ALBERT MARIA GOMES (1911-1978)
Gérard A. Besson
Bertie Gomes was one of those born Trinidadians who fit in everywhere in the 1940s and 50s, but somehow didn’t. Perhaps because he was of Portuguese descent-in those times, this population minority was generally poor.
Even though they were European, they were not socially accepted by the British elements of society, and the French (creoles) ostracised some of the Portuguese who were not Catholic. Until a Portuguese became very rich, and his son would come back from schooling in England with a British accent, looking like a sort of Italian to the “aristocracy”, few French or British would have allowed their daughter to marry him.
Bertie, however, was one of those personalities who made the stereotyping work for him. Dr Brinsley Samaroo understands him well in saying: “Gomes is the man caught between two worlds - the attraction of the cocktail circuit on the one hand and on the other, the Portuguese who, as a result of his experience of segregation in the U.S. (1928-1930) and his Belmont boyhood, identifies with the ‘black soul’.” This identification made him the defender of Baptists, Shouters, panmen and calypsonians (and of the folk art, particularly dance expressed by Beryl McBurnie).
Wenzel Brown, an American who visited Trinidad in the late 1940s, reports in his book Angry Men, Laughing Men that Gomes was the “idol of the calypsonians” and also “one of the principal butts for their tease” and he quotes Lion:
“Oh what an awful thing
to see Gomes in a lion skin.”
Having grown up in Belmont, and educated at Pamphylian High School (on the site of NAPA, previously the Princes Building) and City College in New York, Bertie could “talk the talk”. In colonial times, good rhetoric abilities were considered "the armoury of the human mind", and while people paid very close attention to the degree of acculturation to European/British cultural values that were expressed in language, they also appreciated boisterous talk in politicians and calypsonians. For ordinary people to take you seriously, you had to talk big. And you had to make sense to them, too. Bertie was able to do this, and his manner of speech struck home. Like many Trinidadians between the wars, his heart and mind were close to the working class.
In the 1930s, when Bertie was a young, fiery voice, the colonial government was allowing a modification in politics. Gomes demanded workers’ rights, more pay, and criticised the colonial power structure with revolutionary arguments. Being the president of the Federated Workers’ Trade Union, he eventually got elected into the Port-of-Spain City Council in 1938, in which he served for nine years. In 1945, he was elected a member of the Legislative Council, and made a member of the Executive Council in 1946.
From 1950 to 1956, Gomes was re-elected to the Legislative Council and served as the pre-Independence Minister of Labour, Industry and Commerce. He was leader of the conservative Party of Political Progress Groups (POPPG). From 1958, he served as a member of the West Indies Federal House of Representatives, which dissolved with the break-down of the Federation in 1962. When the POPPG was defeated by the only nine-month old People’s National Movement (PNM) in the 1956 election by winning 13 out of the 24 seats (that is, 1,458 votes more than the POPPG), Gomes took the defeat very hard and left Trinidad to live in England.
Bertie was the charismatic centre around which the truly brilliant and literary-minded West Indians gathered. He was the co-editor of The Beacon from 1931 to 1933, and in the 1940s assumed editorship of The People. Both magazines were important literary developments which had spun out of the people. Everything that was not libellous was printed - from an interview with Joseph Staling by an American member of the socialist international, to biting short stories, written by Raoul and Dennis Pantin’s father and Alfred Mendes.
Out of Bertie’s milieu arose such literary figures as CLR James and Gertrude Craig. As one critic put it, they designed “the decisive establishment of social realism in the West Indian novel” as in Ralph de Boissière’s Crown Jewel or in CLR James’ lambasting of Dr Sydney Horland, a geneticist at the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture (ICTA) in The Beacon’s pages for making racist remarks. (Besides Gomes, Mendes and James, members of the Beacon group included de Boissière, William “Sonny” Carpenter, George Gordon Habib, Quintin O’Connor, Hugh Stollmeyer, and Algernon “Pope” Wharton.)
A true lover of good literature, Bertie was there to publish fledgling Trinidadian writers. He was also the chairman of the Management Committee of the Public Library. A poet and author himself (and the owner of a pharmacy), Gomes was a columnist in the Sunday Guardian in the late 1940s and early 1950s, writing columns of social commentary, arts and literature. Other writers were invited to publish in his columns.
Two books, All Papa’s Children and his autobiography Through a Maze of Colour, reveal his well-informed, analytical, albeit aggressive and very subjective writing style, and in some passages make the reader whinny with laughter, such as the following excerpt from Through a Maze of Colour.
“The Second World War saw the birth of the steel band. It was both an innovation in musical expression and a social explosion in Trinidad. It also provided an unparalleled instance of Puritan humbug. It would be impossible to trace the origins of the steel bands. These must always remain shrouded in mystery and a subject of endless speculation - all things considered, a not surprising genesis for this musical aberration and gimcrack orchestration, whose romantic odyssey spans an arc of picaresque adventure that began in the slum areas in Port-of-Spain, recently reached Cape Kennedy, and is still orbiting.”
Albert Gomes, bigger-than-life, carrying more than 300 pounds in his days, lived in England until his death in 1978. (Bertie Gomes and Eric Williams were both born in 1911, the former in March and the latter in September, and both would have been 100 years old this year, 2011.)
Poor immigrants often experienced name changes upon arrival in the colonies. Like the Chinese Scotts or the Chinese Bessons, the Gomeses also experienced a name change, perhaps two. Bertie’s name changed from d’Abreau (originally d’Abreu) to Gomes because of extenuating circumstances. Listen to this colonial story.
“My paternal grandmother was previously married to a gentleman named Gomes; and when he died, she met and married my paternal grandfather whose name was d’Abreau. Antonio Gomes, her son of the first marriage, migrated from Madeira to Trinidad and achieved some success in business. He sent for his half-brother, my father, who took up employment in Antonio’s shop. The fact that he carried a different name - d’Abreau - left him open to suspicion of illegitimacy. When this anomaly became the subject of vulgar taunts hurled at him across the counter of the shop by customers, my father decided that the solution was to adopt his half-brother’s name. Thus it was that d’Abreau, our proper name, was abandoned, and we got stuck with the name of Gomes. This would not have happened to ‘white people’!”
© Gérard A. Besson, 2011