Froudacity (1969; 1889)

Froudacity is an outstanding title in the New Beacon backlist. The book is a reprint of the second major work by John Jacob Thomas (1840-1889), a nineteenth century teacher and Trinidadian leader in the study of Creole language. As its blurb notes: “It is possible to regard Thomas, along with Hostos and Martí, as one of the pioneers of a native intellectual tradition in the Caribbean” (back cover). Froudacity is a poised riposte to The English in the West Indies, or the Bow of Ulysses (1888) by James Anthony Froude, professor of history at Oxford University. Froude’s book was a veiled defence of British colonialism rooted in Eurocentric historiography and the racialised thinking that accompanied the highpoint of European imperialism. As Thomas notes in his introduction, Froude’s text is based on distant observation “from balconies, decks of steamers, or the seats of moving carriages” (57). The strength of Thomas’s book lies in its lively engagement not just with Froude, but with deeper questions of history and anthropology: who can write about other cultures? Why, how, and for whom? In his introduction, C.L.R. James notes that the book retained a great sense of urgency in 1968 precisely because of its response to those questions.

The New Beacon edition of Froudacity includes the introductory essay, “The West Indian Intellectual”, by C.L.R. James and a detailed biographical notice by Donald Wood, former deputy director of the Institute of Race Relations and subsequently a lecturer at the University of Sussex. Thomas was not a trained historian, yet his approach is balanced with a much keener sense of judgement than that of his subject and rigorous attention to detail. Donald Wood notes that Thomas was “the lonely forerunner of future Trinidadian intellectuals” (21). C.L.R. James extends and contextualises this assessment of Thomas’s significance in a Caribbean and a world framework, evoking a lineage from Toussaint L’Ouverture to Thomas to Fidel Castro. He compares the corrections his Black Jacobins makes to Froude’s depiction of the Haitian Revolution, with little of Thomas’s rhetorical politesse: “Every single sentence that Froude writes is absolutely and completely wrong” (James, 39).

John La Rose had long been interested in Thomas’s writing and identified with his status as an auto-didact dedicated to the importance of education, languages and literature in particular. In a letter to Gordon Rohlehr, he notes that “Thomas is the constant figure of the black rebel, no different from Cuffy or Tacky or Quao or Toussaint or Dessaline” (5.2.70 JLR to GR, LRA/01/0684/2). Thomas’s books were therefore two of the earliest titles targeted for republication by New Beacon. Another reprint project, which never materialised, was a new edition of The Origins of the Tainan Culture, West Indies (1924) by Swedish anthropologist Sven Lovén (since reprinted in facsimile edition in 2010 by the University of Alabama Press).

 

Froudacity (1969; 1889) by John Jacob Thomas. 195pp.

Content

 
John Jacob Thomas was a school teacher who benefited from the first wave of free secular education reforms in Trinidad in the 1850s. He worked as a ward teacher in Savonetta and in rural elementary schools for twelve years in total, during which time he learned French, Spanish, and extended his knowledge of Creole by collecting proverbs and songs. He subsequently worked as a civil servant and was active in Trinidad’s first literary journal: The Trinidad Monthly and an early organised literary society, The Trinidad Athenaeum. He knew Greek and Latin and continued to teach these subjects while writing on education policy in Trinidad (Smith, 2002).
 
Froudacity began as a series of fifteen articles published in The St George’s Chronicle and Grenada Gazette between March and July 1888. These were gathered together for publication during Thomas’s long-anticipated first visit to London later that year. During this time he stayed in Guildford Street, off Russell Square, close to the British Museum where he carried out his research. Unfortunately Thomas suffered from ill health much of his life, and passed away during this study trip, at the King’s College Hospital, London on 20th September 1889.
 
