by Richard Small
Urgent Tasks No. 12

I was about six years of age when I got hold of my mother's copy of Shakespeare. There were 37 plays in it, or 36, and there was an illustration in the front of each play. The illustration had below it the Act and the Scene which it illustrated and I remember the illustration before Julius Caesar saying, "How ill this taper burns." Now I could not read a play of Shakespeare but I remember perfectly looking up the Act and Scenes stated at the foot of the illustration and reading that particular scene. I am quite sure that before I was seven I had read all those scenes. I read neither before nor after, but if the picture told me Act 3, Scene 4, I would look it up and fortified myself with the picture.[1]

In this quotation is contained a great deal of what helped to form C. L. R. James. Born in the West Indies at the turn of the century, the son of a Black Trinidadian school teacher, grandson just over half a century after the abolition of slavery of a sugar-estate pan boiler and an engine driver, came of age in the growing stages of a West Indian nationalist movement, proletariat[2] and developing Carnival in a society if not as scholastic as Barbados certainly one that was increasingly literate.

The quotation may suggest great audacity but the main point is the method and that it should have been there from so early. First he was very disciplined in assessing what he could handle and set out to master that. The picture would have helped to provide a visual image to the print which a young mind by itself perhaps could not conjure up. Secondly it was done comprehensively all 36 or 37 plays some would stick, perhaps not all, but all would be read. The quotation is also apposite since it illustrates another aspect of James's development. Almost 60 years later on the occasion of the 4th centenary of Shakespeare, he did a series of programs for the BBC which were afterwards used widely on radio stations in the U.S.A. Here as in all the main areas of his ideas, the grounding in them can be found in his earliest years and in a method which he seemed to have developed entirely empirically.

Insofar as it is possible to break up any man's life into compartments, it could be said that there are three in the case of James's. First there is cricket. He grew up in a house that was directly in front of the local cricket ground. In Trinidad and the West Indies of the early twentieth century this game, introduced by the English colonials, was not only a major form of entertainment (this being before the era of such popular forms as the cinema and radio) but it was also the arena in which the social forces in the absence of adult suffrage or a developed trade union movement contended against each other.

The membership of the various clubs was determined by occupation and social class and at that time, even more sharply than now, that discrimination would be virtually the same as differentiation according to color. Queens Park Club, the controllers of cricket in the island, were white and wealthy; Shamrock, Catholic French Creole traders and cocoa planters; Maple, middle class of brown skin; Shannon, the Black middle class version, white collar office types, and teachers; and then Stingo, the tradesman, artisan, worker. Today, after Muhammad Ali there can be no doubt of the profound and comprehensive social drama that can be portrayed through a sport. Add to that that almost everybody played or took an interest in cricket and that it was played for up to eight months of the year, and some estimate of its potential for social and sublimated social expression will be grasped.

The game itself can often produce great dramatic effects:

Down came a short ball, up went Jones and lashed at it, there was the usual shout, a sudden silence and another shout, not so loud this time. Then from my window I saw Jones walking out and people began to walk away. He had been caught by point standing with his back to the barbed wire. I could not see it from my window and I asked and asked until I was told what had happened. I knew that something out of the ordinary had happened to us who were watching. We had been lifted to the heights and cast down into the depths in much less than a fraction of a second. Countless as are the times that this experience has been repeated, most often in the company of tens of thousands of people, I have never lost the zest of wondering at it and pondering over it.[3]

The game has the virtue of a book like Animal Farm in that all ages can observe it and get their own stimulation.

From as early as the age of six, James was looking out from "my window," which was placed right behind the wicket. His father had given him a bat and ball on his fourth birthday. His first day at secondary school, he put his name down to play. He eventually made the school eleven, was secretary and organized the purchase of the stock for the whole school. That, however, was a small part of his involvement. He read every book on cricket in sight, and those out of sight he would go looking for. P. F. Warner's account of the M.C.C. 1903-4 tour of Australia, and his Cricket, The Jubilee Book of Cricket by Ranjitsinghi and the Badmington Book of Cricket. These were the pillars and they helped to form part of his outlook on life from when he was in school. He would organize newspaper clippings, articles from magazines, keep statistics on the game. He was up-to-date on the theories of the game and would expound on them. After a time it seems that the actual playing of the game was merely ancillary to all this. In contrast to his adventurous mind, he was a defensive batsman. He bowled medium fast and could do things with the ball competent but not gifted. He played the game regularly and hard, right up to 1931 when he left the island, but his intellectual involvement in the game was always there. After he left school, he moved naturally into cricket journalism.

