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:

Mr. Philip was not radically active because it was not his temperament to be so. His praise of Mr. Reeves [attorney general of Barbados]. . .shows that his heart was in the right place. But this sketch has been written in vain if Creoles do not see that Maxwell Philip’s memory is to be treasured for other reasons. True he was a distinguished lawyer, but Trinidad has had her fair share of such. He is to be remembered too as a man of conspicuous public service. But even here he is not unique. Rather his chief claim to remembrance is because in addition to all these things, he was a man of that varied intellectual power and breadth of culture which make him and such as he the fine flower of a civilized society.footnote8

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.