Soapbox Speakers

Woodford square Speakers’ Corner, Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago.

I visited Port of Spain, the capital of  Trinidad and Tobago, in  Feb 2008. These two Islands are off the southernmost tip of the Caribbean, only 11km from the cost of Venezuela. Trinidad  was settled by the Spanish in the 16th Century. It’s native population were killed by the invading Spanish . In 1797 the British invaded the Island. Trinidad was ruled as a British crown colony with no elected representation until 1925. 

The heart of Port of Spain  is Woodford Square. The Red House (Government House) faces Woodford Square. The square had been an important venue for public discourse and private discussions since the 1890’s. An area near the eastern gate is know as “The University of Woodford Square”, Port of Spain speakers corner.

In 1956 former Oxford scholar Dr. Eric Williams (1911-1981) founded the people’s National Movement (PNM). Dr Williams was already an internationally known historian when he began his political career. Dr Williams founded his political party in Woodford Square. He started a series of lectures on Woodford Square titled,  “Speaker’s Corner”.  The topics of Williams’ lectures could be the political philosophy of Locke or Plato, or for that matter, the writings of Carlyle. The purpose was to contribute to the political education and self-understanding of the ordinary citizen. Most of the lectures were spun around themes of imperialism, slavery and exploitation.

These lectures were immensely popular, and became known as  “The University of Woodford Square”  Dr. Williams  was a small chain smoking man in a grey suit, with a low voice, hearing aid and a pedantic style. He was cheered on as though he were a great calypsonian, by people overwhelmingly belonging to the urban proletariat of Port of Spain.

Woodford Square today is an open space, with walking lanes criss-crossing the square, and lined by  tall shady trees, some over 100 years old. Red, yellow and purple blossoms waft down from the trees. Gentle breezes spread an astonishing mix of smells through the square with the salty tang of the sea, the alluring scents of tropical flowers and exotic foods from the outdoor cooking. The square is used for activities such as diving, big political meetings, and small lunch time debates. You can always hear flute, guitar, or steel pans playing in the square. Gone are the days of frantic political rhetoric. Independence has been achieved, the worst of poverty lessened and Black Power uprising abated.
Yet Speakers’ Corner can still be found.

Speakers Corner in the Square in 2008 was  identified by a large blackboard. The blackboard lists speakers and events held on the square. On the top of the blackboard is a sign “The Great Doctor Carlos”.  I soon found some people gathering by the sign they described to me what Woodford Square was like when speakers gather. They said;  The Great Doctor Nowadays is not always a regular speaker.  Apparently when  “The Great Doctor Carlos” was haranguing, his neck veins would be bulging, with his arms outstretched, and eyes focused far above his audience as if taking inspiration from high in the Caribbean sky. “Abyssinia, the Queen of Sheba, idolatry and all sorts of ecclesiastical mix-ups,” he roars, his hoarse voice gaining strength. “The blood of the prophets shall be shed!”

“The Great Doctor” would steal the thunder from “The Shadow,” an elderly preacher named after a famous Tobagonian calypso singer. The Shadow would  heckle passers-by about the Gospels. As the Shadow started to wilt in the sun he would  say  “I prayed all night so I could come out here today,” he rasps in apology. “I’m strong in spirit, but weak in the flesh.”  Both The Great Doctor and The Shadow would shout to be heard over yet a third preacher. His pulpit is a street corner a block away, but his voice booms through a bullhorn. Other men would gather out of range, heatedly arguing about secular events of the day, such as West Indies cricket or out-of-touch politicians. The speakers keep it up from the morning till midday and returned in the cool of the evening. All the while steady stream of people would file past, laughing, listening or ignoring.

I ask if any one remember the days “University of Woodford Square” when Dr. Eric Williams spoke there. The older men piped up and said that it was not soapbox, but a real university under the trees, like Greeks universities of antiquity. People listened respectfully and carefully to what was said. If anyone interrupted the speaker, they were told to leave. Hecklers were not tolerated. Once the speaker stopped the questions began. The questions were never flippant, but deadly serious. The questioners waited their turn. It was an education that cost nothing and we learnt about politics. They said Dr. William was a leader but not a dictator.

The old men get me to speak about Australia and the aborigines. I brought them up to date on the current situation, the good and bad. I was honoured to have spoken in “University of Woodford Square ” where I was given the honorary degree of  Professor of Race Relations by the regulars at the Woodford Square.  I bade them goodbye and we shook hands and they ask me to come back to Port of Spain when the Carnival time.

The Trinidad and Tobago Carnival is an annual event held on the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday February or March
Images of Woodford square
“The University of Woodford Square and the Age of Obama”
Port of Spain  Wikipedia  Dr. Eric Williams (1911-1981) Wikipedia.
Ralph de Boissière – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
V. S. Naipaul – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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