The University of Woodford Square: A Tribute to Eric Williams

Eric Williams
The University of Woodford Square: A Tribute to Eric Williams
A gifted historian and popular Prime Minister, Eric Williams was determined to break with colonial traditions in Trinidad and Tobago. Tony Costigan makes a pilgrimage to Woodford Square, the site of Williams's famous public speeches.

'With a bandstand, a microphone, a large audience in slacks and hot shirts, a topical subject for discussion, the open air and a beautiful tropical night, we have all the essentials of a university…the only university in which I shall lecture in future is the University of Woodford Square and its several branches throughout the length and breadth of Trinidad and Tobago.' Eric Williams

Born in colonial Trinidad in 1911, Eric Williams became the first Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago in 1961 and remained in office until his death in 1981. He received a classical education at Queens Royal College, Port of Spain, which to date remains one of the island’s most prestigious schools. In 1931 Williams won an Island Scholarship; under the colonial system, this was an annual award to the island’s best performing student to continue on to higher education at a British university. In 1931 Williams enrolled at Oxford University as a student of Politics, Philosophy and Economics before switching to Modern History.

Following years of study and meticulous research, Williams achieved his doctorate in December 1938. In 1939, he was offered a teaching role at the African-American Howard University, Washington D.C. For the next few years he worked on the expansion of his dissertation “The Economic Aspects of the Abolition of the West Indian Slave Trade and Slavery,” published in book form in November 1944 as “Capitalism & Slavery”, which famously argued that the abolition of slave trade was brought about not just by pressure from British social reformers, but the rise of industry and shifts in industrial relations. Williams remained at Howard until he returned to Trinidad in 1955. Vowing never to leave Trinidad again, he immersed himself in politics and founded the Peoples’ National Movement. 

With his trademark sunglasses and hearing aid, a short man with the presence of a colossus, Williams was a man of vision. His vision was to unite the diverse peoples of Trinidad and Tobago into one nation and to liberate them from colonial rule. He, too, knew that he was a product of this same colonial system, although his supporters would argue that he was much more. A charismatic politician, Williams would stage extraordinary open-air political speeches on topics including history, the economy and society.     

With this in mind, it became a personal ambition of mine to visit Woodford Square, breathe the air and feel the pulse of history from Williams’s point of view.

As I threaded my way through the crowded sidewalk of Charlotte Street, Port of Spain, I couldn’t help reflecting on how similar it was to Surrey Street, Croydon...the main difference was that at thirty-two degrees Celsius, the sun was attempting to scorch every inch of my exposed skin, and it was still only January. Colourful tropical fruits and ground provisions were displayed on stalls, and the shops lining the street consisted mainly of ladies’ clothing boutiques. Here and there, sound systems blasted passers-by with the chest-pounding beat of Soca and Soca-Chutney music from beneath handmade signs reading “Ear Traffic Control!”  

At the end of the street, I asked a local ‘Trini’ the way to Woodford Square. After establishing that I was ‘‘from foreign’’, he raised his arm, twisting it this way and that and directed me. “Go so! Then, so! Then, just so…and, then… go straight, straight!” With his gesticulations and verbal instructions set in my mind, I thanked him and set off, confident that I’d complete my pilgrimage in no time at all.

Within minutes, there it was, the Red House! The parliament building of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, and across the road from the main entrance stood the public park which was the historically significant Woodford Square - the place that I had really come to see!

If one was to compare Port of Spain in 1955 with Republican Rome, then Williams transformed Woodford Square into the ‘Forum’ and the bandstand into the ‘Rostra’ from which he addressed Trinidadians on politics and economics in the local vernacular, always intelligently, never talking down to them. Arguably it was no coincidence that Williams chose a location directly opposite the seat of colonial power as his venue. On one occasion he estimated that ten thousand people had gathered to hear him speak. Whatever the number, the park was undoubtedly full to its capacity, with crowds spilling out onto the adjoining streets, eager to catch every word that he uttered.

In August 1976, Trinidad and Tobago became a republic, considered by some to be the fulfillment of Williams’ post-colonial ambitions and his greatest legacy. However, in more recent times Woodford Square has witnessed an extraordinary revival in political debates, such as the Prisoner Inter-Station Debate, where inmates from Port O’ Spain Prison (PoS) and Maximum Security Prisons (MSP) held a lively debate on the legalization of marijuana. In this first prison inter-station debating competition, MSP beat PoS Prison in the semi-final round by just one point, but rather than threatening their triumphant opponents with violence, the PoS Prison vowed a debating comeback instead. The much-anticipated rematch came in this year’s historical final in Woodford Square, where Port O’ Spain argued for the decriminalization of marijuana and Maximum Security Prisons argued against it, with both sides cheered on by placard waving supporters. 

Freedom of speech and the right to protest are traditionally considered to be the cornerstones of democracy and political freedom. As a pioneer of both, perhaps, as people return to Woodford Square to debate the issues of the day, it is time to once again reflect on Dr. Williams's extraordinary legacies.