J.A. Froude was Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford, and renowned for his range of historical work, particularly on the Tudor period. His book on the Caribbean, written following his only visit to the West Indies, extended his poorly-received commentary on colonialism in Australia and New Zealand. The book’s lack of depth solicited wide-spread criticisms in the Caribbean and in Britain, with one contemporary critic referring to Froude as “a mere superficial skimmer of whipped syllabub” (quoted in Thomas, 19). Thomas offers a fundamental challenge to the eurocentric bias of Froude’s writing by offering an alternative historical matrix grounded in his direct knowledge and experience of the West Indies. He sets out his disagreements with the content of Froude’s writing (his visits to Barbados, St Vincent, Grenada, Trinidad; his views on social revolution; West Indian confederation; labour; religion) while acknowledging the power exerted by Froude’s commitment and the erudite language in which his opinions are expressed. As Thomas writes:
[Froude] is the bond-slave of his own phrases. To secure an artistic perfection of style, he disregards all obstacles […] The doubt may safely be entertained whether, among modern British men of letters, there be one of equal capability who, in the interest of the happiness of his sentences, so cynically sacrifices what is due not only to himself as public instructor, but also to that public whom he professes to instruct. (63)
 
Thomas’s argument is pitched not only against Froude’s ideas, but against “the whole spirit and method” (64) of his historiography which supports and sustains those ideas, relying on “hearsay” and “superficial” impressions rather than research (73). To give a brief example, Thomas quotes Froude’s short-sighted description of St Vincent:
‘I did not land, for the time was short, and as a beautiful picture the island was best seen from the deck. The characteristics of the people are the same in all the Antilles, and could be studied elsewhere.’ (74)
 
Froude’s gaze is that of a tourist passing by, blind to political, social and cultural variation in the region. Elsewhere Thomas again quotes Froude, describing his approach to the project:
‘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.’ (94)
 
With measured irony, Thomas suggests that Froude “might have compassed the same achievement in the swifter transit of an express train, or, better still perhaps, from the empyrean elevation of a balloon” (94). He targets the evident flaws in Froude’s method, together with the arrogance of his proposed solutions to political and social questions faced by black inhabitants of the British West Indies in the late nineteenth century. Thomas concludes with an early call for diasporic unity, noting the many concrete achievements of black people since the 1838 abolition of slavery and pre-empting a future unity of purpose:
Like the essential parts of a complicated albeit perfect machine, these attainments and qualifications so widely dispersed await, it is evident, some potential agency to collect and adjust them into the vast engine essential for executing the true purposes of the civilised Africa Race. (193)
 
C.L.R. James suggests that Thomas “would be quite at home with the concept of Black Power” (44), since his work demonstrates a capacious, precocious grasp of both past and future possibilities in the Caribbean bridging issues of class and race situation. Reflecting James’s own grasp of dialectical materialism, his essay highlights the significance of Thomas’s mode of historical writing, what James terms its “fundamental point of view”, suggesting that:
We are not dealing with abstractions that concern people who are intellectuals and historians. We are dealing with concrete matters that penetrate into the very immediate necessities of our social existence.
 
He concludes categorically that “in 1968 Thomas is more important than when he wrote in 1888” (47).
 
 

Production

 
The book was reset from the original text (unlike Creole Grammar, which was photographed). This enabled La Rose to add the biography and introduction that repositioned the book in its original context and in relation to the context of the late sixties. His commitment to providing such informative framing was in part a reaction to reprints in the period by publishers such as Frank Cass, who photographed books, printed them in hard covers and sold them to libraries for high prices. New Beacon were committed to repackaging the book for as wide a readership as possible. Sarah White recalls the proofreading process for the book, which took place necessarily among her other commitments: “in those days one had to read two or three times the proof, because you’ve got the long galley proofs, and then you get the page proofs. I always remember reading Froudacity and thinking ‘this is wonderful!’. I think I was on the tube going to work” (interview).
 
The book’s cover, by Art Derry, is one of the most memorable in the New Beacon catalogue. The image is taken from a drawing called “The Gossip” that Derry had painted in 1962 and which he thought fitted with the title of Thomas’s book (8.2.68 AD to JLR, LRA/01/0259). It shows two abstract female figures seated on a bench wearing dresses that pick out details from the background of swirls, spots and lines. The image resists any stereotypical representation Caribbean or Black identity. It evokes instead the importance of proximity, face-to-face human contact and understanding on which Thomas bases his critique of Froude.
 
