In 1938, Arthur Calder-Marshall, a young British novelist and communist visited Trinidad, just a year after the ‘Butler Riots’ had rocked the oil-belt in the south of the island and demonstrated that the British colonial hold over the island could not be sustained for long. Calder-Marshall’s account of his stay, first published in 1939, is insightful, unsparing in its exposure of appalling social conditions, and sometimes just humanly entertaining in its satirical description of, for instance, the hypocrisy of those of the middle-class who thought of themselves as radicals but would not perform in a play with actors who were too black. It is highly readable, with a novelist’s eye for characters and situations, adding to the slim body of writing about 1930’s Trinidad by C.L.R. James, A.H. Mendes and Ralph de Boissiere. It documents just how stifling was the hand of Crown Colony government in reinforcing white privilege in Trinidad, and it shows the huge gulf between the Trinidad being promoted as a destination for tourists, and the abysmal quality of housing and health-care that inflicted premature death on the urban poor. If Calder-Marshall does not have enough to say about the lives of rural Indo-Trinidadians, he is acute on the growth of race and revolutionary political consciousness amongst the most advanced sections of the Afro-Trinidadian working class. One valuable chapter records his interview with the then trade union leader, Adrian Cola Rienzi, on the global nature of radical anti-colonialism, connecting Rienzi’s work with Sinn Fein in Ireland and the workers’ struggle in Trinidad. As Priyamvada Gopal’s important book Insurgent Empire: Anti-Colonial Resistance and British Dissent has shown, Calder-Marshall’s was a sadly rare voice amongst the white British left as a critic of empire, in comparison to the covertly racist paternalism of the mainstream of the Labour Party.
An introduction by Trinidad’s premier historian of colonialism, Bridget Brereton, puts the strengths and weaknesses of Calder-Marshall’s impressions into historical context.