Leader & Statesman

“The measure of a political leader should not be his or her personal idiosyncrasies but rather the capacity to imagine a different and better future for a people and the possession of the will to challenge and lead them to achieve their possibilities. Seen in this light, Eric Williams's central place in the history of the modern Caribbean is secure."

Colin Palmer, Eric Williams and the Making of the Modern Caribbean (2006), pg. 308

Eric Williams was the founder and Political Leader of the People's National Movement (PNM), Trinidad and Tobago's first modern political party.

With no prior political experience, Williams faced significant opposition in the 1956 election. The Catholic Church of Trinidad and Tobago was another outspoken opponent, encouraging parishioners to vote against Williams. Williams also received hostile resistance from the French Creole and European-descended business class of Trinidad and Tobago. Victor Stollmeyer was a popular cricket player in Trinidad and Tobago, and an early supporter of Williams. Learning of his support for Williams, Stollmeyer’s colleague Joe Kelshall admonished him, saying:

“Dear Victor, I was horrified to learn that you have associated yourself with that “drip” Eric Williams. More especially as our three star clients, Joe Fernandes and Geo. de Nobriga & Co., have very definite views on his activities. Unless you hasten to pull out of that mess, T.M. Kelshall & Co., are likely to suffer a serious setback. I trust that you will give the matter your most serious consideration and take prompt steps to let it be known that you are no longer interested in Master Williams’ activities…”

The PNM was successful in the country's 1956 national election, making Williams the first Chief Minister of Trinidad and Tobago. In 1959, Eric Williams became the country’s Premier and launched a campaign for the return of Trinidad’s northwestern peninsula, Chaguaramas. In 1941, the British had negotiated a 99-year lease with the U.S. without obtaining ratification by the legislature of Trinidad and Tobago. On April 22, 1960, Williams led what is known as the 60,000 strong “March in the Rain” from Woodford Square to the U.S. Consulate. As they marched, the crowd sang the refrain from We Want Back Chaguaramas, by calypso artist Nap Hepburn, chanting “Uncle Sam, we want back we land.”

With Independence in 1962, Williams became the country's first Prime Minister. He would hold this position until his death in 1981.

Trinidad and Tobago gained Independence from Britain on August 31, 1962. To mark the occasion, at midnight on August 30, 1962, bells rang throughout the country as the Union Jack flag was lowered for the last time and the flag of Trinidad and Tobago was raised.

"Together, the various groups in Trinidad and Tobago have suffered, together they have aspired, together they have achieved. Only together can they succeed. And only together can they build a society, can they build a nation, can they build a homeland. There can be no Mother India, for those whose ancestors came from India...there can be no Mother Africa, for those of African origin. There can be no Mother England and no dual loyalties...There can be no Mother China, even if one could agree as to which China is the Mother; and there can be no Mother Syria and no Mother Lebanon. A nation, like an individual, can have only one Mother. The only Mother we recognize is Mother Trinidad and Tobago, and Mother cannot discriminate between her children."

Eric Williams, History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago (1962), p. 279

"On August 31, 1962, a country will be free, a miniature state will be established, but a Society and a nation will not have been formed. After August 31, 1962, the people of Trinidad and Tobago will face the fiercest test in their history--whether they can invest with flesh and blood the bare skeleton of their National Anthem, 'Here, every creed and race find an equal place’. That is their challenge. They may fail....But merely to make the attempt, merely to determine to succeed, would be an enormous tribute to their capacity, a powerful inspiration to frustrated humanity."

Eric Williams, History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago (1962), p. 282

“You, the children, yours is the great responsibility to educate your parents, teach them to live together in harmony…To your tender and loving hands, the future of the Nation is entrusted. In your innocent hearts, the pride of the Nation is enshrined. On your scholastic development, the salvation of the Nation is dependent…you carry the future of Trinidad and Tobago in your school bags."

Eric Williams, speaking at an Independence Youth Rally on August 30, 1962

Education remained a top priority for Eric Williams, as he believed “to educate is to emancipate.” During his time in office, Williams inspired generations of young people, Ivan John being one of them:

“Ivan never forgot his meeting with the Prime Minister. On a student dare, the boy skipped school to see him in person. As Dr. Williams alighted from his car during a Port of Spain Meet-the-Manufacturers Tour, Ivan rushed to him and Williams engaged him in conversation about his educational plans. Ivan, soon to sit the Common Entrance Examination for high school entry, confidently proclaimed that Fatima College (one of Trinidad and Tobago’s most renowned secondary schools) was his preference, though he was not worried, he had two chances to succeed. Williams told the youth words he would remember all his life: “No! It must be first time, first choice”. Ivan graduated from both Columbia and Cornell Universities with degrees in Law and Medicine. When asked to submit a photograph for the yearbook that best represented his inspiration to achieve, he chose this one.”

