The Life of Captain Cipriani

Latest edition published by Duke University Press, 2014.

The Life of Captain Cipriani (1932) is the earliest full-length work of nonfiction by C. L. R. James. Written before he left Trinidad, it was first published by Cartmel & Co in 1932 when James arrived in Nelson, Lancashire to stay with Learie Constantine. It is partly based on James’s interviews with Arthur Andrew Cipriani (1875–1945). As a captain with the British West Indies Regiment during the First World War, Cipriani was greatly impressed by the service of black West Indian troops and appalled at their treatment during and after the war. After his return to the West Indies, he became a Trinidadian political leader and advocate for West Indian self-government. James’s book provides us with a powerful statement of developing West Indian nationalism.

This volume brought together as part of the excellent new CLR James Archive Series includes the biography, the pamphlet, and a new introduction in which Bridget Brereton considers both texts and the young C. L. R. James in relation to Trinidadian and West Indian intellectual and social history. She discusses how James came to write his biography of Cipriani, how the book was received in the West Indies and Trinidad, and how, throughout his career, James would use biography to explore the dynamics of politics and history.

The pamphlet, The Case for West-Indian Self Government, was originally published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press in 1933 (Day to Day pamphlets No 16), not long after James moved to England. It provides at first glance little indication of James the anti-imperialist and revolutionary but is testimony to his early democratic radicalism. It critiques British rule for example by asserting that the West Indian people had been sufficiently prepared by British rule to take control of their own destinies. At the time, a Colonial Office Commission was investigating the possibility of federating some or all of Britain’s Eastern Caribbean colonies. James argues that, while the Commission was taking evidence ‘on the constitutional question’ such a question required an understanding of the social context of government. That context, James points out, is obvious. Over eighty percent of the population of the islands being investigated ‘consists of Negroes or persons of Negroid origin’ who, albeit of African origin, had become a distinct people:

“Cut off from all contact with Africa for a century and a quarter, they present to-day the extraordinary spectacle of a people who, in language and social customs, religion, education and outlook, are essentially Western and, indeed, far more advanced in Western culture than many a European community.”

The nature of the argument that James is to make in the remainder of the pamphlet is thus clearly laid out: West Indians, are in a position to govern themselves and should be allowed the opportunity.

The original pamphlet published by the Hogarth press– Day to Day pamphlets No 16 is available in the British Library & Duke University library.

This volume The Life of Captain Cipriani is available here


Party Politics in the West Indies by Christian Hogsbjerg

CLR James as a Creole Nationalist by FSJ Ledgister