Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Cult of the Will

by Gerard A. Besson

This study deals with the complex issues of race, history and politics in Caribbean society.

In its first part, “François Besson”, it examines the fortunes of a French creole family between the mid-18th and early 20th centuries, and describes their experiences against the backdrop of the social and political conflicts occasioned by the excesses of plantation slavery and the upheavals of the French revolution. It looks at Julien Fédon’s revolution of 1795 in Grenada, examines  the nature of the relationship between master and slave, the children of these unions, and the deadly divisions that were at times engendered as a result of the custom of the plaçage (concubinage), causing ‘victors’ or ‘victims’ of “The Cult of the Will” to emerge; thus influencing at times the destiny of these islands. The second part of the book, “Eric  Williams”, studies the manner in which an historian-turned-politician, tragically afflicted by “The Cult of the Will” and perhaps convinced that history is destiny, used, in Trinidad and Tobago, the politics of inherited guilt and inherited victimhood to create scapegoats in an attempt to assuage his “Inward Hunger”, while making clever use of  ‘Black Nationalism’ that was becoming popular in the 1950s.
Revisionist in its scope, this book undertakes to change our understanding of the past, so that we may create a more useful future. It examines the points in time when the historical narratives of the country changed, occasioned by a shift in moral values, bringing about a different interpretation of its history. It ponders the question whether the presidency of Barack Obama may mark the end of the Eric Williams narrative of victimhood, scapegoating and irresponsibility as expressed in its politics, and herald the start of a new, New World narrative endowed with empowerment and responsibility.

“Your thesis comes across as logical, though speculative at times, but put together with the deprivations he  (Eric Williams) admittedly experienced at Oxford and at the Caribbean Commission, the victimhood narrative is plausible, and indeed has become disruptive of this country’s civility, democracy and ethnic harmony . . . You have created a serious challenge to orthodoxy. You have broken up quite a few myths, and in fact forcefully argued how the passion for psychic compensation and restoration by Williams has led to an intensely institutionalized culture of victimhood. A victimhood now challenged by Obama, a challenge which not only shifts the paradigm but holds better promise for spiritual growth and the shaping of a common humanity.”
Professor Emeritus Ramesh Deosaran

Gerard A. Besson is a publisher, writer and historian who specialises in the history of Trinidad and Tobago and has worked in all media in a career that has spanned four decades. In 2007, he was awarded the Hummingbird Medal (Gold) for Heritage Preservation and Promotion, and in 2015, an Honorary Doctorate from the University of the West Indies.

ISBN 978-9-7680548-21
286 pages
illustrated in full colour throughout
7 x 10"

Available on and

Reviews in the Trinidad and Tobago Press:

How Rookery Nook Came To Be Named
by Prof. Brinsley Samaroo 
(published in the Trinidad Guardian, 13 June 2010)

