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Goveia, Elsa Vesta

Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro–Latin American Biography
Brian L. MooreBrian L. Moore

Goveia, Elsa Vesta (1925–1980), historian and writer, 

was born on 12 April 1925 in British Guiana (now Guyana) into an ethnically mixed (Portuguese and Afro-Guyanese) middle-class family. That in itself was unusual, because of a long history of racial antagonism between the Portuguese and Afro-Guyanese communities in that country.

At a time when just a small minority of Guyanese children, especially girls, could aspire to education beyond the primary level, Elsa Goveia won a scholarship to the prestigious St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic high school for girls in the capital, Georgetown, where she shone as brightly as the star Vesta (after which she was probably named). In 1944 she was the first female to win the highly competitive Guiana Scholarship, which entitled her to pursue university education abroad.

Delayed until the end of World War II, Goveia enrolled at University College London, in 1945 to read history. There she blazed a path of scholastic excellence, winning the Pollard Prize for English history in 1947 (another first for a West Indian), and graduated with first class honors in 1948. Proceeding to undertake research for her doctorate at the Institute of Historical Research in London, she successfully completed the degree in 1952. In 1950, while working on her doctoral thesis, she took a position as assistant lecturer in history at the recently established University College of the West Indies in Jamaica. In 1961 she was promoted to full professor with a chair in West Indian history—the first female to achieve that status there.

Goveia lived in an age of monumental change in the Caribbean, and she played a very significant role in it. Although much too young (just 3 years old) to comprehend the political significance of the British government’s dissolution of the Guianese majority-elected assembly (the Combined Court) in 1928, by her early teenage years its adverse consequences became quite evident, especially when the Guyanese working people, like their peers in the Caribbean islands, angrily protested the desperate working and living conditions that resulted from their exclusion from the political process. The popular uprisings of the 1930s, in which some people were shot dead in Guyana by the colonial police, may well have begun to shape young Elsa’s political thinking.

Her political awareness was certainly sharpened when she met students from other Caribbean colonies in the United Kingdom who shared similar intellectual, cultural, and political experiences and concerns. These included fellow Guiana scholar Forbes Burnham, Errol Barrow of Barbados, and the Jamaican Michael Manley (all of whom later became prime ministers of their respective countries), as well as Douglas Hall and Lucille Mathurin Mair of Jamaica, Roy Augier of St. Lucia, and Lloyd Braithwaite of Trinidad. Together with other Caribbean students in the United Kingdom, they established the West Indian Students Union in 1946, which not only provided a forum to forge a sense of Caribbean identity, but also a place to exchange and articulate political ideas about self-determination and attaining political freedom. This activity helped to crystallize the ideas and ideals that Goveia would live by as a scholar and a public figure.

Goveia’s historical research focused on Caribbean slave society, and her magnum opus was published in 1965 with the title Slave Society in the British Leeward Islands at the End of the Eighteenth Century. This magisterial work exemplifies social history at its best, but no less importantly, it reflected her primary professional objective to decolonize Caribbean history writing. It was groundbreaking in two major ways. First, in its Caribbean perspective it broke with a tradition set by British and American historians of viewing the Caribbean as an extension of European empire. Second, while recognizing the social divisions of race and color that slavery had created, Goveia argued that Caribbean society was nonetheless whole and coherent, integrated by a unifying consensus. Her historical interpretation may well have been influenced by her own personhood as a mixed-race individual growing up in a family that symbolized interracial unity amid the ethnic cleavages of the wider Guyanese society.

Goveia’s A Study of the Historiography of the British West Indies (1956) provides a comprehensive analysis of Caribbean history writing between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, and clearly demonstrated that the interpretations of contemporary history writers were heavily influenced by the slave societies in which they lived. Her analysis of the slave laws, published in 1970 as The West Indian Slave Laws of the Eighteenth Century, is a brilliant exposition of comparative history encompassing the British, Spanish, and French jurisdictions.

Goveia was one of a new group of historians who were instrumental in establishing Caribbean history as a distinctive and respected field of study. She recognized that this could not be realized only by academic research and publishing, but by teaching as well. Going against the grain of the curriculum (with its focus on European history) in the new history department at the college in Jamaica, in 1951 she crafted and taught a course on West Indian history, and was instrumental in devising a policy to make Caribbean history mandatory for all university students. She also knew that if the teaching of history was to be decolonized, it could not be confined to the university, but had to be extended to secondary schools. She, therefore, played a major role in introducing West Indian history in the curriculum at that level throughout the Anglophone Caribbean. Because this demanded more research and books for students to use, she encouraged initiatives in her history department to set up a graduate research program, and she played a key role in its establishing a Caribbean universities press that would publish not only scholarly monographs but also a series of essays or “chapters” on various aspects of Caribbean history, as well as a new academic journal, the Journal of Caribbean History. To facilitate more research, she was active in promoting archival development in the region. In addition, she was a key figure behind the formation of the Association of Caribbean Historians, which brought together the growing number of scholars in the field for annual conferences.

As part of a generation engaged in the nationalist project aimed at achieving political independence and subsequent nation-building, Goveia firmly believed that the work of historians was integral to the process of decolonization. It was their responsibility to make their research accessible to ordinary people beyond the walls of the academy. She believed that society should know its past, especially one that was dominated for such a long time by slavery. Caribbean people should therefore not seek to forget about slavery but should be helped by scholars to understand and confront the social divisions it spawned in order to build more democratic nations. To that end, during the 1950s she undertook a series of off-campus open lectures to educate the public on Jamaican and Caribbean history.

Goveia believed that not only historians, but also all Caribbean intellectuals and artists, had a responsibility to be actively involved in decolonization and nation-building. Hence she was an active member of the New World Group, formed in 1963, which promoted the study and public dissemination of information on a broad range of issues relating to Caribbean politics, society, economy, and culture. A frequent writer of letters published in the Jamaican newspapers, she was not reluctant to make critical comments on contemporary affairs—whether criticizing the British for dissolving the democratically elected government of British Guiana in 1953; rebuking Trinidad and Tobago’s prime minister, Eric Williams, for publishing what she thought was a shoddy book, British Historians and the West Indies (1964); or supporting the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. She firmly believed that the growth of indigenous arts was central to a decolonized Caribbean, and she exhorted Caribbean artists to take a lead in breaking down social barriers and to foster a distinct Caribbean identity. For several years she served on the Jamaican Arts Advisory Council.

Elsa Goveia’s scholastic career was sadly handicapped after 1961 by a debilitating illness, but her sudden death in Kingston on 18 March 1980 shocked the intellectual world of which she was a part, and well beyond. She had never married and had no children. She was survived by her sister, Carmen.

[See also Barrow, Errol Walton; Braithwaite, Lloyd E. S.; Burnham, Linden Forbes Sampson; Manley, Michael Norman; and Williams, Eric Eustace.]


Chamberlain, Mary. “Elsa Goveia: History and Nation.” History Workshop Journal 58 (Autumn 2004): 167–190.Find this resource:

    Moore, Brian L. “Introduction.” In Slavery, Freedom and Gender: The Dynamics of Caribbean Society, edited by Brian L. Moore, B. W. Higman, Carl Campbell, and Patrick Bryan. Kingston, Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press, 2001.Find this resource:

      Brian L. Moore