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History Workshop Journal 58 (2004) 167-190

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Elsa Goveia:

History and Nation

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Figure 1
Elsa Goveia, 1925-1980. Courtesy of the History Department, University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica.
In a society which has been shot through by diverse inter-racial features and inter-continental thresholds, we need a philosophy of history which is original to us and yet capable of universal applications. Caribbean man is involved in a civilisation-making process (whether he likes it or not) and until this creative authority becomes intimate to his perspectives, he will continue to find himself embalmed in his deprivations—embalmed as a derivative tool-making, fence-making animal. As such his dialectic will remain a frozen round of protest.1

So argued the Guyanese novelist, Wilson Harris, in the third of his Edgar Mittelholzer lectures delivered in Guyana in 1970, adding that, in his view, there were only two Caribbean historians—the Trinidadian C. L. R. James and his fellow Guyanese, Elsa Goveia—who came close to adumbrating such a philosophy. What was it about Goveia that, for Harris's generation at least, rendered her and James of equal stature? While James's philosophy of history was derived from his (albeit shifting) position within Marxism, Goveia, a generation later, subscribed to the aims of the New World Group which had been active in the Caribbean throughout the 1960s, and of which Goveia had been an early member. Her philosophy of history fitted with its aims:

New World is a movement which aims to transform the mode of living and thinking in the region. The movement rejects uncritical acceptance of dogmas and ideologies imported from outside and bases its ideas for [End Page 167] the future of the area on an unfettered analysis of the experience and existing conditions of the region.2

For Goveia, involved with the movements for nationalism and independence, history was both a social project and a mode of analysis.3 The history of the Caribbean region, in its generalities and in its territorial peculiarities, offered a singular configuration of historical circumstances. The task of the historian was to enable 'us to grasp more exactly the unique significance of what is present' [emphasis added].4 It was a central and immanent role as West Indian society—contoured and scarred by the currents of class and climate, race and genocide, ignorance and superiority, isolation and vilification—metamorphosed in the middle decades of the twentieth century into political and national awareness. 'In our earlier struggle for our political rights', she argued in 1958, 'it was perhaps enough to be anti-British. Now that we face Independence and the immense problems which it will bring, it has become absolutely essential that we should know whether we are West Indians.'5 Such knowledge, for Goveia, could only be achieved through understanding and acknowledging the history of slavery and its legacies. At a time when acknowledgement of this history was still part of popular forgetting, to speak openly about its dynamics, its interiority, provided the structures through which remembrance (and recognition) became permissible.6 To do this, as she argued in A Study on the Historiography of the British West Indies to the End of the Nineteenth Century (1956), the historian must seek:

beyond the narrative of events, a wider understanding of the thoughts, habits, and institutions of a whole society. In the society itself, in its purpose and in its adaptive processes, will be found the true genesis of its history [emphasis added].7

The emergence of West Indian nationalism in the decades before the Second World War and in the decades which followed it the demands, ultimately, for an independent Caribbean were accompanied by an exploration and affirmation of Caribbean culture and a recognition of its central role in the creation of a Caribbean identity. In this, the Caribbean linked its philosophical and political hands with the anti-colonial movements in Africa and with their French counterparts there and in the Caribbean, taking up many of the ideas on black identity and solidarity which had emerged from the...


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