Albert Gomes: Missing in action

Who remembers Albert Gomes? For more than 30 years he loomed large over the cultural and political scene in Trinidad, and then he suddenly disappeared

Acting Governor A.B. Wright speaks on VE Day, 1945. Gomes is seated second from left. Photo from the collection of Adrian Camps-CampinsAlbert Gomes. Photo from the collection of Adrian Camps-Campinsbeat profile 5Gomes on the march. Photo from the collection of Adrian Camps-CampinsPort of Spain City Council, 1939. Gomes is fourth from right in middle row. Photo from the collection of Adrian Camps-Campins

Somehow, in the writing of Trinidad’s history, Albert Gomes has gone missing. There is a black hole in the record where Gomes should be.

His absence robs the story of spice and colour. For Gomes was a man who enjoyed controversy. He relished a fight. He loved a good cause, and adopted plenty of them during 30 years of public life in Trinidad.

In the early 1930s, he ran the liveliest literary and political magazine that Trinidad has seen before or since. When the labour movement began to organise itself into trade unions, Gomes was in the middle of the action. He crusaded for the political federation of the West Indian islands, which he saw as their only viable future.

He publicly defended the infant steelband movement at a time when no respectable middle-class Trinidadian would dare to. He demanded an end to the censorship of calypso. He fought for the “Shouters”, whose worship had been banned since the First World War. He campaigned on public platforms, in the Port of Spain City Council, in the Legislative and Executive Councils, and later as a government minister (and de facto chief minister) and in the federal parliament.

He had no fear of confrontation. When political meetings in Woodford Square, in the middle of Port of Spain, were banned, Gomes used his powerful voice to defy the mayor in the City Council and demand the right of assembly and free speech. Refusing to shut up, he was ordered out of the Council chamber. Instead, he lay down flat on his back, and continued his oration as he was carried out bodily by eight policemen (in his prime, Gomes was a big man, well over 300 pounds).

As soon as he had been dumped outside the chamber, he marched straight back in again, still speaking. He was carried out a second time, and promptly reappeared. Later he defied the ban again, and was arrested and fined — but won an appeal to the Privy Council in London.

Gomes dealt with censorship in a similar way. When the colonial government banned an issue of Time magazine which referred to the Caribbean islands as “dung heaps of empire”, he got hold of a copy and splashed it across the front page of The People, the wartime newspaper he was editing. When police raided the paper’s office, Gomes splashed that across the front page too. Next they raided his home; he merely worried whether his termite-eaten wooden floor would sustain this “sudden and ponderous convergence of the law”.

While he was a minister, Gomes led a delegation of calypsonians to protest to the British governor against censorship, especially by British officials who didn’t even understand calypso. One of the singers, Atilla the Hun (Raymond Quevedo, who like Gomes had been deputy mayor of Port of Spain), recited a series of spicy passages from great European authors — Aristophanes, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Cervantes, Boccaccio, Casanova — observing politely, “This is a classic, sir!” They even challenged the bewildered governor to discuss the meaning of the lines

Old lady walk a mile and a half

And she taylaylay.

Gomes was delighted with the day’s work. Combat in a good cause made him feel alive. “I deliberately cultivate dissent,” he wrote later, “because I know it renews vision and purpose. Conformity, on the other hand, implies the ageing process. There is a little of death in all acceptance, all of life being a protest of some kind.”

Under Gomes’s watch, calypso censorship was eased and eventually withdrawn. The Shouters were liberated in 1951. The steelband steadily gained acceptance, and was represented at the Festival of Britain in 1951.

There was a consistent principle underlying Gomes’s crusades: the psychic damage wrought by colonisation, and the consequent need for free expression. “The worst bedevilment of all is being in exile within one’s own skin,” he wrote. “It was the feeling that our right to be ourselves was sacred that spurred me to protest all acts of cultural imposition.”

This was remarkable: for Gomes was a “white” Trinidadian in a black society, sticking his neck out for causes that were not those of his ethnic community (Portuguese Trinidadians) or class. Not surprisingly, he made a formidable list of enemies.

Albert Gomes was born in 1911, in the Port of Spain suburb of Belmont, just behind the General Hospital. He was a first-generation “Portuguese creole”: his father had migrated from Madeira in 1892 and owned several shops, while his mother’s family had arrived in Trinidad in 1878, after trying its luck in Nevis and Antigua. The small Portuguese community was considered white: not as white or respectable as the English and French, but definitely a cut above the big African and Indian communities.

