Trinidad and Tobago has produced many outstanding scholars, particularly during the first half of the twentieth century:footnote1 Sylvester Williams, usually described as the father of Pan Africanism; George Padmore, author of Pan Africanism or Communism?, among other titles, and another prominent member of the activists in Pan Africanism;footnote2 Eugene Chen, twice minister for foreign affairs in the Nationalist government of China under Sun Yat-sen;footnote3 Eric Williams, Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago from 1962 to 1981 and author of Capitalism and Slavery; Oliver Cromwell Cox, author of Caste, Class and Race; C.L.R. James and others. As J.R. Hooker, author of Henry Sylvester Williams, remarked: ‘That Trinidad has produced a disproportionate number of unusual men is a truism; that so many of them have been forgotten is a scandal. Any small island capable of launching an Eric Williams, a C.L.R. James, a George Padmore, a Vidia Naipaul, to mention a few whose reputations are secure, requires attention.’footnote4 Were he writing in 1996 he would have had to include Arnold Rampersad, author of The Art and Imagination of W.E.B. Du Bois and The Life of Langston Hughes. These exemplary talents did not drop from the sky. Rather, they were products of a nineteenth-century intellectual formation that has not been given due attention. We shall see that James was aware of this formation and acknowledged his intellectual debt. As he said in one of his many tributes to George Padmore, ‘The longer I live, the more I see that people are shaped to a degree that they do not yet understand by the social relations and family and other groups in which they grew up.’footnote5

Born in 1901 in Tunapuna, Trinidad in 1901, James grew up within a five-mile radius of the homes of Sylvester Williams and Padmore.footnote6 Indeed, James’s and Padmore’s fathers were friends, and well-known principals at local primary schools in the island.footnote7 In later life James wrote about the achievements of these intellectuals and, by inference, their effect on his own development. Thus, in writing about Michel Maxwell Philip, one of the most distinguished nineteenth-century scholars, James noted:

James might have been speaking of himself. Thirty-eight years later he proudly announced that he did not learn literature ‘from the mango-tree, or bathing on the shore and getting the sun of the colonial countries; I set out to master the literature, philosophy and ideas of Western civilization. That is where I have come from, and I would not pretend to be anything else.’ Thus he affirmed that the ‘origins of my work and my thoughts are to be found in Western European literature, Western European history and Western European thought.’footnote9 This is a large claim, but James was certain of the sources of his intellectual ideas and the work of those in the Caribbean who went before him. He understood this tradition long before any of his contemporaries did. Thus it is to this somewhat silent and unexplored tradition that we should turn to understand the foundation—perhaps ‘groundation’ as the Rastas would say—of the intellectual origins of twentieth-century Trinidadian and, by extension, Caribbean intellectual thought. As James acknowledged, he was not unique nor was he part of a tradition that was confined to Trinidad. His was part of a larger Caribbean experience, as is affirmed by the examples of Aimé Césaire of Martinique and Grantley Adams of Barbados. James was the product of an exemplary tradition, one that I outline by examining the works of three important Trinidadian scholars of the nineteenth century: Jean-Baptiste Philippe, Michel Maxwell Philip, and J.J. Thomas.

The first thirty-four years of the nineteenth century were certainly a horrendous time for slaves and free people of colour alike. They marked the last years of slavery, and the attempt of slaves and free people of colour to articulate concepts of freedom. Jean-Baptiste Philippe, a coloured physician, in penning Free Mulatto, his address to Lord Bathurst, the British secretary of state for the colonies, inaugurated an intellectual and literary tradition that would have an important impact on the scholars and intellectuals who followed.footnote10 Although located within the island’s social and political environment, Free Mulatto drew on the concepts of the Enlightenment ideal, displaying Philippe’s knowledge of the French essayists and pamphleteers of the previous century.

A disquisition about the coloured people of Trinidad during the slave era, Free Mulatto explores ‘the nature of man and of his response to this environment and his own conscience’. Free Mulatto, the embodiment of the collective response of the coloured community to the pressures brought against them by the English, also reflected the culmination of what Carl Campbell called ‘the politics of private discussion’ and ‘the quiet collection of signatures’. Moreover, it chronicled the ‘sunk and mortifying conditions to which they [the coloureds] have been degraded by the illiberal prejudices of the whites, publicly countenanced as they have been by the illegal proceedings of some of their successive governors.’ The text is the work of a ‘progressive-minded intellectual’ who considers the coloured subject ‘as a social being’ and ‘points to a theoretical solution of the problems of the age [that] could be comprehended within it.’footnote11 Using the pamphlet, the preferred literary style of the eminent prose writers of the age and his fellow coloured patriots, Philippe expressed his dissatisfaction with the conditions of his people.footnote12 Moreover, if we see literature as one aspect of ‘the general history of ideas’ and accept the notion that ‘the writer and the specialist often merge to take on the appearance of a superior kind of journalism’ within the philosophe, then it can be asserted that this eloquent piece of philosophical journalism stands at the entrance of Trinidad and Tobago’s literary and philosophical engagement with the world, and constitutes the first sustained indigenous literary essay of the tradition.