C.L.R. James is regarded as one of the most celebrated thinkers of Trinidad and Tobago, and indeed of the whole Commonwealth Caribbean. He has described himself as being a rebel even from his childhood years. While still a young man, he pitted himself against colonialism and against racial prejudice in all its forms and he began to formulate his thoughts on the just and classless society.
Meanwhile, he became very prominent in Trinidad cricket and he began seeing his life philosophy in terms of that game. He became a great admirer of Captain Arthur Andrew Cipriani, who, on his return from World War I, became known as "the champion of the barefoot man." James’ admiration of Cipriani led to his writing The Life of Captain Cipriani, published in 1932. That year James left Trinidad and spent the next several years in Lancashire, England, with his cricketing friend, Learie Constantine. He reported widely on cricket and in fact earned his living during this period as a cricket commentator.
Apart from his preoccupation with politics, he was also of a poetical and literary turn of mind, and the next year, 1933, he published a book of verse called Pascall Bowled. The Victor Pascall named here was the noted cricketer, who was the uncle of Learie Constantine and one of James’ early heroes. Five years before, in 1928, James had been awarded a British prize for the "Best Short Story of novel 1928." In 1935, James published the novel, Minty Alley, a novel of Trinidad life amongst the poor. In 1936, while civil war was being fought in Spain, he produced the book, World Revolution 1917–1936: The Rise and Fall and Communist International. In 1938, he showed his social concern for the black man with two books: The History of the Negro Revolt, and Black Jacobins, the latter being the story of the campaign of Toussaint L’Ouverture against French rule in Haiti.
In November 1938, James undertook an extensive speaking tour of the United States, travelling to Minneapolis, Denver, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, with his main theme being what was known in America at the time as “the Negro Question.” His other themes were the mass organization of the working class, and the imminence of war in Europe. (World War II broke out less than a year afterwards in September 1939).
At the end of the tour in April, 1939, James went to Mexico where he spent some time with Leon Trotsky, one of the key men in the Soviet revolution of 1917. Trotsky, who had broken with Stalin and had been exiled by him, was to be assassinated by an agent of the Soviet Government in 1940. It was clear that James saw communism as the salvation of the black masses, which he was trying to organize. James remained in the United States lecturing and establishing himself in left wing politics, relatively unmolested.
But in 1952, during the high point of the Senator McCarthy anti-communist “witch-hunt,” James was arrested for what was called anti-American activities, and was interned for a while on Ellis Island. It was during this period he embarked on the study of Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick, and arising from this, he wrote the book Mariners, Renegades and Castaways. He was not detained long and when he returned to England in 1953, he found himself immersed in cricket affairs again, reporting matches ceaselessly.
A few years later, C.L.R. James was invited back to Trinidad by Dr. Eric Williams, newly appointed Chief Minister, who wanted this great figure to play a part in the march towards independence, and, in general, to be an inspiration to the youth of the country. James arrived in Trinidad in 1958, the year the Federation of the West Indies came into being, and he worked as editor of the newspaper of Dr. Eric Williams’ party, a newspaper called the PNM Weekly. He used its pages for an intensive political debate, sometimes bringing cricket into the fray, like the very important campaign he waged for the appointment of Frank Worrell as West Indies captain who, in that era, would have been the first black man to receive that honour. James also became secretary of the West Indian Federal Labour Party. He was soon to differ with Eric Williams on ideological and other grounds and the break-up of these two old friends remains an unpleasant chapter in the annals of Trinidad and Tobago politics.
James returned to England early in 1962, not even waiting for Trinidad and Tobago to attain independence in August that year. In 1963, he published one of his best-known books, which is a book of memoirs, as well as a study of cricket and life, Beyond a Boundary. In 1965, he came to Trinidad to cover an English cricket tour of the West Indies and found himself under house arrest. A public outcry forced his release after a few days and he was able to resume his coverage of the tour.
In 1966, he re-entered active politics in Trinidad and founded the Workers and Farmers Party, which did not get wide popular support. From 1966 to 1968, he traveled a great deal in and around the Caribbean, lecturing on literature and politics but he turned his face towards North America again, holding several university posts there between 1968 and 1975. He had been a great friend of Kwame Nkrumah in London and had carefully watched the course of the Gold Coast, which as Ghana became in 1975, the first independent, and in 1977 he published these articles as a book called Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution. Following after were The Future in the Present(1977), Spheres of Existence (1980) and At the Rendezvous of Victory (1984). James was posthumously awarded a NALIS Lifetime Literary Award in 2012.
Despite James’ feud with Dr. Eric Williams, he was always regarded by the people as a hero of Trinidad and Tobago, and indeed as a man who had made a significant contribution to the world. As the 1980s went by, James was sought after more and more and many called on the government to offer him a home in Trinidad in which to spend his last years. In 1986, the in-coming government of the National Alliance of Reconstruction – the Government which succeeded that of the People’s National Movement – publicly expressed great admiration for James, and the committee looking into national awards thought fit, in 1987, to reward him with the nation’s highest decoration, the Trinity Cross. James died in England on May 31, 1989, and was brought home and buried at Tunapuna, his birthplace.
- Anthony, Michael. Historical Dictionary of Trinidad and Tobago. London: The Scarecrow Press, 1977. 310 - 311, 312 - 313