Albert was hot-tempered, passionate, stubborn, and curious. He loved books and theatre (for many years he ran Trinidad’s library system, and was a staunch patron of the pioneering Little Carib Theatre). He seemed larger than life, with his sweeping gestures, his pipes and cigars. He was a natural crusader: he felt the need to be “serving something other than and beyond oneself”.

He could also be difficult, intolerant, and naïve. He had a gut sympathy for the underdog, but no firm political ideology. He stood for a different party at each general election he fought. He wrote poems and stories, but one of his literary colleagues, Alfred Mendes, described him as a polemicist rather than a writer or a politician; and added, “He had not the slightest touch of the snob in him, and I don’t think he even understood race prejudice, because it was alien to his mind and spirit.”

After high school, Albert Gomes studied journalism at City College in New York, and was fired up with the possibilities of writing about Trinidad. When he returned home in 1930, still only 19, he wanted to write, he knew how to do it, but he was fenced in by colonial propriety. Trinidad was still a British colony, run by a British governor. You did not cross race or class lines, you did not say things that were not meant to be said.

But there was one small progressive group that suited Gomes’s temperament. It met at the home of his fellow Portuguese, Alfred Mendes, to listen to music and argue about issues of the day. (Mendes’s grandson Sam is the Oscar-winning stage and movie director who last year married Titanic star Kate Winslet). C.L.R. James was another member of the group.

Out of Gomes’s involvement in these meetings emerged a pioneering magazine called The Beacon, which he founded and edited. It produced 28 monthly issues, from March 1931 to November 1933. It never made a profit: his father made up the shortfall on each issue.

The Beacon made a tremendous impact. It was always controversial and iconoclastic. When there was no controversy, Gomes engineered some. The magazine gave a pioneering generation of writers the confidence to use authentic West Indian settings and situations, characters and speech.

It took the side of the poor against the powerful. It took a keen interest in world politics, socialism, race, West Indian identity and culture, the progress of the Russian revolution, Africa, and the Indian independence movement. It was anti-colonial and anti-clerical.

“We had three rip-roaring years of tearing into every sanctity and pharisaism of the respectable folk,” Mendes wrote. For Gomes, The Beacon was an assault on the “hypocrisy, obscurantism and the general claustrophobia of Trinidad society”.

The Beacon was Gomes’s first venture into crusading, and he enjoyed himself immensely. He drove around in a two-seater car distributing copies. He was unfazed by the hostility and pressure he attracted from all quarters — the Portuguese community, the Catholic Guild, advertisers, the police, the colonial government. He relished rumours that the Beacon crowd was an evil cabal of revolutionaries or a nudist cult with strange sexual rites.

But after nearly three years of funding The Beacon, Gomes’s father called a halt, and the project folded. Albert was getting restless anyway: writing was not enough, he now believed — it was necessary to act.

But first he needed six years of patience. He was installed in a pharmacy owned by his father on nearby Observatory Street. The work bored him to distraction; he fumed at popular superstition and gullibility as he dispensed potions like “Spirit of Love” and “Confusion Powder”. He “yearned to be at the centre of things”, and began to pick up working-class views and discontent first-hand, rather than through a literary lens.

In 1938, further radicalised by the previous year’s oilfield strikes, he was elected to the Port of Spain City Council. By writing for the press (he was a reviewer and columnist for the Trinidad Guardian), lecturing, and working with labour organisations, he had acquired a public image. Campaigning brought him face to face with conditions in the poorest parts of the city, and the challenge of winning the trust of the black working class. Decades later he angrily remembered the “hovels”, the “ubiquitous cesspits”, the “scabrous vegetation”, the people who expected money for voting, and the election agents who worked for the highest bidder.

In the City Council, and in the Legislative Council (to which he was elected in 1945), Gomes made himself as troublesome as possible to the colonial regime. He subjected the colonial government to “ceaseless barracking and baiting” to focus attention on his agenda.

He clamoured for better wages, working conditions, and housing; he demanded labour rights, recognition for calypso and steelbands, freedom for the Shouters and orisha worshippers; better social services, full adult voting rights, progress towards political self-determination. He went to the “disreputable” calypso tents (“The calypso is the art of revolt at its best — I hungered for this vibrant, elemental life”), and attended the Shouters’ first public baptism in 1950.