 

Reception

 
The first print-run in 1967 consisted of 2000 copies (1700 paperback, 300 hardback). A quote for reprints was provided in 1978, and though this does not seem to have been followed through, Donald Wood was still receiving royalties for the book into the early 1980s (842).
 
The book was well-received in the Caribbean. Press copies were sent to universities and La Rose also wrote to Elsa Goveia prior to printing to enquire about the potential interest of this book for Caribbean universities. Brathwaite wrote to La Rose sending “a review of Froudacity by H.P. Jacobs, and a letter on it written by Ken [Ramchand], which he asked me to edit and sign with him. We’ve had two letters from the public expressing interest in New Beacon as a result!” (7.12.69 EKB to JLR, LRA/01/0143/4). Neville Guiseppi, a close friend of La Rose, poet, and publisher based in Trinidad, wrote encouragingly: “‘Froudacity’ is a fine piece of work and I enjoyed both Introductions. The entire work constitutes an important historical document” (NG to JLR, 1.9.69, LRA/01/0329).
 
Gordon Rohlehr’s review, “Froudacity – A re-examination” positioned the book as an antecedent to protest writing as Caribbean genre. According to him, Thomas’s “comprehensive irony and controlled rage […] has become one of the characteristic features of Black protest” (LRA/01/0684/1). He transposes its aims into the phenomenological language of Frantz Fanon, creating another transhistorical connection, by suggesting that for Thomas, “it wasn’t simply a matter of Black people being or not being fit for self-government. He refused to see the Negro as being in any way limited by the mere fact of his blackness. For him, the Negro was like any other man, a complex creature of history and environment” (LRA/01/0684/1).
 
Draft review by Gordon Rohlehr. Archive Ref: GB2904 LRA/01/0684/1
 
 
By January 1970, however, there had been no reviews in the British press. La Rose wrote to George Shepperson, Professor of Imperial and American History at the University of Edinburgh: “We have found that frequently review editors do not know how to find knowledgeable people to review certain kinds of books.” (13.1.70 JLR to GS, mixed correspondence, 237/4). A somewhat ambivalent review was eventually published in the journal Race & Class in 1970:
Perhaps Froude’s quality can be judged by the quotation, ‘there must have been something human and kindly about [slavery] when it left upon the character the marks of courtesy and good breeding’. Thomas’s own temper is shown by his insistence that Africans, too, had been slave-owners in the West Indies; that skin colour was, and would remain under democratic government, irrelevant to relationships between men; and that many men of white skin were among his heroes. Men of African descent must be given the chance to advance in a genuinely non-racial and self-governing community under the British monarchy. Much that he says is too painfully contemporary; and it is salutary to know that a Trinidadian of his time could write such fluent and such cogent English. The modern Introduction, entitled ’The West Indian Intellectual’, would have been better omitted. (F.B. Welbourn, University of Bristol. Race & Class 11.4, 1970: 531-532.)
 
The book continues to generate critical discussion. Writing in 2009, Martin Munro identifies the book as an assertion of black Trinidadian identity. He reads it in partnership with Creole Grammar as part of complex, still little-understood discourses on nation, place, and culture in nineteenth century Trinidad (Munro, 2009: 180). Faith Smith’s valuable monograph on John Jacob Thomas provides the most lucid and informative assessment of his work in recent years.
 
 

Further reading

 
Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. Trans. Charles Lam Markmann. London:
Pluto Press, 2008 (1952; Engllish translation, 1967)
Munro, Martin. “The French Creoles of Trinidad and the Limits of the
Francophone”. French Studies 63.2, 2009: 174-88.
Smith, Faith. Creole Recitations: John Jacob Thomas and Colonial Formation in the
Late Nineteenth-Century Caribbean, New World Studies, Charlottesville and
London: University of Virginia Press, 2002