The story of James and literature is the second (only in listing, not in priority) area of his life. There is the quotation at the start on the nature of his introduction to Shakespeare. He was drawn to reading by the normal youth's interest in adventure stories, particularly James Fenimore Cooper's The Deerslayer, The Pathfinder, The Last of the Mohicans, and The Prairie. His mother had a library. She read, and close behind her he would read everything from the magazine got from the travelling salesman to Dickens, Charlotte Bronte, Nathaniel Hawthorne and a Mrs. E. D. E. N. Southworth. He formed an association with Vanity Fair at the age oi eight and would read it about once every 3 months so that till today he can recite pages of it from memory. He was very familiar with his Bible, not as is the usual case in the West Indies because he was told it ought to be read but because he discovered that the unabridged version of the stories he read in The Throne of the House of David could be found in that good book.

At school he would read the set books through well ahead of the class and then move on to the volumes of criticism. He read all the volumes of Thackeray's works. He studied Greek, Latin and History. It was the same with these. It led him to the collections of historic speeches. In addition he said he read "everything."

Two quotations may help.

I did not merely play cricket. I studied it. I analysed strokes, I studied types, I read its history, its beginnings, how and when it changed from period to period, I read about it in Australia and in South Africa. I read and compared statistics, I made clippings, I talked to all cricketers, particularly the inter-colonial cricketers and those who had gone abroad. I compared what they told me with what I read in old copies of Wisdon. I looked up the play of the men who had done well or badly against the West Indies. I read and appreciated the phraseology of laws.[4]

It was only after I left school that I began to distinguish between the study of cricket and the study of literature, or rather, I should say, the pursuit of cricket and the pursuit of literature. I did with the one exactly what I did with the other. I paid no attention to the curriculum.[5]

C. L. R. James today, despite his acknowledged wide range, is known firstly as a political writer and Marxist. Up to the time he left school, there is no sign in him of any political inclinations.

But this school was in a colony ruled autocratically by Englishmen. What then about the National Question? It did not exist for me.[6]

The race question did not have to be agitated. It was there. But in our little Eden it never troubled us.[7]

It is James's view that despite some instances of racial discrimination outside, they were soon forgotten once he returned to the shelter of the school atmosphere. Yet the racial categories of the society would have been all around for everybody to see. It was certainly there in cricket and he had to make a very clear decision on it just as he left school.

Which club would he join? The choice to him was between the light colored, Maple, on the one hand, and on the other Shannon, the team that played as if they were the representatives of the whole Black population and which they were. He searched his mind, sought advice and decided for the club in which many were friends of his Maple. In the words of an advisor, "These are the people who you are going to meet in life. Join them; it will be better in the end."[8]

This decision summarized a great deal of James's life up to that time. Although from solid "Shannon" stock, his brightness had got him to one of the two leading secondary schools. It was a path that was expected to release a few Black men in a generation into the rare surroundings of professional life and legislative appointment. James had not applied himself to what was considered his social responsibility to complete that circuit. Yet the mere fact of being a QRC (Queens Royal College) boy for seven years presented a dilemma of decision that lesser Blacks would not have faced. It was not an easy decision for him to make, but the fact is that the decision was made the way it was. He had spent close to fifteen years making himself widely familiar with English literature, cricket, the public school code, history and general European culture. Yet when the most concrete of decisions for a Black Trinidadian came to be made, there was nothing in all that training that could point a way for him. It is almost that it had isolated him from seeing the sharp forces which were embattled before his eyes. He does write about making the decision, "My social and political instincts, nursed on Dickens and Thackeray, were beginning to clarify themselves. As powerful a pull as any was the brilliant cricket Shannon played."[9]

When you look at it, the main reason which his advisor gave for joining Maple, "These men are the people whom you are going to meet in life," had already been rejected by James. By his very interests and failure to apply himself to his formal school studies, he had disappointed his family and all around who expected him to follow the course which would have made him, despite his color, the professional if not the social colleague of the Maple players.