He was an “enfant terrible and defender of miscellaneous causes, most of them heroically lost”. The governor would dearly have liked to lock him up, but was terrified of making Gomes a martyr. So he deployed the carrot rather than the stick. He invited Gomes to join the governor’s inner advisory circle, the Executive Council.

It was a trap, of course. Acceptance would bring responsibility without power, and would destroy Gomes’s grassroots credibility. But refusal would leave him open to the charge of not even trying to make a difference when he had the chance.

He agonised over the choice, and eventually accepted. The excitement of crusading had begun to pall. (“What a facile art is demagoguery to the politician in opposition,” he reflected later.) A seat on the Executive Council would bring him some influence, he calculated, if only advisory. “I had been an outsider too long.”

For the next ten years, Albert Gomes was the country’s dominant politician. He helped lay the groundwork for self-government; he designed a new constitution which in 1950 gave Trinidad and Tobago its first ministerial system. He travelled the world negotiating trade agreements and searching for new investment (the joke went: “What is Trinidad and Tobago’s biggest export?” Answer: “Albert Gomes”).

In 1950 he became one of the country’s first five ministers. But he was handed a suicidal portfolio — responsibility for labour, and for the development of commerce and industry.

This meant juggling the conflicting demands of workers and employers. Gomes’s political position was further compromised. He had aroused expectations he could not now fulfil. Labour viewed him as a traitor, the establishment thought him a maverick. He soon began to pay the price.

In 1947 he was defeated in the City Council, after nine years (and three terms as deputy mayor). He moved away from his city roots to the upper-class suburb of Maraval after his daughter was abused in the street. In the 1950 and 1956 general elections his support slumped and hostility grew. He was assigned a bodyguard and a revolver.

But worse was to come. Gomes was convinced that no “white” creole could lead the nationalist movement into self-government and independence, no matter how great his contribution had been. That role would fall to Dr Eric Williams and his People’s National Movement, which fought (and won) the 1956 election. But Gomes was slow to grasp that a new era had begun which had no place for him.

Williams was not only a charismatic speaker, like Gomes; he was also a brilliant organiser and campaigner; he was black, an Oxford-educated historian, a radical scholar and professor. Although the two men had been friends and Gomes had helped to advance Williams’s career, there was no room in Trinidad electoral politics for both of them. The 1956 election struggle turned ugly. Gomes and his family endured insult and humiliation. On election day, Gomes lost his seat, his status, and his income, and spent the next 18 months in the wilderness.
“The public hostility and ridicule cut deep,” he admitted in his autobiography. His wife was spat on in the street, his porch furniture was slashed; when he spoke in public he had to stuff his ears with cotton wool and plasticine to concentrate against the organised regiments of hecklers. He hardly knew what had hit him. The hostility was implacable, and it stuck.

His final defeat concerned the lost cause of federation. After much arm-twisting, ten English-speaking states came together in 1958 to form the West Indies Federation. A federal parliament was established. In Trinidad, campaigning for seats was as ugly as in 1956. Threatened one evening at a rally in Port of Spain, Gomes hurled his assailant into the crowd and scattered everyone nearby with his whirling walking stick.

But within three years the federation was crumbling. National politicians did not trust each other; ten states meant ten maximum leaders, but a federation had room for only one. Gomes was powerless to do anything about it — he had won a seat in the federal parliament, but on the opposition side. As the islands wrangled, he felt only a “bitter humiliation . . . It was painful to see a noble undertaking slowly dissolving, to see the despair in the faces of those who, believing in it, had left their safe jobs in the Territories to help build the West Indian nation.”

It was the last straw. “I feel so strongly about this,” he told the federal parliament, “that I thought I ought to say to Honourable Members of this House that if the Federation should go, I will cease to live in any part of these West Indian territories.”

The Federation collapsed.

Gomes packed his bags, and disappeared.

In Trinidad, Gomes was “white”; in England, where he spent his last 16 years, he was “black”. When he wrote publicly about race relations, he was bombarded with hate mail. He was called a “black bastard” who ought to go back where he came from.

He had first visited England in 1946, and was startled then to find how insignificant the colonial issue was in English eyes. Post-war Britain, with its poverty and rationing and smashed cities, undermined his sense of the enemy. “I found it increasingly difficult to mouth the anti-imperialist slogans and catch-phrases,” he reflected later.