Before reading this book, one needs to familiarise oneself with three concepts that continuously inform the writing. These are “the narrative,” “plaçage” and “the cult of the will.” These concepts become clear by the time one reaches the second part of the book, but they should have been explained at the beginning. “Narrative” in this text is not mere narration; it is not just a recounting of the French Creole and the Afro-French Creole past, but rather the spin that is put to that recalling. Narrative here means who is included and who is excluded, and the book deals at length with the consequences of that deliberately-created narrative. It is the argument of this book that Eric Williams, the historian, tailored his narrative to exclude or underplay the role of major contributions to the creation of Trinbago.
“Plaçage” refers to the high incidence of concubinage practised by European merchants, planters, military men, civil officials and the motley crowd of adventurers who came to this side of the water where European women were in very short supply, and took full advantage of slave women over whom they had total control. Later on, they pounced on the mixed-race, coloured women produced by these first encounters. Quite often, these coloured offspring were invited to share their fathers’ houses alongside his legitimate children, to be cared for by the lawful wife. There was little effort to hide placage. Besson recounts the case of John Nicholas Boissiere, who had married a woman of colour with whom he had several children, living in a posh home opposite his father’s mansion at Champs Elysées in Maraval.
In this abode, his outside, plaçage children also lived, and when some local wags commented on the number of crows (blacks) who lived in this rookery, his response was to name the residence “Rookery Nook,” which name the place proudly bears to this day. The third term that requires explanation is “the cult of the will,” which derives from the practice of plaçage. In the tangled history of the Caribbean, where paternity was often disputed, the offspring of these macho men faced an uncertain future. The will became a major determinant of either a good start in life or the prospect of abandonment. Those who were favourably treated in the will could go on to live a comfortable life, but those who were not had to paddle their own canoe in a society where skin colour and/or the kind of hair were major criteria of social and economic mobility.
Even so, being included in the will did not mean that benefits could be reaped. Besson argues that Eric Williams’ forebears, coming from this Afro-French Creole stream, were twice denied benefits that should have accrued to them by ancestors who did not consider them deserving of any patrimony. Such deprivation forced Eric’s parents into a penurious living, and this impacted negatively on the young man. Williams, the historian, made frequent references to his parents’ strained circumstances, and this sense of victimhood became a major feature of his writing, as well as his political philosophy. The cult of the will, therefore, which determined who benefited and who did not, forms a major theme of Bessons’ work. The book is divided into two parts. Part one is a carefully-gathered genealogy in which the saga of the Besson dynasty is painstakingly traced, beginning 1,000 years ago with the establishment of a church at Besson in the Auvergne region in France.
The research is thorough; the author was able to locate authentic documents in France, in England and in Grenada, and to organise this diverse material into a coherent narrative. He gives reasons for the Bessons’ migration from France to the Caribbean. In the wake of the French Revolution, Royalists fled to Santo Domingo and to the southern Caribbean, particularly to Grenada. Under the Cedula of Population (1783), hundreds of French settlers migrated to a sparsely-settled Trinidad. François Besson was one of these, and in 1788 he received a grant of 256 acres in South Naparima. Within a few years, he was able to acquire La Romaine, La Fortunée and Bellevue (at Guapo) where, with his many slaves, he prospered. Buoyed up by this mini-empire, François moved north to Port-of-Spain, acquiring a number of prime properties, including one at Besson Street, where his descendants lived, up to the 1920s.
This prosperity continued until the second half of the 19th century, when the depression of the sugar industry hit the French Creoles hard. Some lost their properties or had to sell cheaply to the English investors, and others went into the cocoa industry. The first part of the book contains much detailed information on the fortunes of the French and French Creole settlers and the accompanying miscegenation, which spawned the Afro-French Creole segment. It tells of their spreading influence everywhere, even as far as Mayaro. It is a micro-study that complements the exacting macro-studies, providing hard evidence that supplements the general, known framework. Many of the pictures are published for the first time, and these are embellished by the family trees that can be of use for people whose ancestry derives from the French Creole input.
The copies of wills that form the appendices are treasure troves of information. These wills emphasise the importance of the cult of the will. The second part of the book, one suspects, will be of major interest to most readers. For it is in this section that Besson’s thesis is expostulated. He sees an aggressive streak in the male offspring of plaçage, evident, for example, in the mixed-race Grenadian revolutionary Fedon, who led a bitterly-fought uprising against European domination in Grenada in 1795. That rebellious spirit is later transferred to Trinidad, and is manifested in the rise of a number of people of colour who rise to positions of eminence here. Eric Williams, as a 20th-century descendant of that Afro-French Creole matrix, falls within that same tradition.
As a student in England, he came under the influence of the black nationalist CLR James, who impressed on his mind that revolutionary tendency in the leaders of the Haitian revolution, so passionately espoused in James’ The Black Jacobins. Besson believes that Williams combined these elements of thought with his own personal sense of victimhood, evidenced by his family’s excision from the cult of the will, to create an ideology based on righting the wrongs visited upon Caribbean people. Thus, when he gave us the slogan, “Massa Day Done,” he was indicating that all of the remaining descendants of the Europeans must take note of the new reality. The term “French Creole” now meant all persons of European descent, without regard to their actual ancestry. By the same token, Besson argues, East Indians were no more than marginal in Williams’ calculation.
For this reason, they are virtually excluded from the Eric Williams narrative. They are no more than peripheral to the story of our development. This theme, the major thesis of The Cult of the Will, is, to say the least, highly-controversial, and will no doubt be the subject of intense scrutiny over the next few decades. It is a major addition to the Williams debate, not to be dismissed lightly. So what does one make of the book as a whole? The first part is a compendium of carefully-gathered information, detailing a major hitherto unwritten dimension of our history. The cultural and economic contributions of the French Creole and Afro-French Creole community is detailed, and we learn much of their social life and interactions with the larger society.
This useful introduction then leads us into the second part, which deals with Williams’ transference of his own historical hurt into his writing of history and into his practice of politics. Because of the decisive role of politics in small societies such as ours, that assertion of personal pain into the business of governance has had damaging consequences on our efforts to create unity and productivity out of our diversity. The book argues that diversity was used to create division rather than harmony. The Cult of the Will now seeks to add that broad group who are called French Creole into the discourse, so that there can be greater balance in the chronicle of our nation. The book is, therefore, a welcome addition to the literature of development, and must now be included in our national dialogue.

by Prof. John Gaffar La Guerre 
(published in Newsday, 25 July 2010)

