MIAMI HERALD

                   Posted on Wed, Jun. 13, 2007


                    DaughtEr Learns a History Lesson from her dad
By Jacqueline Charles

Erica Williams Connell was an admitted ''mediocre student'' in 1965, hating the isolation that came with being the daughter of Trinidad and Tobago's prime minister, Eric Williams.  She still isn't sure what prompted her, during one of their frequent father-daughter chats, to make an unusual request:
''When you die,'' a then-14-year-old Erica told her father, ``I would like your books and papers.''

On March 29, 1981, after a quarter-century as this oil-rich nation's leader, Eric Williams died in office at 69. While his death signaled the end of a political era, it also marked the beginning of his daughter's crusade to keep her father's legacy alive throughout the Caribbean.

''I was not a scholar, not interested in school, failed at history miserably, don't have a degree, refused to go to university,'' said Connell, 56, who lives in Kendall. ``I spent years not paying attention to my father's accomplishments.

``I loved him passionately but I had no interest in him whatsoever, just like kids today. They have no interest in their parents.''

Many around the world, though, are fascinated by Eric Williams' life's work. He was a driving force behind Trinidad's rise from British colonialism to independence and one of the architects of a Caribbean federation attempt that collapsed in 1962 when Jamaica backed out and Williams was forced to follow suit.

Quoted by everyone from Cuba's Fidel Castro to South Africa's Thabo Mbeki, Williams is a renowned historian whose 1944 book Capitalism and Slavery is considered the bible on the British abolition of the Atlantic slave trade in 1807. It has been translated into eight languages, including Russian and Korean, and argues that abolition was motivated primarily by economics, not altruism.

Connell didn't fully realize the depth of her father's historical importance and popularity until after his death, when requests poured in for her to speak or help organize lectures about his work. Some U.S. universities, she said, even wanted to buy her father's voluminous library and papers.

In 1989, she loaned the collection to the University of the West Indies' St. Augustine campus here.  It's now the Eric Williams Memorial Collection.

''This is not about him,'' she said, surrounded by her father's memorabilia on display inside a room in UWI's main library. ``This is about giving our children a sense of where they come from.''


The collection, which attracts schoolchildren, university scholars and tourists, attempts to provide visitors with a deeper understanding of the aloof but shrewd leader, whose political tenure was trailblazing and tumultuous.

''It's a wonderful exhibition,'' said Nikolai Nunes, 22, a biochemistry major at UWI, as he walked through the doors for the first time, standing in awe as he took in the black-and-white photographs of Williams, wearing his trademark dark shades with hearing aid dangling from his right ear while meeting with world leaders of his day, including President Lyndon Johnson.

The mementos and memories also include this note from father to daughter: ``Erica darling, I enclosed the notes and all of the questions in English history that I have done for you.''

Connell, who offers personal tours of the collection when she's in town, chuckled at her Oxford-educated father's admission to doing her homework.

Though the library is not quite the presidential space Connell envisions, she said she hopes it soon will be. UWI officials promised earlier this year to construct a much larger site for the collection if they receive property the government has promised since the 1980s.

Caribbean expert and Radford University Provost Ivelaw Griffith said much of what Williams wrote about remains pertinent today.

''His notion of what is right and relevant is not only right and relevant for Trinidad. He had a broader sense of what's appropriate for survival of Caribbean people,'' he said. ``If there is any leader who comes close to being philosopher-king, it was Eric Williams:  intellectual; academic, political scholar; visionary, practical political leader.''


Losing her mother as a young child, Connell was raised by Williams.  She loved the closeness but hated the political spotlight, she says, and at age 11 she begged him to allow her to attend boarding school in England. Williams reluctantly agreed.

The youngest of his three children, she admits her role is somewhat ironic. After all, she is the same person who, when reading her father's autobiography, avoided the sections about his political career, skipping the parts about his rise from chief minister and founder of the now-ruling People's National Movement in 1956 to independence hero in 1962 and prime minister.

But over the years, Connell has developed a sense of purpose about the man she no longer refers to as ''Daddy,'' but as Eric Williams.  She has become a one-woman PR machine to ensure he gets recognition.

In South Florida, this has translated into Florida International University's annual Eric E. Williams Memorial lecture. Organized by Connell and the school's African New World studies program, past speakers have included calypsonians, politicians, historians and U.S. race scholars such as John Hope Franklin.

The lectures have introduced a new generation of scholars to Williams, said Carole Boyce Davies, a professor and former director of FIU's African New World studies program.

''His appeal is, he is absolutely a leader of that generation of intellectuals who became activists,'' Boyce Davies said.

This year, Connell has invited Mbeki to speak. An admirer of Williams, Mbeki last month bestowed South Africa's highest award
 Supreme Order of the Companions of O.R. Tambo posthumously on Williams. He also has dedicated his forthcoming autobiography to the Caribbean leader, said Connell, who traveled to Pretoria to accept the award.

''It's my personal odyssey. It's my heritage,'' Connell said of her efforts. ``It's getting to know who I am and where I come from.  And it has made me passionate about history, the very history I failed in school.''