David Nicholls was an extraordinary and inspirational intellectual, activist, priest and friend to all who knew him. His modesty covered the vast scope of his successes and interests. After he died suddenly on 13th June, 1996, it was only at his funeral service in the parish of Littlemore near Oxford, where he had been the pastor since 1978, that many parishioners, Caribbeanists, political scientists and theologians fully realised the full breadth and brilliance of David’s work.
Involved with the Society for Caribbean Studies since its inception, and chair between 1991 and 1993, David was perhaps best known among Caribbean researchers for his internationally acclaimed work on Haiti. From Dessalines to Duvalier: Race, Colour and National Independence (1979, 1988, 1996) has become a classic text, admirably supported by Economic Dependence and Political Autonomy: The Haitian Experience (1974) and Haiti in the Caribbean Context: Ethnicity, Economy and Revolt (1985). Having graduated from the London School of Economics with the Laski and Gladstone Prizes, David went on to work as a lecturer in Government at the University of West Indies, St Augustine campus between 1966 and 1973. He arrived via scholarships at Yale and Cambridge Universities, while pursuing lifelong interests in politics and theology. This intellectual mix unsurprisingly ruffled the feathers of both the academy and the Church.
While his expertise on Haiti and the region’s Levantine communities is well known to many Caribbeanists, his academic writing moved well beyond any disciplinary cloisters. As a political scientist, he forged a distinguished career, influencing scholars Bernard Crick and Paul Hirst. He helped to pioneer a restatement of pluralism, critiquing theories of state, democracy and power. Three Varieties of Pluralism (1974) and The Pluralist State (1994) became landmark texts. Beside political philosophy, his work on theology was similarly profound and among the most significant of his generation. He edited nine volumes of Faith and the Future (1983) and produced two further outstanding and challenging works, the first of which was delivered as part of the Hulsean lectures in Cambridge: Deity and Domination: Images of God and the State in the 19th and 20th Centuries (1989). The second in the series was published as God and Government in an Age of Reason (1995), while the third in the intended trilogy, Despotism and Doubt, remains unfinished.
A committed and active grassroots socialist and internationalist, he constantly welcomed a range of friends to the home he shared with Gillian in Littlemore. He was a charismatic and much loved figure, cutting a dash whether hurtling through Trinidad on his motorbike, or pacing the quads of Oxford kitted with poncho, sandals, Marxesque beard and the day’s cigar ration.