The Cult of the Will by Gerard Besson is a most welcome, timely and useful book at this juncture of our history, for it comes at a time when epochal and dramatic changes are taking place ushering in, it seems, yet another ‘narrative’ in the unfolding development of Trinidad and Tobago, as groups supersede one another as dominant forces in the evolution of the society and state.
The main concern of the book is to debunk a ‘narrative’ in which the European-descended, or those appearing that way – Trinidadians all – were made scapegoats for injustices of the past by the politics of the Williams ‘narrative’.
Besson writes, “The notion of inherited guilt is, however, fundamentally wrong, morally unjustified and distinctly unscientific. Collective guilt is a basic fallacy of Marxism, which denies the individual of importance, only seeing him or her as a member of a class.
It also seeks to condone racism, and to convey the notion that it is alright to alienate Indians and hate white people in general and French Creoles in particular.” (p234)
Besson’s book is accordingly an exploration of the progression and trajectory of race relations from the time of the conquest, through early colonisation and into independence.
It thus follows on earlier explorations in the French Caribbean by Kovats-Beaulieu, in her work Les Blancs Crèoles de la Martinique, Souquet-Basiege in his work Le Prèjuge de Race aux Antilles Franáaise, Brereton in the case of Trinidad in her book “Race Relations in Trinidad” as well as Maingot’s thesis on the French creoles.
Besson’s book, however, is the first by a local white in recent times to speak out and comment directly on the various ‘narratives’ on offer over the years. Clearly the time for assessment has come and his book must accordingly be read as a contribution to that assessment.
Apart from Fr de Verteuil and Mrs Franco, the persons who are perceived as whites have been conspicuously absent from the debates on race relations over the years.
It is possible that the treatment of Albert Gomes in and after 1956, or that of the McArthys at Sangre Grande during the incidents of 1970, induced them to retreat into near oblivion.
Yet as every student will understand, race relations are essentially about tribalism and there is a tendency for all tribes to make scapegoats of others.
This is essentially a defence mechanism by one group against the other. It is now commonplace to recognise that no race or tribe has a monopoly of virtue and that all groups will have their heroes and their villains. Nor is it fair to judge the actions of a particular century by standardising the values of the 20th or 21st. Life is universally regarded as morally sacred but different cultures have displayed differing treatment of life over the centuries.
The Cult of the Will, more importantly, shows how inheritance of property plays an important role in keeping families together, and also how the shortage of European women, particularly among the French, led to mÈtissage and the rise of a mulatto class.
That class was to play an important role in the various challenges to the social and political order over the years. Besson has also enlightened us on the extent to which the early French settler class originated from Grenada and the extent to which the development of the cocoa industry depended on them. They too were some of the early pioneers in the economic development of Trinidad and Tobago. Indeed it is well to recall that it was French, British and Spanish capital along with Amerindian, African and Indian labour that developed Trinidad and Tobago.
Yet the French, like the African, Indian and other groups, encountered their share of discrimination. Then as now there was a pecking order.
The English discriminated against the French and both discriminated against the Indians and Africans. Africans discriminated against Indians who reciprocated in their own way.
The house slave discriminated against the field slave, free against unfree, large slave owners against petit blancs. Colonial society clearly had its subtleties and various gradations of discrimination.
As the Trinidadian sociologist Braithwaite reminded us in his pioneering work in Social Stratification in Trinidad and Tobago, it was this subtle discrimination, based on the values of colour and status, which held the society together.
Indeed some of the lasting legacies of colonial rule was the enthronement of colour and status.
White slave owners discriminated against black slave owners. Colour became an addiction that was impossible to eradicate. It ensnared all, even the advocates of Black Power who showed a preference for lighter skins. Some of the discrimination to which Besson points was inherent in the system of colonial rule, based as it was on superordination and subordination.
The Indians who came to Trinidad were already prepared for some of these distinctions by their experiences of caste in India. Besson, however, recognises that some of the more perceptive critics of the Williams “narrative” were themselves African-descended, like Laurence, Rohlehr and Goveia. That “narrative” could also be seen, not as a failure to inherit, but as the behaviour of the “marginal personality”.
Dickie-Clark has employed this concept drawn from psychology to illuminate the behaviour of a number of challengers to existing social and political orders. According to Dickie-Clark, the “marginal man” or “marginal personality”, is one who is never properly integrated within a culture or a society.
They are persons who face rejection by one group or another.
Thus Jews, half-castes, mulattoes and other minority groups are prone to radical behaviour, because psychic integration is impossible for them.
Thus, like “Mohamet’s coffin”, they remain suspended in mid-air, prone to move in one way or the other, or to take in at short notice. Williams clearly falls within this category as the various biographical studies so far make clear. Plural societies tend to produce such types.
Besson is rightly concerned with the legacy of the Williams era and its “narrative”. For Besson, it has bequeathed us the”gimme gimme” and dependency syndromes. It must be recalled, however, that slavery also produced a dependency syndrome.
The master was required to provide appropriate accommodation, meet medical expenses and provide provision grounds and holidays. Indentureship continued the tradition, so that the Williams’ contribution was just one factor.
The party system of government also has a role to play as well as ideologies from abroad. As parties compete for votes they tend to out-promise each other.
The Williams narrative and accompanying policies did have its positive as well as negative side, and Besson does acknowledge some of them with regard to the private sector. As for scapegoats, this was the favourite pastime of most colonial politicians.
In Africa, the Caribbean and elsewhere the politicians begged for power from their colonial masters. Nkrumah urged his followers “Seek ye first the political kingdom and all other things will be added unto you”. To achieve power they could not put blame where it rightly lay.
So external and phantom enemies had to be constructed.
As Fanon clearly argued, during the early 60s the nationalists with their cries of redemption, statehood and racism merely wanted to step in the settlers’ shoes and relax in the verandahs of their bungalows.
Nor must we forget that Singapore and Hong Kong at one time were colonies of Britain, and that China was also one time a colony of Japan. Politicians in their thirst for power recognised that race was a powerful weapon because it appealed to a very basic ingredient of identity.
This is why in the whole of the Caribbean it is employed largely in Trinidad and Guyana for political traction.
Williams or his handlers used it where they did because it made political capital at the time. It is true that Williams was preoccupied with slavery and became a slave of slavery. Yet this is the curse of those who do serious PhDs on social and political topics.
They become colonised by their theses and spend the rest of their lives delving deeper and deeper on their chosen topic.
The idea of inheritance is nevertheless a useful construct by which to understand the changing nature of race relations in Trinidad and Tobago.
Besson has undoubtedly written a useful book.
It is to be hoped that it will encourage others who now remain in self-imposed exile to have their say and illuminate our history, which is after all about the history of all the groups and persons who have contributed to the development of Trinidad and Tobago.

