Williams was born the son of minor civil servant, but his mother was a descendant of the French Creole elite. He was educated at Queen's Royal College in Port of Spain, where he excelled at academics and football. He won an island scholarship in 1932 which allowed him to attend Oxford University where he received his doctorate in 1938. Williams was in part inspired by C.L.R. James and his doctoral thesis, titled The Economic Aspect of the West Indian Slave Trade and Slavery, owed much to the influence of James's The Black Jacobins (1938)
In elections held eight months later, on September 24, the PNM won 13 of the 24 elected seats in the Legislative Council, defeating 6 of the 16 incumbents running for re-election. Although the PNM did not secure a majority in the 31-member Legislative Council, he was able to convince the Secretary of State for the Colonies to allow him to name the five appointed members of the council (despite the opposition of the Governor Sir Edward Betham Beetham). This gave him a clear majority in the Legislative Council. Williams was thus elected Chief Minister and was also able to get all seven of his ministers elected.
The DLP victory in the 1958 Federal Elections and subsequent poor showing by the PNM in the 1959 County Council Elections soured Williams on the Federation. Lord Hailes (Governor-General of the Federation) also over-ruled two PNM nominations to the Federal Senate in order to balance a disproportionately WIFLP-dominated Senate. When Bustamante withdrew Jamaica from the Federation, this left Trinidad and Tobago in the untenable position of having to provide 75% of the Federal budget while having less than half the seats in the Federal government. In a famous speech, Williams declared one from ten leaves nought. Following the adoption of a resolution to that effect by the PNM General Council on January 15, 1962, Williams withdrew Trinidad and Tobago from the West Indies Federation. This action led the British government to dissolve the Federation.
In 1961 the PNM had introduced the Representation of the People Bill. This Bill was designed to modernise the electoral system by instituting permanent registration of voters, identification cards, voting machines and revised electoral boundaries. These changes were seen by the DLP as an attempt to disenfranchise illiterate rural voters through intimidation, to rig the elections through the use of voting machines, to allow Afro-Caribbean immigrants from other islands to vote, and to gerrymander the boundaries to ensure victory by the PNM. Opponents of the PNM saw "proof" of these allegations when A.N.R. Robinson was declared winner of the Tobago seat in 1961 with more votes than there were registered voters, and in the fact that the PNM was able to win every subsequent election until the 1980 Tobago House of Assembly Elections.
The 1961 elections gave the PNM 57% of the votes and 20 of the 30 seats. This two-thirds majority allowed them to draft the Independence Constitution without input from the DLP. Although supported by the Colonial Office, independence was blocked by the DLP, until Williams was able to make a deal with DLP leader Rudranath Capildeo which strengthened the rights of the minority party and expanded the number of Opposition Senators. With Capildeo's assent, Trinidad and Tobago became independent on August 31, 1962.
On April 6, 1970 a protester was killed by the police. This was followed on April 13 by the resignation of A.N.R. Robinson, Member of Parliament for Tobago East. On April 18 sugar workers went on strike, and there was talk of a general strike. In response to this, Williams proclaimed a State of Emergency on April 21 and arrested 15 Black Power leaders. In response to this, a portion of the Trinidad Defense Force, led by Raffique Shah and Rex Lassalle mutinied and took hostages at the army barracks at Teteron. Through the action of the Coast Guard the mutiny was contained and the mutineers surrendered on April 25.
Williams made three additional speeches in which he sought to identify himself with the aims of the Black Power movement. He re-shuffled his Cabinet and removed three Ministers (including two white members) and three senators. He also introduced the Public Order Act which reduced civil liberties in an effort to control protest marches. After public opposition, led by A.N.R. Robinson and his newly created Action Committee of Democratic Citizens (which later became the Democratic Action Congress), the Bill was withdrawn. Attorney General Karl Hudson-Phillips offered to resign over the failure of the Bill, but Williams refused his resignation.
