Party Politics in the West Indies

CLR James, The Life of Captain Cipriani: An Account of British Government in the West Indies, with the pamphlet The Case for West-Indian Self Government

Duke University Press, 200pp, £16.99, ISBN 9780822356516

reviewed by Christian Høgsbjerg

In his classic cultural history of cricket and civilisation, Beyond a Boundary (1963) the great Trinidadian Marxist CLR James recalled the time when ‘the Trinidad workers in the oilfields moved’ during the mass strike of 1937. ‘They were followed by masses of people in all the other islands, closing one epoch in West Indian history and opening another. One Government commentator, in reviewing the causes, was kind enough to refer to the writings of CLR James as helping to stir up the people.’ The chief ‘culprit’ here was James’s ‘political biography’ of Captain Arthur Andrew Cipriani, leader of the mass nationalist social democratic Trinidad Workingmen’s Association (TWA). James had written The Life of Captain Cipriani: An Account of British Government in the West Indies before leaving colonial Trinidad in 1932 and it was published later that year in Nelson, Lancashire before being sent back to the West Indies. It was not a large work, just 107 pages, and aimed at ‘bringing before all who may be interested the political situation in the West Indies today.’ James did not just simply expose the hypocrisy and brutality of colonial rule, what he called ‘the bad manners, the injustice, the tyranny, and the treachery of Crown Colony Government.’ In his lucid and unaffected easy-going style, James with penetrating and impeccable logic also subjected the official intellectual arguments put forward to justify mass black political disenfranchisement across the British Caribbean to a ruthless criticism.

Yet those who are not students of Caribbean history might still find themselves asking: what could be the possible justification for the republication of an all-but-forgotten biography about an all-but-forgotten politician that was published over 80 years ago? Even leaving aside the fact that that The Life of Captain Cipriani (1932) was the first published work by CLR James, and therefore of intrinsic interest to his many admirers, who have up to now found acquiring a copy of this long out of print work all but impossible – this political biography was, as the respected Caribbean historian Bridget Brereton notes in her scholarly introduction to this new edition, in one sense merely ‘an “apprentice” work’ of James’s, which never quite reaches either the literary heights or analytical depths of classic works such as The Black Jacobins (1938), James’s masterful history of the Haitian Revolution, and Beyond a Boundary.

It seems to me that there are essentially three reasons why The Life of Captain Cipriani, together with the shorter 1933 pamphlet which emerged out of it, The Case for West Indian Self Government, should not be dismissed as a mere ‘antiquarian curiosities’, and in fact the publishers Duke University Press should be congratulated for making these works available again. Firstly, because The Life of Captain Cipriani effectively speaks in a most timely manner to some of the ‘silenced past’ relating to the black and colonial experience of the First World War in the official commemoration currently underway in Britain. For Captain Cipriani himself – a white Trinidadian Creole of Corsican descent, indeed related to the Bonaparte family - was an officer of the British West Indies Regiment (BWIR), and one chapter in James’s biography of Cipriani outlines for us the regiment’s experience during the war.

The BWIR, initially deployed to Egypt, was at first denied the opportunity to fight on the grounds that ‘the War Office considered the fighting qualities of the West Indians doubtful and preferred to use them on shell-carrying and labour duties’. As James – whose own efforts to join the Merchants’ Contingent of volunteers from Trinidad in 1918 were blocked on account of his dark skin - comments, ‘it was the old story of the black man being first refused an opportunity to be afterwards condemned for incapacity.’ After one section of the BWIR were given their chance at the Front, James quotes several British officers paying tribute to their ‘keen coolness’ under fire and general ‘soldierly bearing’ under ‘the most trying circumstances’.

Cipriani was transformed politically by what James describes as ‘the series of pitched battles against tyranny, edged by race prejudice’ that he undertook on behalf of the black West Indian troops in Egypt and then in Italy against the British army authorities. In December 1918, in Taranto, Italy, BWIR members mutinied against the blatant racist discrimination in their pay and conditions compared to other members of the British army. James quotes the words of one BWIR officer, Major Thursfield, who visited Taranto in June 1919:

I had heard that the former trouble in Taranto had been caused by the men having been sent to do work of a degrading character (in one case cleaning out the latrines belonging to the Italian Labour Corps), I told the Base Commandant that on the formation of the Regiment and on enlistment the men had been promised that they should be treated as British troops … he replied that he was perfectly aware of the promise, and intended to take no notice of it: that the men were only niggers, and that no such treatment should ever have been promised to them; that they were better fed and treated than any nigger had a right to expect; that he would force them to do it.