"Eric Williams revisited"
by Prof. Selwyn Ryan 
(published in the Trinidad Express 4 July 2010)

It is perhaps a coincidence that the publication of Gerard Besson's controversial book, The Cult of the Will, should occur at the same time as the defeat of the People's National Movement (PNM) in the recently concluded general elections. The book is also being outdoored at a time—Friday 9—when the Eric Williams Memorial Lecture is scheduled to be delivered at the Central Bank. One of the basic arguments of the book is that Eric Williams and the PNM are "dead" or, if not, deserve to be.
The book consists of two basic parts. The first deals with rise and fall of the family of Francois Besson to which the author belongs. That family portrait is however not a vain exercise. Drawing on a wealth of documentary data, including wills, Besson fashions a tapestry of the black and white French creole community in Grenada and later in Trinidad from which one learns a great deal.
The second part of the book deals, inter alia, with wills and Williams, and argues that wills had a lot to do with who got what in Trinidad's racially stratified society. It argues further that two wills in particular, involving Eric Williams and his white forbears, had a significant impact on the post independence politics of Trinidad and Tobago.
Our analysis is confined to three of the books main arguments. The first is that Eric Williams and his intellectual patron, CLR James, wilfully and deliberately conspired to produce a contrived account of the British anti-slavery movement which Williams misused for political purposes. According to Besson, a significant aspect of the narrative, much of which is found in Capitalism and Slavery and The History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago, tends to stereotype the European planters and their descendents as "villains", and characterises the African slaves, and latterly their descendants, as "victims".
Besson's argument is that Williams consciously revised the British narrative about the abolition of the slave trade and emancipation to counter the conventional version which anchors the anti-slavery movements in British humanitarian concerns.
Williams claimed that he had unmasked a "gross historical lie" and had unmasked "a great academic conspiracy" which had lent credibility to the British claim that they were humanitarians who had a moral right to govern and civilise the colonies.
These arguments have, of course, long been the subject of academic argument and counterargument. For Besson, however, they are not matters that concern only academics. They have had great political consequences for Trinidad and Tobago and the Caribbean. As he complains, Dr Williams would carry his conspiracy theory about the abolition of the slave trade and emancipation forward into his political life.
He would develop a political programme that would exploit these ideas. His revisionist narrative pilloried the European population in Trinidad and Tobago not only as descended from slave owners, but also of inheriting their guilt, while ignoring the complicity of the Africans who had sold their fellow Africans in exchange for trade goods.
Besson makes two other basic points which are germane to his argument. One is that Williams' neurotic behaviour was informed by hostility to the white creole group to which his family belonged. In sum, his personality was misshaped by his belief that his family were "victims of the Will". The complaint was that the family was robbed or deprived of the various bequests that were made by their white relatives.
This obsessive reaction was projected unto the "true inheritors" of history's bequest, viz the Afro-creole masses. His politics was thus about "revenge" and racial entitlements. "He conveniently forgot that his own forbears, his father's people, had been slave owners."
Besson further argues that his "massa day" diatribe in 1960-61 was an attempt to exorcise his demons. It also excited the gullible and those inclined towards anti-white and anti-Indian racism.
As Besson writes, "the Afro-creole masses would inherit what he and his family could not. He may possibly have seen his personal history as the country's destiny. He utilised political control to compensate the Afro-Creole population for the inheritance that they had long been denied. This was the basis of Williams' interpretation of the ideal welfare state, and would later form an integral part of the political culture of the PNM and of the entire country over the next 50 years."
Besson's third thematic argument is that the paradigm that emerged from his version of history and which shaped the post independence politics of Trinidad and Tobago has now run its course. It is now time, he argued, to articulate an integrated New World narrative which treats all constituent groups as part of a whole.
All should be beneficiaries of the will, figuratively speaking. As he argues, and we quote him at some length, "the PNM's version of who was legitimate politicised victimhood and guilt and the scapegoating of certain of its members…and served to erode ethnic harmony, respect for law and order and notions of moral and civic responsibility in the collective mind of contemporary society. The Williams narrative has contributed to the feeling that everything is outside the law and is up for grabs or reinterpretation. Many civil institutions (the police force, the administration of justice, the education system) have lost credibility and are hardly capable of conveying meaning or confidence in civil society."
In sum, Williams and the PNM are seen to be largely responsible for most of our past and present discontents. Salvation lies in exposing the fallacies and the policies that emerge therefrom. Besson claims support in the experiences of Obama who, in his Audacity of Hope, also called for a new moral dispensation. As Obama had argued, "the role of victim was too readily embraced as a means of shedding responsibility, or asserting entitlement or claiming moral superiority over those not so victimised".
There are some who would dismiss the book a as an anti-PNM rant, which would be a mistake.
The book does debunk as myth a lot of what Williams and his supporters have said and did. There is however much in the book that is of great interest and which one would find intellectually provocative. It should spark public debate. The mood of the country in fact parallels some of the arguments of the book.
It is also clear that while Williams was responsible for much that was positive about our national development, we are also paying the price for some of the behaviours which he authorised and legitimised.
It is however too easy to blame almost everything that has gone wrong on the Williams narrative. Williams was part of a worldwide anti-colonial movement. His Massa Day Done rhetoric and his personal and cultural hubris fed on this worldwide Bandung spirit which would have flourished, stolen bequest or no stolen bequest. The discourse about the cult of the will make interesting reading, but is made to carry too much of the burden of what could be explained in other ways as I have attempted to do in my Eric Williams: The Myth and The Man.

