THE ARTS FORUM offers an occasional page that illuminates the history, literatures, arts and culture of Guyana and the Caribbean.
By Professor Nigel Westmaas
Selwyn R. Cudjoe. Caribbean Visionary: ARF Webber and the Making of the Guyanese Nation. Jackson: University of Mississippi, 2009 (278 pages).
“No Caribbean scholar has made the connection between the 1920s and the 1950s in Guyanese political history and intellectual thought.” This statement, made by Selwyn Cudjoe underlines the importance of this new fascinating study, Caribbean Visionary – ARF Webber and the Making of the Guyanese Nation. The book’s impact on Guyana and Caribbean historiography will be significant as the author goes some distance in crossing the ‘bridge’ between Webber’s time and that of post-war politics. In sixteen chapters, and derived from a great deal of research in primary and secondary sources, Cudjoe unfolds for the reader the impact of Webber’s political and social activity on Guyana.
Caribbean Visionary covers almost every aspect of Webber’s life and work. Albert Raymond Forbes Webber was born in Tobago in 1880 and moved to British Guiana in 1899, immersing himself in local politics and social life to the extent, as reported in the newspaper at the time of his death in 1932, that his funeral brought out a massive crowd of sympathizers and “was the greatest (demonstration) accorded a public man in this country within memory.” While discussing the energy of this brilliant politician and his influence on the political life of British Guiana, Cudjoe simultaneously and skillfully brings to the reader Webber’s massive contribution in all its forms, his responsiveness to the working class, his newspaper and writing career (inclusive of poetry writing), his stormy relations with Governors, his acute grasp of constitutional procedure and legislation, his international experience and frequent traveler miles, his pioneering pro-Federation stance, his sharp wit, his prescient economic knowledge and solution conscious prognostications as in his visionary calls for West Indian Federation, prison reform and for a train linking Guyana to the Amazon.
In sum, this is a total portrait of an individual who, until now has been accorded very little historical credit. Apart from his most acknowledged publication Centenary History of British Guiana, described by Cudjoe as the most “nationalistic history of British Guiana published up until 1931”, Webber played a major role in laying the foundations for the political and social developments that are traditionally accorded to the social movements and radicals of the 1940s and 1950s exemplified by the early People’s Progressive Party.
There are many features of Webber’s life and work for the reader to indulge. The chapters that are likely to be very popular with political pundits and historians alike are those that address Webber’s leadership of the Popular Party (along with Nelson Cannon) and his activism in the regular constitutional crises in the colony, especially his valiant fight against the controversial 1928 Constitution, as well as his economic ‘forecasting’.
Cudjoe’s study of Webber’s economic skills and passion for Keynesianism unveils a portrait of a man distinctively ahead of his time. As in the case of Clem Seecharan’s keen assessment of the Guyana sugar man Jock Campbell, Cudjoe gets into the intricate and complex merger of man, vocation(s), and context.
As indicated, one of the most important contributions of the book is its successful linkage of Webber’s earlier twentieth century contribution (along with other organisations and individuals) to the modern nationalist movement and subsequent offshoots from the early 1950s. Throughout the book one is treated to the ‘filling’ of this absence in the foundation of Guyanese historiography. The question is tantalizingly implied, but perhaps not quite answered, why was there so little of Webber in the discourse of the 1940s and 1950s? Or was there in fact far more discussion on the politics of the 1920s and 1930s and of folks like Webber than recorded by the chroniclers of the 1950s?
From all accounts, the 1926 constitutional crisis was very much a part of the discussion in the 1950s. In any event, Webber was influential in many corridors of social and political life. A journalist of great repute, he worked first for the Argosy, and was editor for periods of both the Daily Chronicle (1919-1925) and the New Guiana Chronicle (1926-1930). Indeed, under his editorship, the New Daily Chronicle, according to Cudjoe, became “one of the most progressive newspapers in the region” publishing “innumerable stories regarding the West Indian Federation, self-determination of the colonies, and works by Theophilus Albert Marryshow, Booker T Washington, and J.A Rogers, a Jamaican historian who resided in the United States and who spoke about the early achievements of African civilization…”
The Economic Visionary
Among the deftest chapters of the book is the one dealing with Webber as an economic heretic of the time and with his interaction with the international financial community. In drawing out the economic currents and responses, Cudjoe proposes that Webber’s economic vision was way ahead of his contemporaries. Comparing him with a Christian socialist of the period, Lord Snowden, Cudjoe states that while Webber “lived in a backward country and possessed neither [the] education nor exposure of Snowden…he evinced a more advanced understanding of economic development than Snowden and was firmly located in the twentieth century and was among the forerunners of liberal-progressive twentieth century economic thought.” If this is true how did Webber arrive at a reading of the world economy so far in advance of his time? Cudjoe suggests that part of Webber’s visionary approach lay in his London contacts with the Fabian Society and his knowledge and influence of fierce economic debates that were raging in England. One source cited by Cudjoe even proposed that Webber “either anticipated (John Maynard) Keynes or he was one of the first practitioners” (of Keynesianism). In any event, the author stands by his subject: “In 1930 no other Caribbean thinker was as advanced as Webber as far as economic theorizing was concerned.” All this is very apt now that Keynesianism has apparently returned in the debate over the existing crisis of the US and world economy.
