DaughtEr Learns a History Lesson from her dad
By Jacqueline Charles
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
``I loved him passionately but I had no interest in him
whatsoever, just like kids today. They have no interest in
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
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
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
''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
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
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
This year, Connell has invited Mbeki to speak. An admirer of
Williams, Mbeki last month bestowed South Africa's highest
— 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.''