A Riposte to Racism

James Ferguson on John Jacob Thomas’s Froudacity

Illustration by Jason Jarvis

The Caribbean has endured more than its fair share of foreign experts and commentators over the centuries. Some have come in search of the exotic, looking for colourful details or quaint customs with which to fill a travel book. Others have come to study the region’s people, its economy or its culture for academic purposes. Then there are those who have come to give their advice on the problems of the day — from slavery and emancipation to today’s drug smuggling epidemic. Most have been modest in their objectives, respectful of the people they met. Others have displayed the arrogance that goes hand in hand with being a self-appointed expert.

None was quite as arrogant as James Anthony Froude, the distinguished Victorian academic who graced the Caribbean with a visit in 1887. The eminent Regius Professor of History at Oxford, author of the acclaimed History of England and friend of Thomas Carlyle, had become interested in the British Empire in the 1880s. He had visited South Africa and Australia and had concluded that, far from needing independence, the colonies required closer ties with and firmer rule from London. Now it was the Caribbean islands’ turn.

After a quick trip around the islands, Professor Froude returned to England to write The English in the West Indies, which was published in 1888. Subtitled The Bow of Ulysses, the book likened the advocates of self-government to those suitors of Penelope who were too weak to bend back the bow of the absent master Ulysses.

 

Froude’s argument was simple. The British had neglected their Caribbean colonies and, as a result, the once-wealthy sugar islands were falling into disrepair and decline. The growing movement toward self-rule, he concluded, should not be allowed to succeed, since the colonial subjects were not yet ready to take over from their naturally superior masters. In short, it was an unremarkable exercise in late 19th-century racism.

It was also a book that caused a storm of controversy and resentment in the places through which the wise professor had fleetingly passed, for, in the 1880s, the economic and political malaise affecting the region was encouraging many to question the nature of colonial rule. There had been little unrest since the Morant Bay rebellion of 1865 (more was to come in the 1930s), but the growth of schools, local churches and other social organisations since Emancipation had led to a greater self-awareness on the part of the impoverished rural majority throughout the region.

 

One man who read Froude’s treatise with particular disgust was John Jacob Thomas, a product of that same self-awareness and an example of a true intellectual. Born in humble circumstances only two years after apprenticeship ended in the British colonies, Thomas grew up among former slaves in rural Trinidad. The 1840s were a hard time in Trinidad, as sugar prices dropped and tensions grew between emancipated Afro-Trinidadians and the first indentured labourers brought in to replace them from India. Even so, Thomas was able to attend one of the earliest village schools and then went to a teacher-training school in Woodbrook near Port of  Spain.

Despite rudimentary conditions, he became a first-rate teacher, imparting knowledge to the children of illiterate plantation workers in several ramshackle village schools. He also had a particular interest in the French-derived Creole spoken in much of the countryside.

Defying the colour bar in force at the time, Thomas rose quickly through the ranks of Trinidad’s civil service, moving to Port of Spain in 1867 and then working as a clerk of the peace and secretary to the Board of Education in the south-west of the island.

A successful and efficient administrator, Thomas was also a passionate linguist. The fruits of his research into the language of rural Trinidad came in the shape of The Theory and Practice of Creole Grammar, published in 1869. It was a thorough piece of linguistic research, but also an important plea for the complexities of Creole not to be dismissed as a mere pidgin.

A voracious reader and indefatigable letter writer, Thomas was an all-round intellect with interests in language, society and politics. Unfortunately, he also suffered from ill-health — rheumatoid arthritis — and was often bed-ridden and close to poverty. After years of illness, he recovered enough to go to Grenada, from where he intended to sail to Britain to continue his research. It was in Grenada that Froude’s book fell into his hands in early 1888.

As a man who had spent his entire life studying Caribbean society and doing his best to improve it, Thomas found Froude’s glib racism insufferable. Immediately he was moved to write a riposte, and for 15 weeks The Chronicle and Gazette published a series of his articles, countering Froude’s opinions with devastating effect. Soon afterwards Thomas set sail for London.

The idea of turning the articles into a book may have occurred to Thomas during the transatlantic crossing. In any event, he arrived in London with two books in mind: an updated and expanded Creole grammar and his anti-Froude polemic entitled Froudacity: West Indian Fables Explained. The fables, of course, were those propagated by Froude.

One last obstacle remained before Froudacity appeared. Worried that the book would not sell, the publishers demanded a contribution to the printing costs, a sum that Thomas could not afford. Subscription lists were set up in Trinidad and other islands, and the publishers were duly reassured by the number of orders. The book finally came out in July 1889. But it was almost too late for Thomas, who was now suffering from tuberculosis. On 20 September that same year, he died in a south London hospital, aged 49.

 

It is interesting to compare the Eton- and Oxford-educated Froude with an obscure Trinidadian schoolmaster who was educated in a village school with no blackboard or books, and to discover that the latter was by far the cleverer. Froudacity is a complete demolition of Froude’s humdrum clichés about race and culture, and a very witty attack on the professor’s pomposity.

At one point in his book Froude declares: “In Trinidad, as everywhere else, my own chief desire was to see the human inhabitants, to learn what they were doing, how they were living, and what they were thinking about, and this could best be done by drives about the town and neighbourhood.”

Thomas could hardly contain his derision: “‘Drives around town and neighbourhood’, indeed!” To learn and be able to depict with faithful accuracy what people “were doing, how they were living, and what they were thinking about” — all this being best done (domestic circumstances, nay, soul-workings and all!) through fleeting glimpses of shifting panoramas of intelligent human beings! What a bright idea!”

Laughing at Froude’s self-importance as much as his ignorance, Thomas successfully knocked down each of the academic’s assertions and opinions, making the case in the process for greater self-government and self-respect, rather than the patronising paternalism of the Empire and its apologists.

Froude’s claim that the people of the Caribbean were unfit for self-rule was nothing more than “bastard philosophising”, concluded Thomas, and he added, for good measure, that the professor was trapped “in the fatuity of his skinpride”. Island by island, Thomas mercilessly countered Froude’s superficial observations and his arrogant assumptions. It is as one-sided an intellectual encounter as is ever likely to take place, and the winner was John Jacob Thomas, together with his much-loved Caribbean.

Froudacity stands as a milestone in the Caribbean’s intellectual history. It is a shame that it is currently out-of-print and hard to find, for it deserves to be read and re-read as a classic antidote to the stupidity of Victorian racism.