Was there any place in the society where he could have learned a different answer to this personal crisis in which Thackeray and Matthew Arnold could not assist? There was the aloofness of the grammar school boy garrisoned by the protectiveness of the school and its Oxbridge-trained masters who could easily, within the walls of the school, teach the old public school ethic of "playing the game," "respecting the authority of the umpire," and esprit de corps. Education was then even more than now separated from the social realities, and the few scholarship winners could hardly represent any real questioning of the applicability of the legend to Trinidad as it existed outside the school. James was further separated by his avid reading and immersion in British ideology.

Trinidad society was no calm pool, and other forces, we can now detect, were an undercurrent in his life that perhaps even he was unaware of. In Beyond A Boundary there is a passing reference to the calypso tents of his boyhood days.

I was fascinated by the calypso singers and the sometimes ribald ditties they sang in their tents during carnival time. But, like many of the black middle class, to my mother a calypso was a matter for ne'er-do-wells and at best the common people. I was made to understand that the road to the calypso tent was the road to hell, and there were always plenty of examples of hell's inhabitants to whom she could point.[10]

Ribald ditties were not all that were being sung in those tents. It would be interesting to know whether James ever heard the Calypsonian, Patrick Jones, sing, in 1920, these lines[11]:

Class legislation is the order of this
We are ruled with the iron hand
Britain boast of democracy
Brotherly love and fraternity
But British Colonists have been
ruled in perpetual misery.

The period immediately after the end of the first World War was one of considerable unrest among the working class.[12] Following on a series of strikes in the oil and asphalt fields, a group of independentminded and militant workers moved to push the employers to adjust wages, which had been severely reduced during the wars by price increases and actual cuts. In November 1919 the stevedores struck, there was a march which caused business places in Port of Spain to close, and a general strike was called. Various categories of workers either joined the strike then or struck later after the stevedores had won a 25% increase. The colonial administration had called in white troops from Jamaica during the strike. They believed that the spirit of the Taranto Rebellion in Italy, when Black troops of the British West Indies Regiment revolted in December 1918, had in fact "eventually reached the population of Trinidad generally."[13]

The unrest continued in 1920 and a Strikes and Lockouts Ordinance, a Seditious Acts and Publications Ordinance, and an Industrial Courts Ordinance were all passed that year.

There was a Stingo batsman, Telemaque, whom C. L. R. James would have often come into contact with. He was in fact an all-rounder a bowler and fielder. He was also a waterfront worker and a member of the waterfront workers' organization. James liked the man, but in Beyond A Boundary he can only speculate that Telemaque may have taken part in the events of 1919- 20. "Telemaque and I rarely talked."[14]

Among the publications that were banned was Marcus Garvey's Negro World, but James used to arrange to get his copy and read it. After Garvey was expelled from the U.S.A., in the course of his travels he came to Trinidad. The Port of Spain City Council gave him an official welcome and C. L. R. James was among those who interviewed him. To James, Garvey was an interesting person, but he was not a follower of Garvey. If he didn't get the paper, he "would not die."[15] Many of the leaders of the 1919 strike considered themselves Garveyites.

During the strike James, as was his practice with politics at the time, took no part in it but went around to see what was going on.[16]

I saw what was happening and later it had a great effect on me because I realized how weak and defenseless was the local government and that had an influence on my thinking. . . . I remember that the soldiers didn't frighten anybody. That had a lot to do with my attitude later because the people were not afraid, so that in 1938-39 although I was not there I read the report and could visualize it. The trouble in a Caribbean island is that the army cannot be depended on to shoot down the population and it is a serious problem up to today.[17]

Along with the reading of Garvey's paper, James recalls reading somewhere around 1921 Rene Marat's novel that won the Prex Goncourt and reading "the novel which was an exposure of colonialism in French Africa" and which caused Marat to lose his job.

