History is a montage – a tapestry – a patchwork. Much depends on the perspective and the sources available. And we have to be willing to consider all sorts of sources as we understand and fill gaps in the story.
So one interesting source on the early development of the University of the West Indies – and some other aspects of the Caribbean landscape of the late 1940s and early 1950s – is a series of diaries kept by Birmingham University (UK) Vice-Chancellor Sir Raymond Priestley, who served on the UK’s post-World War 2 Inter-University Council which was, he said, a sort of godparent to the new West Indian university college and other colonial university colleges of the same era.
Priestley had been a member of the Irvine Committee, chaired by the University of St Andrews Vice-Chancellor Sir James Irvine, which visited the Caribbean in 1944 and recommended the establishment of the university in 1945. The first Principal was appointed at the end of 1946 and the first classes started in October 1948. Priestley would remain involved for several years, both as a member of the University College of the West Indies (UCWI) Council, and as a member of the board of the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture (ICTA) in Trinidad, which would eventually become the university’s second campus at St Augustine.
Council used to meet in January or February, so there are several accounts of his voyages to the West Indies on various boats, his meetings and discussions, his observations on the Jamaican landscape, industry, agriculture as well as the people he came to know, and visits to Trinidad, Tobago and British Honduras (now Belize) which are also the subject of notes and photographs. In among all this there are occasional comments on concerns about crime; on the politics of the period; on the cost of living. Attitudes to race and to colonial aspirations emerge from some corners and comments.
One of Priestley’s diaries, on the Irvine Committee visit to the region, is accessioned to the UWI Library at the founding Mona Campus and is on display at the UWI Museum. The other diaries reside at the Cadbury Research Library, Birmingham University. Those covering the period 1947-1953 contain much that is directly relevant to the UWI’s early development and aspects of national and regional development. By the way – on a point of interest, Priestley typed his own pages, and mailed them home, every so often, for binding. He was also an enthusiastic and obviously very competent photographer.