Webber and the Colour Question
Webber’s thorny relationship with AA Thorne, another national figure is addressed a few times in the work and leads the reader directly into the colour/class issue in British Guiana at the time. Thorne, the Barbadian-born social activist who requires an extensive biography of his own, clashed frequently with Webber. We hear of AA Thorne’s ideological disconnect from and scorn of Webber, which Cudjoe attributes mainly to “jealousy” on Thorne’s part. It would have been interesting to see whether there were additional reasons that had to do with the colour question in British Guiana. This would not preclude the ‘jealousy” to which Cudjoe alludes, but would complicate the relationship between Thorne and Webber in more holistic terms.
The colour question was a key factor in early twentieth century British Guiana and undoubtedly Webber, unlike Thorne who was black (although Cudjoe in a footnote does indicate, for purposes of analysis that “we can characterize Webber as a black person”) was part of a class that was seen as coloured. Cudjoe does address the colour question in several places, emphasizes that “respect for whiteness in a colonial society cannot be dismissed easily” and tackles the role of colour at several catalytic moments of the British Guiana story.
Cudjoe is not afraid of exploring the contradictions in some of Webber’s personal/political positions. At one point, he exposes Webber’s unflattering position on Africa. Webber had remarked that “I have not one word to say about culture of Africa in its highest walks and of its native races and processes. But where you have millions of illiterate people, practically naked savages, you cannot compare them with the clothed people of British Guiana and the West Indies….” Webber would not have been unique in holding this view of the African continent in a time when these uninformed positions were common.
Cudjoe, not long after, provides another “Webber” statement where he demonstrates “disdain for the ‘abominable slave trade’” and asserts that he (Webber) “had given his life to liberate ‘the black man’”. Webber was instrumental in achieving the recall of a very racist text being taught at Queens College in those days, namely Fletcher and Kipling’s A School History of England. Perhaps, given Webber’s apparently contradictory positions here, further probing would have uncovered the roots of this ambivalence.
Another strong undercurrent in the book is Webber’s relationship with the Guyanese working class movement, and its formal representatives. Webber was close to Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow and the author has made it clear that Critchlow and the book’s subject worked closely.
There are some memorable moments when Webber’s loathing of capitalism and his passion for social justice is witnessed. After visiting England (he also visited several other countries including the USA and Jamaica), Webber writes of British capitalism: “England is fearfully cruel to the poor…in British Guiana we have our problems. The grueling poverty of many, the cruel plight of the middle classes…but let me say it, the plight of the poor in large towns in England is sufficient to make the very heavens belch forth!”
And what of Webber’s relationship with the Indian working class? Cudjoe chronicles Webber’s relationship with East Indian (term used throughout the text) organisations including the British Guiana East Indian Association, and his shared platform with Indian leaders, including one in 1929 with Arnold Seeram (of the Legislative Council) and Victor Ramsaran, at a time when African and East Indian leaders together urged their fellow citizens to vote. Where did Webber stand on the Amerindians? In a chapter titled “Exploring New Worlds”, Webber’s visit to the interior is chronicled in addition to his concern for “the health of these inhabitants and the decimation of the American Indians.”
Webber on Women
While Webber’s thinking and actions appear advanced, from the evidence provided, on issues such as support for the working class, constitutional reform and economic planning, he was not as advanced on gender and women’s rights. Cudjoe is warily critical of Webber’s lack of ‘advance’ in this area. He cautions, “while he (Webber) displayed a rather sophisticated understanding of the causes of women’s emancipation, he does not seem to accept its consequences fully, nor does he seem to understand women’s quest to liberate themselves.”
Cudjoe appears to offset Webber’s weakness in this area by providing us with information on the activity of early women activists in the colony, like Gertie Wood, author of An Ideal Womanhood in British Guiana. Webber should have heard of Elma Francois, the St Vincent born woman activist who lit up the political and labour scene in Trinidad and Tobago in challenging the giants, Arthur Cipriani and Uriah ‘Buzz’ Butler around the same time frame of Webber’s activism. Like Webber in the case of British Guiana, but perhaps not for the same reasons, Elma Francois, save for a book by Rhoda Reddock, has not been adequately woven into the texture of Trinidad and Tobago politics.
Ultimately, it cannot be denied that many of the politicians of the 1950s benefitted from the pioneering work of people like Webber, Cannon, Eleazer and Thorne. In Webber’s case the overwhelming account as rendered in Caribbean Visionary is emphatic in illustrating Webber’s clout on the development and ‘making’ of the Guyanese and Caribbean society. On the basis of Webber’s activism in the period this would be a reasonable ‘connective tissue’ with later politics but it would have been useful to highlight some of the post-Webber debates, press musings and oral history that could establish even further Webber’s deep presence in the birth of the modern political movement.
Caribbean Visionary is a powerful window not only on Webber’s life and work, but also on the intricacies of Guyanese political life under colonial rule and the multiple responses of the working people and their detractors. It fills an important vacuum and Webber, more than many, as Cudjoe’s book verifies, exemplified the political vibrancy of the period. By the end of this well-written and carefully researched book the social, political and personal essentials in the career of ARF Webber and the period in which he was prominent, has been enriched.
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