Although he did not take part in any of the political activity in 1919 he was in 1919 among a group who formed the Maverick Club. It was a social club which lasted about two years. No white people were allowed to join. James was the secretary "and for the most part we were Black people and one brown." Among its members were C. T. W. E. Worrell and John Theophilus Caesar Prescod. There were lawyers and doctors as members and among other things "we would give concerts."[18] What racial consciousness did this represent? For he maintained

A circle of friends (most of them white) with whom I exchanged ideas, books, records and manuscripts. We published local magazines and gave lectures or wrote articles on Wordsworth, the English Drama, and Poetry as a Criticism of Life. We lived according to the tenets of Matthew Arnold, spreading sweetness and light and the best that has been thought and said in the world. We met all visiting literary celebrities as a matter of course.[19]

A prominent member of this circle was the novelist Alfred Mendes. In an interview[20] about the period, he expresses the opinion that

. . . the motivating forces that drove us, willy-nilly, like a sort of one of the furies, into writing at all, stemmed from two world-shattering events at that early period of our lives.

The first was, of course, the first world war where a large number of us had been abroad and indeed, even those of us who had not been abroad were influenced considerably by what was happening in the world, and the second event was the Russian Revolution. Those, I think, were the two events in our lives at that time which drove us into writing about our islands.

James certainly had been writing about the island in his novel Minty Alley and his two best-known short stories, "Triumph" and "La Divina Pastora" and with a sensitivity for local culture that is in striking contrast to this strange aloofness from politics. There is, however, no indication that the crisis of the World War or the Russian Revolution sparked any urge in him.

From 1919 Captain Arthur Andrew Cipriani had joined the Trinidad Workingmen's Association and launched a period of nationalist politics.[21] It was not until 1924 that James started paying anything like close attention to his speeches and not till 1931 that he became a follower of Cipriani.

It is history, the third area of James's life, that really makes the link between the young man who grew up in Trinidad and the man whose life and ideas today make it so unreal to divide him into categories. He studied his history in school in the same way in which he approached literature and cricket. Indeed there was history in cricket and history in literature. History suffused everything. It was implicit in the very method he developed first comprehensiveness, then the attempt to place the whole in some order.

I can remember this much. I read an enormous number of history books, none of them particularly good, but I read every one I could put my hands on chiefly the history of England and later, histories of Europe and ancient civilization. I used to teach history, and reading the whole lot of them I gained the habit of critical judgment and discrimination. I was compelled to try to find out what I should teach or what I should believe. However, I remember three Or four very important history books. They were a history of England by G. K. Chesterton and some histories of the seventeenth century by Hilary Bellock. These books violently attacked the traditional English history on which I had been brought up and they gave me a critical conception of historical writing.[22]

His historical approach to literature can be illustrated. At the library there was a set of books by Thomas Hardy. James borrowed and read them in the sequence in which they were written. Similarly, when a series of translations of the works of Anatole France became available, he imported them and read them in order.

Long before he became a Marxist he used to tell his students:

What you need in studying any historical subject is you must get some idea of the economic circumstance, you must also get some idea of the political circumstances and you must get to know the literary circumstances. Only when you know those three, you have some idea of the historical development of the period.[23]

No doubt the power of the social movement was channelling this exceptionally trained mind into new inquiries. So his writing began to show a native preoccupation that was already evident in his creative work. In 1931 he published in the Beacon a study of Michel Maxwell Philip, a Trinidadian Solicitor-General. He had been writing about Prudhomme David, a Black member of the legislature. Indeed from about 1928 he had started talking to people, collecting information and government reports. That work found consummation in the writing of The Life of Captain Cipriani, a study that embraced much else besides the life of a remarkable West Indian. Its publication in Britain in 1932 is charged with great symbolism. It was dedicated to Learie Constantine, the outstanding West Indian cricketer of the period, and thereby appropriately linked the game with the surge of West Indian nationalism. It represented the first major fruit of the offer of James's exceptional qualities to the services of the Caribbean mass. The title of the abridged version prepared for the West Indian market caught its real spirit The Case for West Indian Self-Government.

In 1938 two books that were first worked on during those last hectic years in Trinidad before departure to England were published in England The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and The San Domingo Revolution and A History of Negro Revolt.

The historical sense remains very strong. We can summarize the transition to Marxism very quickly. In 1932 when he went to England he had general socialist ideas and nationalist sentiments. He went intending to be a novelist and probably a critical essayist. He had an inclination towards the British Labor Party, not unusual as Cipriani had a great faith in the party and his organization was affiliated to it. In addition, the Calypsonian Patrick Jones had sung a calypso in honor of the first Labor Party victory.

