplemented those which were present or the plants and animals which were introduced to the Western world. There is no discussion of the new ways of seeing brought by Asian ontologies. Positive perspectives such as these would have added greater balance to the work.

The other chapter on “Coolieism” (Chapter 11) carries the story of bonded labour to a larger global consideration. In this chapter the historian deals with non-Indian labourers such as the Mongolians, Chinese, Javanese and Filipinos. The canvas is broader than the previous chapter and the Caribbean comes in only peripherally when he talks about the Chinese in Cuba or the Javanese in Suriname. The rest of the chapter deals with bonded labour in Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines and South Africa. In this way the original (1973) thesis is expanded adding other, non-African elements to the global story of race-based exploitation.

By 1976, as we have seen, Williams was ready with the text and Andre Deutsch had in fact announced the forthcoming publication. Yet the book was never published and today the lengthy tome remains, largely unused, in the archives at St. Augustine. However, what this essay suggests is that contrary to popular belief, Williams did not delete the Chinese or Indo-Caribbean immigrants from his historical radar. If one is to judge from the meticulous care with which he treated the Erickson thesis then one can imagine the pain which its non-publication would have caused him.

He was keen to be mid-wife to the effort but equally concerned that nothing offensive be told. The fact that he ensured the return of the monies collected speaks to his honesty in a place where that virtue has always been rare. There is no record (so far) of Erickson’s disappointment after his hopes had been so buoyed up in the early stages of the negotiations, or of the dashing of the hopes of those who would have welcomed the new learning.

Williams’ considerable collection of books, new data and supervised research on the Asian diaspora remains as a legacy for those who may now have an interest but a previous generation has been denied that knowledge. If Williams had had to make a choice between the academic life and that of the turbulent world of politics where would he have gone? We can only speculate. In a letter to Norman Manley in July 1954 he showed a definite preference for the academic. He wanted to see:

If I can get a best-seller, which will allow me to retire and devote my time solely to writing and to West Indian education through that medium. I am persecuted through that medium. I am persecuted because of my writing; I think therefore I ought to write some more.

As it turned out he opted for the role of Plato’s philosopher king which required him to constantly juggle between the two worlds. As the political pressures increased from the 1970s the time for academic pursuits diminished, hence the unfinished work and the plethora of unanswered questions.

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