"Paradox of Wills
by Kevin Baldeosingh 
(published in the Trinidad and Tobago Review, 2 July 2010)

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.

"Besson's cruel accusation"and "Single-mindedly Williams transformed our lives"
Part I and II of an article by Prof. Selwyn Cudjoe 
(published in the Trinidad Guardian, 23 July 2010 and on Trinidad and Tobago News Blog)

Gerard Besson’s The Cult of the Will seeks to challenge the historical orthodoxy that undergirds Dr. Eric Williams’s analysis of the causes of the abolition of slavery and the slave trade and the cruelty he perpetuated against the entire society although whites seems to come out worse in the bargain. According to Besson, Williams sought “to facilitate the stigmatization of Caribbean people of European descent, or those who appear so, through the projection of negative concepts of ‘slave master’ or ‘colonial master,’ to modern-day individuals for political and ideological purposes.”
In spite of its scholarly pretensions and Besson’s thoroughly misunderstood historical concepts and dubious psychological theories, The Cult of the Will turns out to be nothing more than an attempt to defend European (and more specifically, his family’s) privilege by debunking Dr. Williams’s academic and political work. In the process he asks us to accept the British representation of themselves as being concerned only with justice, humanity, and fairness toward enslaved Africans when they ended slavery and the slave trade.
To achieve this end, Besson makes extraordinary claims and fantastical mental leaps. His first claim is that Dr. Williams, a scion of the Besson family, acted as he did because he was cheated of a legacy that was rightfully his and hence Williams’s indulgence in what the author calls “inherited victimhood.” He argues that “the political personality of Dr. Williams was shaped by the 18th century Afro-French Creole plantation experience and the manner in which this was lived in and expressed in the 19th century by the coloured middle class of which he and his extended family were a part.”
Not content with this dubious proposition, he goes on to argue that Dr. Williams “may have been influenced, perhaps even manipulated, by C. L. R. James and other ideologues, who may have had knowledge of his personal circumstances and psychological weaknesses,” the supposition being that James and the other ideologues knew what Besson discovered only recently about Williams’s family history. Besson believes that James and Williams inflicted this tortured legacy upon an unwitting population of political nincompoops.
The book is short on evidence and long on speculation. In fact, it is inundated with so many “mays” and “maybes,” “may have been,” and “may have developed” that one is forced to conclude that speculation is substituted for evidence; bastard psychologizing replaces the logical causation of phenomena; and a jig-saw putting together of historical episodes stands in place of a solid methodological procedure. Such speculative thinking allows Besson to argue that Williams “may have developed the mulatto’s or red man’s complex: the so called ‘chip on the shoulder,’ a sense of racial inferiority; social as well as other inhibitions; and maybe he developed a pathologically suspicious and cynical attitude with regard to Europeans and even perhaps a strong animosity, a rage, against the French Creole community, the colonial establishment of his day, along with a distrust of the legal system that had not supported the family at redress” (my italics).
In the first place, it seems highly irregular that a political personality, or any personality, can be shaped and/or defined by a century prior to the one in which he lived. And while it is true that men’s actions are determined by the weight of the past, they do not make history in any way they choose. So that while Williams’s political activities were determined by 19th century Trinidad (it couldn’t be otherwise), it is difficult to see how his personality was shaped by a previous century in which the social and cultural imperatives were so different.
Such a preamble brings me to the central thrust of Besson’s argument against Williams’s contention that the primary cause for the demise of slavery and the slave trade was economic rather than humanitarian. Whatever one gives primacy to, economic or humanitarian forces, as the ultimately determining factor in history, one cannot ascribe purely subjective motives to Williams’s argument, something that Besson does throughout his book. Dr. Williams could not have written Capitalism and Slavery (1944) without the pioneering work that James did in Black Jacobins (1938), as James could not have written his work without the pioneering effort of Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution (1930). None of these works could have been written before the advent of Marxist dialectics or a materialist conception of history.
It is also of interest to note that Williams dedicated Capitalism and Slavery to Lowell Joseph Ragatz, the author of The Fall of the Planter Class in the British Caribbean, 1763-1833 (1928), a pioneering study that traced the social and economic forces that shaped the Caribbean during that period. Ragatz was the first person Williams wanted to meet when he arrived at Howard University in 1939. Both James and Williams saw The Fall of the Planter Class as a model of scholarship. Ragatz, white and racist, made the following observations in his book: “The West Indian negro had all the characteristics of his race. He stole, he lied, he was simple, suspicious, inefficient, irresponsible, lazy, superstitious, and loose in his sex relations.” In spite of this, Williams could say that Ragatz’s “monumental labours in this field may be amplified and developed but can never be superseded.” This must have been quite a feat for racist Williams, his anti-white views, and his French Creole antipathies.
Besson has a different story to tell. According to his reading of history, Williams and James spoke in forked tongue that misled the natives. The world would have been such a better place if only we had dismissed James’s and Williams’s wrong-headed notions and accepted that the British had spoken “the truth in their rendering of history.” If we had done so, we would not have become the “victims of a conspiracy that withheld the truth about the abolition of slavery and the slave trade” that made us “suffer from colonial injustice and racial prejudice.”
How could Williams and James be so cruel to us?