In 1944 his book Capitalism and Slavery argued that the British abolition of their Atlantic slave trade in 1807 was motivated primarily by economics -- rather than by altruism or humanitarianism. By extension, so was the emancipation of the slaves and the fight against the trading in slaves by other nations. As industrial capitalism and wage labor began to expand, eliminating the competition from slavery became economically advantageous.
Before Williams the historiography of this issue had been dominated by (mainly) British writers who generally were prone to depict Britain's actions as unimpeachable.
Eric Williams sent one of 73 Apollo 11 Goodwill Messages to NASA for the historic first lunar landing in 1969. The message still rests on the lunar surface today. Williams wrote, in part, "It is our earnest hope for mankind that while we gain the moon, we shall not lose the world."
The Collection consists of the late Dr. Williams' Library and Archives. Available for consultation by researchers, the Collection amply reflects its owner’s eclectic interests, comprising some 7,000 volumes, as well as correspondence, speeches, manuscripts, historical writings, research notes, conference documents and a miscellany of reports. The Museum contains a wealth of emotive memorabilia of the period and copies of the seven translations of Williams’ seminal work, Capitalism and Slavery, (into Russian, Chinese and Japanese [1968, 2004] among them, and a Korean translation was released in 2006). Photographs depicting various aspects of his life and contribution to the development of Trinidad and Tobago complete this extraordinarily rich archive, as does a three-dimensional re-creation of Dr. Williams’ study.
Dr. Colin Palmer, Dodge Professor of History at Princeton University, has said: “as a model for similar archival collections in the Caribbean…I remain very impressed by its breadth...[It] is a national treasure.” Palmer’s new biography of Williams up to 1970 entitled Eric Williams and the Making of the Modern Caribbean, published by the University of North Carolina Press, is dedicated to the Collection.
The sugar colonies were not in decline at all, in fact they were at their economic peak in 1807. It should be noted that Williams was heavily involved in the movements for independence of the Caribbean colonies and had a fairly obvious motive to impugn the colonial power. Indeed, Williams' reputation among black West Indian scholars continues to be high, even as white North American and European scholars criticize his historiography.
A third generation of scholars led by Seymour Drescher and Roger Anstey have discounted many of Williams' arguments. They do however acknowledge that morality had to be combined with the forces of politics and economic theory to bring about the end of the slave trade.
On the other hand, Williams' central point that the rise of industrial capitalism in Britain was fueled by West Indian slavery, and that, in turn the new industrial bourgeoisie saw the maintenance of slavery as a drag on their profits, both still have some merit. In particular, we should note that significant decline in the British West Indies dates to after the abolition of the Corn Laws by the British in 1846 (one of the imperial preferences abolished was that in sugar).
Indeed, Williams' impact on the field of study has proved of lasting significance. As Barbara Solow and Stanley Engerman put it in the preface to a compilation of essays on Williams, which is based on a commemorative symposium held in Italy in 1984, Williams "defined the study of Caribbean history, and its writing affected the course of Caribbean history... Scholars may disagree on his ideas, but they remain the starting point of discussion... Any conference on British capitalism and Caribbean slavery is a conference on Eric Williams."
In addition to Capitalism and Slavery, Williams produced a number of other scholarly works focused on the Caribbean. Of particular significance are two published in the 1960s long after he had abandoned his academic career for public life: British Historians and the West Indies and From Columbus to Castro. The former, based on research done in the 1940s and initially presented at a symposium at Atlanta University, sought to debunk British historiography on the region and to condemn as racist the nineteenth and early twentieth century British perspective on the West Indies. Williams was particularly scathing in his description of the nineteenth century British intellectual Thomas Carlyle.
The latter work is a general history of the Caribbean from the 15th through the mid-20th centuries. Curiously, it appeared at the same time as a similarly titled book (De Cristóbal Colón a Fidel Castro) by another Caribbean scholar-statesman, Juan Bosch of the Dominican Republic.