March on Chaguaramas

In 1957, a provisional constitution had been drafted for the projected West Indian Federal Government.  Part of the government’s mandate was to continue to honour international agreements made by the British during the colonial period. This became an issue of contention in Trinidad and Tobago arising from objections to continued American occupation of the Waller Army Airfield Base.

There were those in Trinidad who wanted to close the American base. In 1957, the Federation’s leader, Grantley Adams from Barbados, reluctantly agreed to participate as an observer to a UK - US conference on the subject. A commission appointed by the conference advised, one year later, that the base not be removed.  To United States, this closed the matter and the United Kingdom said the Federation "could not reasonably ask the United States Government, to relinquish part of the base." The Federation’s government agreed that the matter should be closed for ten (10) years. The Trinidad Guardian admonished that Australia had waited "long and patiently" for twenty (20) years before establishing its capital at Canberra.

Despite this, Dr. Eric Williams, the leader of the then Governing party, declared war on them all: "Our 'base' is the University of Woodford Square, our 'army' is the citizen body; their 'arms' are the banners proclaiming Independence and their placards denouncing colonialism.”

CLR James was installed as the editor of the People’s National Movement's paper and he kept up a continuous propaganda barrage against the United States. Dr. Williams took it to the people arguing that the American attitude was a continuation of 450 years of European imperialism. "What progress have we made," he asked on 17 July 1959 in what some consider one of his finest speeches, "if we have substituted Chaguaramas, the naval base of the twentieth century, for Brimstone Hill, military base of the sixteenth century?" For Dr. Williams and for the people who supported him, the issue was quite simple: No self-governing state, far less an independent nation, could tolerate another country having jurisdiction over part of its territory. National interest demanded the base’s return to the government of Trinidad and Tobago. Dr. Williams quoted the words of a calypsonian, "we want back we land."

In Trinidad, the refusal of the Colonial Office to pressure the Americans into negotiating the return of Chaguaramas indicated to some that the British were not serious about granting true independence to the Federation. They decided that if the Federation did not support Dr. Williams on the issue, then Trinidad and Tobago should not support any West Indian Federal Government because it would make them no more than a puppet for the Colonial Office. But the real war in Dr. Williams' eyes was among a continuation of past centuries of poverty, suppression, and self-determination. "The only two alternatives available … to the people of the West Indies: forward to independence, backward to colonialism."

On 22 April 1960, the Governing party organized a rally, which began with speeches at Woodford Square. Their choice of speakers - CLR James, Lennox Pierre, Janet Jagan, all known socialists - was to be a clear signal to the US: “we want Chaguaramas or else.” On the platform, Dr. Williams ceremoniously burnt the "seven deadly sins of colonialism" including: (1) the 1941 lease agreement, (2) the 1956 Trinidad constitution, (3) the DLP statement on Guyana, (4) the report on the Federal capital site, (5) the telephone ordinance of 1939 and (6) six (6) copies of the Trinidad Guardian. After the speeches, tens of thousands marched behind Dr. Williams in the heavy rain to present the demands to the US Consulate.

The Trinidad Guardian linked Dr. Williams to Hitler; Albert Gomes called him a "loud-mouthed demagogue;" Capildeo thought that talk of independence was "nonsense." But the march in the rain was considered a vast success. The Colonial Secretary flew to Trinidad to say that Britain needed "no lecturing on the issue," that the West Indian Territories should "hurry up" and take their freedom, and that he would "talk to the Americans." As for Americans, in the words of US Ambassador John Whitney, "The United States Government was conscious of the aspirations of the West Indians who were taking the road to freedom which Americans themselves took not long ago, and wished therefore to conclude agreements conforming and contributing to those aspirations and acceptable to the people and their political representatives."

The War for Chaguaramas ended in a victory for Trinidad and Tobago: the Americans were forced to the bargaining table and the British were forced to concede full self-government in 1961. Chaguaramas was also the first nail in the coffin of the West Indian Federation. "We failed miserably," sang the Mighty Sparrow, a Trinidadian calypsonian. In the settlement between the two countries, the base was abandoned although the United States facilities were to remain under American control until 1977, while Trinidad and Tobago was to be compensated by assistance in various projects up to thirty million dollars (US). "I had certain reservations," admitted Dr. Williams and many felt that Trinidad and Tobago was short-changed in the deal.

The compromise also affected the internal politics of the PNM. The settlement with the Americans had demanded the isolation of leftists in the PNM. In a sense, this was the seed of political pragmatism that in later years would take a toll on the party's integrity and idealism. Many PNM members, beginning with CLR James, were axed solely because they dared to disagree with Dr. Williams.

The PNM considered Chaguaramas a victory and painted any opposition as against the national interest. Although the DLP clearly contributed to this, it was no less unfortunate that the Indian population became tarred as being "a recalcitrant minority." It was a definition of "the nation" that was both limited and limiting.

Nevertheless, the War for Chaguaramas was in many ways the high point of the nationalist movement and formed some of the most positive elements of Trinidad and Tobago nationalism. Writing after his resignation for the PNM, CLR James put it to the people who marched through the rain on that day: "Despite the fact that the American base at Chaguaramas had brought in more money here than had ever been brought before, when called upon, you answered, and made it clear that, with only a few years partial freedom behind you, you were ready to throw down the gauntlet to the most powerful nation in the world, to assert your rights as a people, to say that Chaguaramas was yours and you were not going to be deprived of it."

It was a war that took a nascent and purely negative resentment against the American soldiers and transformed it into a positive nationalism that convinced everyone including the British and the Americans, but most importantly the Trinidadians of their ability to govern themselves.

On this nationalism the Federation foundered, but the movement was never one of Trinidad chauvinism. Rather, the Federation was rejected insofar as it did not support each and every West Indian island. It was this radical, Pan-Caribbean sentiment that fashioned the outlook of Trinidad and Tobago, an outlook that has always been generous to the other West Indian Islands.