Single-Mindedly Williams Transformed Our Lives
By Dr. Selwyn R Cudjoe
July 24, 2010
Part II

It is Besson’s contention that Williams and James lied to us about the role Africans played in the slave trade. Besson feels that it is only when one understands the magnitude of black (read African) culpability in the slave trade that one can understand how all the blame for the evil system of slavery should not be placed on European shoulders alone.
The Africans were just as guilty as the Europeans. Such realities lead Besson to conclude that Dr Williams’s “revisionist narrative pilloried the European population in Trinidad and Tobago as not only descended from slave-owners, but also inheriting their guilt, while ignoring the complicity of the Africans who sold their fellow Africans in exchange for trade goods.” Such an omission did not happen by chance. It was a part of Williams’s “cynical outlook” that was meant to enhance his “shrewd use of black nationalism” which forced his followers to “reject the existence of any truth in the moral impulse of the late 18th century English people, as expressed in ideas such as ‘justice and humanity.’”
It was the humanity that Rev James Phillippo, residing in Jamaica from 1823 to 1843, saw at first glance when he reported that the entire history of the colonies was “one revolting scene of infamy, bloodshed, and unmitigated woe, of insecure peace and open disturbance, of the abuse of power, and of the reaction of misery against oppression…slavery has been the curse of the West Indies.” (From James Phillippo Jamaica: Its past and present state, published in 1843.)
Moreover, if we accept Besson’s contention about British concern for justice and humanity, it forces us to reiterate the quizzical observation that James made of Sir Reginald Coupland, Oxford scholar and the chief proponent of the humanitarian thesis about the abolition of slavery, “Those who see in abolition the gradual awakening conscience of mankind should spend a few minutes asking themselves why it is man’s conscience, which had slept peacefully for so many centuries, should awake just at the time that men began to see the unprofitableness of slavery as a method of production in the West Indian colonies.” (From the 1938 edition of The Black Jacobins by CLR James). But things get worse. Williams, he says, misled the public because he “may [again the may] have harboured a deeply felt sense of injustice and deprivation due to his family’s unique circumstances.” This condition led Williams to indulge in “obsessive behaviour and phobias, deprivation and victimhood,” a condition so strong that “it may have become an obsession, perhaps a form of mental disorder, impairing contact to some degree with external reality, which is the definition of neurosis”.
This is Besson’s most audacious charge. Dr Williams was a mad man whose contact with external reality was skewed. No substantive evidence is provided; none is needed. All it takes is a sufficient repetition of “maybes” and “perhaps” and he is on the road to proving his case. All that is left to be said is that those of us (myself included) who followed Williams shared in his madness and his neurotic behaviour. It was in the political vineyard of T&T that Williams found his ignoble measure. Williams, he tells us, was one of the “vote manipulators” of the Third World who “may have originated racist attitudes and the scapegoating of present-day Trinidadians of European and particularly French descent” when he wrote History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago in which he “exile[d] half of the island’s population [the East Indians] from his narrative.”
“Massa Day Done” is Besson’s cause célèbre. He argues that in this 1961 address Williams expressed “the dislike and deep-seated prejudices felt by most Afro-Creoles towards Indians.” The “bitter words” in “Massa Day Done” indicated the “pathological changes associated with a neurosis” and that changed T&T’s racial history and inaugurated what he called racial stereotypes and scapegoats. One wished that Besson had read Yogendra Malik’s East Indians in Trinidad and VS Naipaul’s Middle Passage critically. He would have come away with a different view. But herein lies “the smoking gun” that Besson has been working toward to nail Williams to the psychological cross of deprivation and loss. It is revealed in two words, “frustration and inhibitions.” They are the keys that unlock Williams’s “frustrated black French Creole” identity; the link that takes him back to his displaced family relationships. It is these delusions that lead Williams to inflict his poisonous insecurities upon his people, a point that Ramesh Deosaran endorses in his blurb on the black cover of the book and in his correspondences with the author.
When I reviewed Deosaran’s Eric Williams, His Ideas and His Politics in 1981, I pointed out that his study would have yielded better results if he had used the tools of psychoanalysis rather than psychology when he tried to explain the complex drives that informed Dr Williams’s life and work. While it is true that a man liberates himself through his speech (or more specifically his discourses), Besson does not probe deeply into the gaps and lacunae of Williams’s texts to explore the contradictions in Williams’s behaviour. It is only through rigorous rethinking of Williams’s texts and what Antoine Vergote, a French scholar in psychoanalysis, calls “analytic listening,” that one can arrive at the psychic complexities that drive Williams.
In spite of the derogatory comments that Besson makes about Williams, he is not likely to erode Williams seminal role in the shaping of T&T’s politics in the second half of the 20th century and his magisterial contribution to the study of slavery and the slave trade. Many more studies will be done about Williams, but for the time being I prefer to rely on Arnold Rampersad’s judgment about Williams’s impact on T&T when he said: “Single-handedly and single-mindedly, Eric Williams transformed our lives. He swept away the old and inaugurated the new. He made us proud to be who we were, and optimistic as never before about what we were going to be, or could be. ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,’ and nothing that has transpired since in Trinidad can negate Williams’s gift to his people, or his triumph of intellect and spirit.”
In the years to come, someone will write the history of blacks in Trinidad. It might prove to be a worthy refutation of the half-truths that Besson propagated in this work, particularly in the last chapter, “The Afro-French Creole Narrative.” In the meantime, black people stand convicted by the slanderous twisting of their social and political activities during the last fifty years of their existence. May God have mercy on their souls as they continue to live in a state of delusion and perpetual victimhood.