By 1962, Gomes knew England fairly well, as a visiting politician. But now there was “no government hospitality, no waiting Rolls with liveried chauffeur” — instead it was “the bus queue, the Underground, Waterloo Station at 8 am and 5 pm, the supermarket, the time-sheet, and the paper-bag lunch”. He didn’t even have a pension from Trinidad.

He settled in the outer London suburb of East Molesey, went for long solitary walks, started a strict vegetarian diet, received visiting West Indians, brooded, and wrote. The one-time “chief minister” worked for the vehicle licensing department of Surrey County Council until he was 63, when he retired on a small pension.

The most important work he produced in England was his autobiography, Through a Maze of Colour, which he launched in 1975 on a rare return visit to Trinidad. (On that trip, he met with one of his 1956 persecutors, and there was an emotional reconciliation; he was also feted by the steelband movement and the Shouters). Sadly in need of reprinting, the book is a primary document on Trinidad’s pre-independence history, written with style and humour, irony and self-deprecation, and with little bitterness.

Most of Gomes’s other work remains unpublished and dispersed. It includes at least four novels — The Country Bumpkin, East Dry River, Between Extremities, and The Governor’s Servant. Only one short novel was printed: All Papa’s Children. The story of a Portuguese-Trinidadian patriarch and his family, it is essentially a reflection on Gomes’s own life.

One of the book’s characters, Ernesto, embodies Gomes’s own aspirations and disillusionment. Like his creator, Ernesto is a crusader, a man who needs “total involvement in meaningful activity outside of myself”. He goes into politics in order to be in the centre of the action, and in the hope of making a difference.

But he is torn between grassroots loyalty and political influence. “Think of all the impossible things I promised them to get their votes. And I really believed, at the time, that I would be able to do everything as promised. Think of the times I told them I stood for ‘the people’, carried away by my own eloquence and sense of mission. What made me so desperate to be my brother’s keeper?”

Like Gomes, Ernesto distances himself from his own ethnic group, but is hurt by his exclusion: “To take a dissenting stand against one’s community and all it stands for isn’t easy.”

Ernesto marries a black Trinidadian, and calls their mixed-race son “the new face of Trinidad”. But he concludes, as Gomes himself must have done: “I try to make myself as comfortable as possible on a narrowing ledge.”

Gomes himself had married his childhood sweetheart Zillah Diaz almost as soon as he returned from his US studies. They had 14 children, now dispersed across the globe, in England, Germany, France, Australia, and Israel. Gomes died of stomach cancer as he was about to make a last return trip to Trinidad in 1978. He was 66. Zillah survived him by ten years.

After he left Trinidad in early 1962, Albert Gomes faded from national consciousness. Now, when he is remembered at all, he is thought of as a failure, an opportunist who dumped his radicalism as soon as he smelled a whiff of power. His successes are forgotten; the political memoirs pass quickly and scathingly over the Gomes years.

It is as if that bulky figure, pushing Trinidad and Tobago towards freedom, had never been there at all.

Except where otherwise indicated, quotations are from the published works of Albert Gomes.

 

ALBERT MARIA GOMES

“Judgement of others softens with the hammering of the years” (Through a Maze of Colour)

1911 Born March 25 in Port of Spain, eldest of three children
1928–30
Studies journalism at City College, New York
1931–33
Edits The Beacon
1933–38 Pharmacist
1937 Co-founder, Federated Workers Trade Union (FWTU)
1938
Elected to Port of Spain City Council
1942 With People’s Party; editor, The People
1942–44 President, FWTU, and Vice President, Caribbean Labour Congress
1944
Helps establish Trinidad Art Society
1944–47
Deputy Mayor of Port of Spain (three terms)
1945 Elected to Legislative Council in by-election
1946
Re-elected to Legislative Council (for United Front); appointed to Executive Council
1947
Defeated in City Council elections; moves from Belmont to Maraval
1950–1956
Re-elected (for People’s Progressive Party); Minister of Labour, Industry and Commerce; founds Party of People’s Progressive Groups (POPPG)
1951 Helps repeal the 1917 Shouters Prohibition Ordinance
1955 Awarded CMG (Companion of St Michael and St George) by UK; returns it in 1968 to protest passage of UK Immigration Act
1956 Defeated in general elections (for POPPG)
1958–61 Member of Federal Parliament (for Democratic Labour Party)
1961 Collapse of West Indies Federation
1962  Migrates to England
1974 Publication of autobiography Through a Maze of Colour
1978 Dies in England, January 13; publication of novel, All Papa’s Children