In Britain there was tremendous political excitement going on among the intellectuals. Also in Nelson, where he stayed with Learie Constantine and his wife, workers, members of the Labor Party, taught him not to expect too much from the party. He was reading Lenin and Stalin and Trotsky. Then

I read the History of the Russian Revolutionbecause I was very much interested in history and the book seemed to offer some analysis of modern society. At the end of reading the book, Spring 1934, I became a Trotskyist in my mind and later joined. It was clear in my mind that I was not going to be a Stalinist.[24]

C. L. R. James, even today with his strong puritan sense and Marxist politics, still remains an enigma to many. To read his Beyond A Boundary, to hear him speak of what he owes to Western civilization in the same breath as expounding on Black Power, can be a puzzling experience. Still there is a natural link between all this. One should not be fooled by the aura that surrounds "the British public school code" or the failure of those who preached honesty, fair play, etc. to practice it, to carry it to its logical conclusion. It is those very qualities of fair play, honesty, etc. in their pure sense that a Black colonial would be driven to extract from the code. That is what he would need, as it was the absence of that everywhere around him that was holding him down. That is the movement that he detected in English literature. It is there in the authors to whom he was attracted.

My social and political instincts, nursed on Dickens and Thackeray[25]

Thackeray, not Marx, bears the heaviest responsibility for me.[26]

Fairness contains in it the ideas of justice, equality. It pushes one toward that. It may have taken a long time but when he turned to look at Trinidadian society, he saw first the mass of the population, how they lived and what the motion of their history was propelling them towards. In The Life of Captain Cipriani and in his creative works, he writes as naturally about the mass of the population as if he had been looking at them all his life.

There is a way when the qualities of an older order, past times, are being betrayed by a contemporary brutality and crudeness, that this can lead someone who believes in the values of the old order either to pine after the past or to create a vision of a new order which will either restore the cherished values or at least make it possible to live by them. The spirit of Marxism that James has illuminated is very little removed from the essentials of what he was brought up on.

Richard Small is a lawyer in Jamaica and an old friend of C. L. R. James.


1. Interview with C. L. R. James by author in London, October 1967.[return to text]

2. "Labour Relations after World War One," Moko, 22/12/69.[return to text]

3. C. L. R. James, Beyond A Boundary (Hutchinson, 1963), pages 16-17.[return to text]

4. Ibid., pages 41-42.[return to text]

5. Ibid., page 42.[return to text]

6. Ibid., page 38.[return to text]

7. Ibid., page 39.[return to text]

8. Ibid., page 59.[return to text]

9. Ibid., page 58.[return to text]

10. Ibid., pages 25-26.[return to text]

11. Calypso Lore and Legend, Cook Records, LP 5016.[return to text]

12. See footnote 2 and "Black Power In The British West Indies: The Trinidad Longshoremen's Strike of 1919," Science and Society, Vol. 33, Winter 1969, pages 71-75.[return to text]

13. "Disturbances in Port of Spain, Reports by the Commissioners on The Conduct of the Constabulary," September 1920, Public Record Office (London), C.O. 884/13. For information on the rebellion, see W. F. Elkins, "A Source of Black Nationalism in the Caribbean: The Revolt of the British West Indies Regiment at Taranto, Italy," Science and Society, Vol. 34, Spring 1970, pages 99-103.[return to text]

14. James, op. cit, page 76.[return to text]

15. Interview with C. L. R. James by author in London, April 3, 1969.[return to text]

16. Ibid.[return to text]

17. Ibid., i.e., 1969. It was a serious problem once again in 1970 in Trinidad.[return to text]

18. Interview with C. L. R. James by author.[return to text]

19. James, op. cit., pages 70-71.[return to text]

20. "Talking About The Thirties," Voices, Vol. 1, No. 5 (Port of Spain, Trinidad).[return to text]

21. See C. L. R. James, The Life of Captain Cipriani (Nelson, Lanes, 1932).[return to text]

22. Interview with C. L. R. James by author in London, October 1967.[return to text]

23. Ibid.[return to text]

24. Ibid.[return to text]

25. James, Beyond A Boundary, page 58.[return to text]

26. Ibid., page 47.[return to text]

[STO Digital Archive] | [Urgent Tasks No. 12]