by Prof. Ramesh Deosaran 
(published in Newsday, 28 November 2010)

PATHOLOGY. This refers to a branch of medicine regarding the causes and effects of diseases. Those of you who have been reading about or seeing the strange, often bizarre things done by some politicians, especially those in power for many years, might have often asked the question: Is he mad? What has gone wrong with him?
This question usually arises because there seems to be no reasonable explanation. There is growing evidence that political power leads to diseases of the mind. What Kenneth Clark calls in his seminal work, The Pathos of Power. This is an old, old story of politics and leaders of all kinds. What inspired me to think about this is a 282-page book titled Cult of the Will, published by Gerard A Besson, and containing strident remarks about the deceptions and the “deranged” political personality of the late Dr Eric Williams.
But before we get into some aspects of Besson’s book, I feel obliged to comment very briefly on the “pathology of politics,” a subject which caused JL Talmon to write a book titled The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy. Last September in Jamaica, during my address to Caribbean political party officials on election financing and democracy, a Grenadian party official asked me: “Why is it in the Caribbean, people appear and behave one way and as soon as they become elected as politicians they grow so arrogant, so different as if something gone wrong with them?”
The audience burst out laughing. PNM Opposition Leader, Dr Keith Rowley and Professor Selwyn Ryan, also present, smiled, knowingly it seemed. Yes, I too have seen the phenomenon in some of my own university colleagues who got elected. This ego-enhancing transformation has been a fascinating subject in psychopathology for ages, quite notably by Harold Lasswell, Sigmund Freud, Abraham Maslow and Carl Jung.
More and more, nurtured by excessive hero-worshipping and unchecked patronage, the diseased manifestations of political power — self-delusion, self-acclamations, bruising arrogance, unwarranted extravagance, thin-skinned, vengeful, etc. — all begin to inflict themselves upon a rather helpless public — at least for a time. Soon, the politician becomes a prisoner, a victim really, of his or her, search for further but scarcer gratifications, meandering between fleeting ecstasy and deep depression. Some get the sickness sooner than others.
With irritating insecurity, the politician gets a craving for more and more praise and reassurances, easily falling prey to a tightened circle of benefitting flatterers. This latter condition has been ascribed to Besson’s major subject, Eric Williams, by quite a few local commentators. However, as we also know, Williams still has his admirers who see his personality and deeds in more flattering terms. Besson’s book got reviews by John La Guerre, Selwyn Cudjoe, Brinsley Samarro and Selwyn Ryan. Then by columnists Marion O’Callaghan and Kevin Baldeosingh. For reasons of space, I will deal briefly with the second part of his two-part book — an explanation of victimhood and political mobilisation. Besson made a bold denunciation of the late Dr Eric Williams’ economic explanation for the abolition of slavery. Rather, Besson asserted both Williams and CLR James conveniently ignored the humanitarian anti-slavery movement and that Williams in particular, used a “victimhood” ideology to arouse black nationalism and achieve political victory. The reviewers could not resist dealing with the “victimhood” argument by Besson. The cult of the will, as he argues, creates a rather permanent condition of historically-generated victimhood, over one hundred years, and as sold by Williams and enthusiastically purchased by blacks. Cudjoe called this “a cruel accusation.”
If Besson had used Williams’ victimhood framework as a platform, then used contemporary political patronage, along the East West corridor for example, to link victimhood with what Besson clearly sees as continued “psychological dependency,” then his overall thesis might have gained further ground. But generally, in such subjects, social science inquiry, which is what Besson attempted in the later part of his book, finds great difficulty in linking cause and effect.
If Williams’ was an example of victimhood, it seemed to originate not so much from the historically-driven “cult” but self-inflicted through the psychological trappings of saturated political power. The way in which Besson presents his arguments is more courageous than many of us who prefer to be a bit more circumspect on such matters. And perhaps, there lies part of the value of his book. You know where he stands and you therefore know where to shoot. In a sense, Besson was trying to establish a level playing field for the society, a dismembering of a troublesome past for a more harmonious civic comradeship. But with early capitalism, slavery and indentureship as they were, how many will listen to this?
Professor Ramesh Deosaran (Emeritus) is author of “A Portrait of Political Power,” and Former Independent Senator.