Eric Williams Memorial Collection Research Library, Archives & Museum at The University of the West Indies, Trinidad and Tobago

When elected in 1956, Eric Williams’ industrialization proposals were mocked and described as a plan to can “topi tambo” (a local vegetable). However, under his leadership, Trinidad and Tobago moved from a colonial dependency to a country with one of the highest levels of foreign direct investment per capita in all of Latin America and the Caribbean.

At one time, Trinidad and Tobago was the leading provider of natural gas to the U.S., and supplied approximately 70% of its annual needs. The country was also the fifth largest liquefied natural gas (LNG) exporter in the world, and was home to the largest LNG facility in the Western Hemisphere. The foundation for this success was established during the energy crisis of the 1970s. Williams was not interested in simply exporting the country’s natural gas, and stated that Trinidad and Tobago gas would not be used to keep the people of Chicago warm—referring to a proposition made by Amoco Oil in Chicago, IL. Thus, Trinidad and Tobago became the premiere exporter of methanol and nitrogenous fertilizers and earned the New York Times economic moniker "A Tiger in a Sea of Pussy Cats."

Speaking to Eric Williams’s commitment to both the economic success and the people of the region, Dr. Compton Bourne, Principal at The University of the West Indies, recalled at the 1998 Inauguration of the Eric Williams Memorial Collection that “Williams was always mindful that ‘Development has a face--and that is the face of man. Development must, therefore, cater for the total needs of that man.’”

Throughout his 25 years of service, Eric Williams ably represented Trinidad and Tobago on the global stage. During the 1970s, Williams was one of the founding members of the Governing Council of the United Nations University, headquartered in Japan. He was the only Head of Government appointed to the Council.

“That great West Indian historian and Prime Minister”

Thabo Mbeki, President of South Africa, 2005

“He was the greatest Trinidadian of the 20th century...a friend of India.”

Shri Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, Vice President of India, 2006

Invitation from British Prime Minister Harold Wilson to form a delegation to negotiate the end of the Vietnam War

Although it never materialized, in 1965, Williams was one of only four Commonwealth leaders invited by British Prime Minister Harold Wilson to form a delegation to negotiate the end of the Vietnam War.

Image of goodwill messages from around the world brought to the moon on Apollo 11

Eric Williams was one of the 73 world leaders invited to write a goodwill message to be placed on the moon by the astronauts of Apollo 11.

“The Government and people of Trinidad and Tobago acclaim this historic triumph of science and the human will. It is our earnest hope for mankind that while we gain the moon, we shall not lose the world.”

These messages were etched on a 1.5 inch silicone disk and left on the surface of the moon.

"[B]uild the nation of Trinidad and Tobago, bringing in all the races; acknowledging all their contributions, elevating lowly castes, dignifying despised colours, achieving a syncretism here and a new autonomy there, raising up the poor and the lowly and giving them a positive stake in our society.”

Eric Williams, Caribbean Man Speech delivered at the 21st PNM Annual Convention, September 29, 1979

“The humblest antecedents are not inconsistent with greatness of soul.”

Eric Williams, History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago (1962) p. 282

Eric Williams died in office on March 29, 1981, at the age of 69. A period of national mourning was declared in Trinidad and Tobago from March 30 to April 17, 1981.

“There is a sharp distinction between the very good and the truly great, between the man of talent and the man of genius. The man of talent is the marksman who hits the mark the others cannot hit. The man of genius is the marksman who hits the mark they cannot even see.”

Ian McDonald, Guyanese author on the death of Eric Williams, paraphrased from Arthur Schopenhauer

Upon learning of Eric Williams's death, the son of Helen Oscar Winfield wrote to Erica Williams Connell. Though he had never met Williams or his daughter, as a young man in New York City, NY he was deeply impacted by his study of Capitalism and Slavery. His note of condolence included the poem, Nothing is Lost, written by his mother and shared in memory of the late statesman:

Nothing is lost.

The cheery smile

The charming voice

In memory's clear recall

Are ever fresh, ever near

Envisioned in mind's eye

He has not gone at all.

What dies? A body tired and worn

Not what he was

Or said or did.

These thoughts and acts,

Your heritage,

Belong to life. They are not hid

By passing time, not left

By wayside

Lost, unclaimed,

But safe within your

heart remain

To bless and heal and hold

A bright, unfaltering flame.