The return of these embittered black troops of the BWIR to the Caribbean – and to poverty, overcrowding and unemployment – would be the spark that would lead to mass strikes and the birth of a militant nationalist movement post-war. Captain Cipriani, having earned the respect of the war veterans as their defender against British military officialdom would now take his place in history as a leading anti-colonialist, becoming President of the Trinidadian Workingmen’s Association and the self-declared ‘champion of the barefooted man’. As James notes, ‘it was in Egypt and Italy that was laid the foundation of the mutual confidence which is so powerful a factor in our political life today [1932], confidence in Captain Cipriani as an unselfish and fearless leader, confidence in the masses as a people worthy to be led.’

This quote brings us onto the other two reasons why this book deserves to be read by a wide audience today. As a biography of a key Trinidadian nationalist and labour leader (one who has been oddly rather neglected in subsequent Caribbean labour historiography), James’s The Life of Captain Cipriani stands as a pioneering and fascinating contribution in its own right. Yet like the best biographies, James’s life of Cipriani successfully also illuminates wider society, giving us a invaluable insight into the hierarchies of race, class and power operating around white supremacy and shaping colonial Trinidadian society. James’s account of instances of often heroic black and anti-colonial resistance, such as the Taranto mutiny, is important to remember – not least in Britain – where James campaigned for ‘West Indian self government’ among the labour movement during the early 1930s. James writes about how ‘the English … being encouraged by the splendour of their history during the last few centuries, they think very well of themselves.’ Even though we have seen the decline and fall of the British Empire since 1932 as a result in no small part of victorious national liberation struggles in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean, the nostalgic self-congratulatory celebration of the British imperial past remains a powerful ideological aspect of contemporary nationalism, and the continuing refusal of British politicians to face up to, let along apologise for, past crimes of the British Empire go hand in hand with their support for new disastrous and criminal neo-colonial wars in the present.

Finally, even though parts of the work and language may inevitably be somewhat dated (James writes for example of how in Britain, ‘political life is free from peculation’ [embezzlement and corruption], while ‘the administration of justice is such to gain the confidence and win the admiration of all who come into contact with it’ - testament to the legacy of his elite British colonial education at Queen’s Royal College, modelled on a British public school), the fact that the writer is C.L.R. James ensures there is rarely a dull moment. Indeed, when James warns that ‘today the Labour Party in England knows only too well one of its chief perils is the absorption of its leaders into the Conservative atmosphere’, one not just gets a sense of the coming disillusion among many Trinidadian nationalists (including James himself) with Cipriani’s strategy of relying on the British Labour Party to keep to its promises and serve as a vehicle to help deliver ‘West Indian self government’, but one has to remind oneself that James is writing this in 1932, long before the rise of ‘New Labour’.

Overall, in The Life of Captain Cipriani, James passionately and with his characteristic devastating wit exposed the lie behind the dictatorial British colonial authorities’ line of ‘self government when fit for it’, showing how the growth of the TWA demonstrated beyond doubt that Trinidadians were manifestly ready for ‘self government’. Indeed on re-reading the work without the off-putting miniscule print of the original publication I was struck by James’s radical daring democratic spirit, and it is not surprising it proved such a revelation and such an inspiration to many who came across it back in the 1930s. That said, the work was a political intervention, but one made by someone who was not yet primarily a political figure, let alone the outstanding revolutionary Marxist and anti-imperialist theoretician he would become. Rather James in 1932 was a writer whose 1928 ‘barrack-yard’ novel Minty Alley would soon be published (in 1936) and a schoolteacher who was still slowly awakening to all the contradictions of colonial rule, and still yet to understand the kind of militant mass activity from below that would be necessary to undermine it. The weaknesses and limitations of James’s liberal humanist and Fabian socialist perspectives at this early point in his political and intellectual evolution are clear enough – for example, his calling for democracy and autonomy for the British West Indies on the model of the White Dominions within the wider British Empire – rather than calling for the downfall of imperialism and colonial liberation outright. The key lesson that James would soon learn – and then spend the rest of his life dedicated to teaching others with such eloquence and erudition – is that democracy and colonial freedom are not given, but rather have to be taken.
Christian Høgsbjerg is a historian and author of CLR James in Imperial Britain and Mariner, Renegade and Castaway: Chris Braithwaite: Seamen's Organiser, Socialist and Militant Pan-Africanist.