Comments from our readers:

"I've also really enjoyed reading The Cult of the Will.  I agree with Besson's thoughts on the politics of "inherited guilt" and "inherited victimhood."  Barack Obama is trying to change that dynamic, but it is a hard road.  The white politicians and population still continue to dominate in the US society and the blacks and other ethnic minorities haven't gained much from the Obama administration.  Most of his supporters seem disappointed, but it has only been two years. Unfortunately, the right wing Republicans have gained more power and voice on the political stage - especially with the Tea Party group.  Listening to all of the rhetoric coming from the Republican primary candidates is very depressing." (From New Mexico, USA)

"I can’t put it down so will read myself into oblivion tonight." (from Tennessee, USA)

"The ending of Part 1 reduced me to tears as I understand so very much what that ring from your father must have meant to have captured the essence of society in Trinidad during that time (and it's still a bit like that I think) and you've done so to such a degree that it has shaken me to the very fibre of my being.  It has answered for me, once and for all, profound questions that, until the Cult of the Will, the answers to which had remained elusive." (from British Columbia, Canada)
"I've just finished reading Part 1 of your book...This is in part to capture my thoughts and emotions in the moment which are deeply provoked from reading the Besson's history and the narrative regarding the placage. The historical research you have done is tremendous. ... The ending of Part 1 reduced me to tears as I understand so very much what that "ring" from your father must have meant to you." (from the USA)

"Your book just arrived and I have not been able to put it down. It is a real page turner, a terrific read. Hearty congratulations for a historical job well done." (from Florida, USA)

"The work is half history and then you take that history to develop your hypothesis in the second half -- and this is an interesting "change of pace " to the reader ... I found it a very "brave" work, in that you really challenged Williams and his cult in a way that no one had done before." (from Trinidad, WI)

"I am most impressed with it. It is important for these matters in the history of Trinidad to be dealt with so that there will be a real understanding of the history of this country." (from Trinidad, WI)

"It is handsomely printed but even more so it is obviously a triumph of history-researching and history-writing.  ... I can’t imagine the emotions you must have experienced, or the intellectuals shocks and aftershocks, as you discovered one thing after another about your family’s deep, distinguished history. And then there is the Williams connection and engagement, ... which comes into special relief when the whole story is before one.  I look forward to reading the book from cover to cover." (from California, USA)

"Your family history was fascinating, and to be able to go back as far as the 1700s to Pierre Besson and trace the family down through to Martinique and Grenada and finally Trinidad, must have taken some doing!  Just trying to search through records in another language is an achievement in itself. And then the photographs bring the story together, along with the family trees. Just amazing, and you must feel justifiably proud of your book. Congratulations!" (from Tobago)

"I didn't waste much time devouring your book, I was fascinated! ... The book is for me an eye opener and explains a lot." (from Corsica)

Letter from Prof. Selwyn Ryan:

"Dear Jerry,
I have just finished reading your paper which I did with great interest. It restates in greater detail much that you have shared with me over the years in conversations and in what you have written, I generally agree with much that you have argued. Indeed, much of what you assert forms part of my own critique of the Williams narrative which labels the Williams myth which I deconstruct. The main difference between the two accounts is that the link you make between 'Capitalism and Slavery' and Williams' 'Massa Dy Done Politics' is more determined and causal than it is in my version. Fundamentally, however, we do not disagree that the links are there. I was particularly impressed with your reconstruction of the two family links which readers would no doubt find intriguing. indeed, it might be good marketing to title the piece 'Victim of the Will: The Politics of Eric Williams'. We shall talk more soon.

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