Caribbean Beat Magazine

The Private Eric Williams

Dr. Ken Boodhoo has written a new biography of the first Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Dr Eric Williams. An excerpt from this soon-to-be-published book describes Williams's first two marriages

  • Williams's children, Pamela (left), Alistair and Erica. Photograph courtesy The Ministry of Communication and Information Technology
  • With his father, Henry Williams. Photograph courtesy Mrs Flora Gittens
  • Soy Moyou, Erica's mother. Photograph by the Eric Williams Memorial Collection/ Mark Lyndersay
  • Portrait of a young historian. Photograph courtesy the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology

An excerpt from The Elusive Eric Williams by Dr Ken Boodhoo, a new biography of the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago. In this chapter, the author describes Williams’s first two marriages

Sometime in June 1939, Henry Williams, Eric’s father, answered a knock on his door, to see an attractive light-skinned young woman standing on his doorstep. He asked what she wanted, and she replied, “I’m Mrs Williams!” Taken aback, Henry asked, “Which Mrs Williams?” To which she answered, “I am Mrs Eric Williams!” In this way, Henry and Eliza Williams learned that their first son was married.

Eric and Elsie Ribeiro were married, very quietly, in Hampstead, England, on January 30, 1937, while Eric was still a postgraduate student at Oxford and Elsie was pursuing studies in music. Eric had known Elsie in Trinidad, before they both left for England. Her brothers Oscar and Joey were actively involved in the sports programme at Queen’s Royal College; Eric was a member of QRC’s cricket team, which was captained by Oscar. But Eric had not dated Elsie in Trinidad. His girlfriend before leaving home was his best friend’s sister, Elsie McShine.

Elsie Ribeiro’s mother, from the Iverson family of St Vincent, had arrived in Trinidad during the early years of the century. She worked as a housekeeper for J. J. Ribeiro, a Port of Spain merchant, with whom she eventually had three children: Oscar, Joey and Elsie. Although she was born in Trinidad, Elsie identified with St Vincent. It was her wish to be buried there.

Joey roomed with Halsey McShine and Ray Dolly in London; Williams visited London frequently, and lived there while doing research for his thesis. He and Elsie, with McShine and his future wife Eileen, had often dined and danced together on Saturday evenings. But McShine was very surprised to learn of Williams’s marriage. He did not think the couple were “friendly enough to marry.” Dolly, too, expressed much surprise, since he considered himself “like a brother to Elsie.” Even when Williams visited McShine before leaving for Washington, he did not disclose his marriage. McShine learned of the marriage from John Pillai, who had attended QRC with Williams and was a member of the school’s soccer team that was captained by Williams. He too was a university student in London at this time, and served as best man for the wedding ceremony.

Williams apparently selected Pillai as his best man, rather than McShine or Dolly, because they would be returning to Trinidad after completing their studies. But Pillai’s family roots were in south-east Asia. Williams was very concerned that the terms of his scholarship might have prohibited marriage; he feared that if word of his marriage reached Trinidad, the scholarship could be terminated. So almost no one in England or in Trinidad was informed of his marriage to Elsie Ribeiro.

Once Williams had obtained a position on the faculty of Howard University, he and Elsie decided that he would proceed directly to the US, while she would first visit Trinidad before joining him Washington. He could thus find proper accommodation before his wife arrived, and she could spend some time with her mother. Thus on June 2, 1939, he wrote to Professor Locke at Howard: “My wife is on her way to Trinidad on a short visit to her mother whom she has not seen for many years, and is hoping that things could be arranged as to allow her to leave Trinidad to join me in the USA about a day or two after I get there.” It was on this visit that Elsie met the Williams family and told them of her marriage to Eric, more than two years after it had taken place.

Elsie spent about two months in Trinidad visiting her mother and her many friends from Bishop Anstey High School. One of Eric’s sisters, who was employed at a photography store in Port of Spain, recalled purchasing many rolls of film and processing the pictures Elsie took during this trip. In August 1939, Elsie boarded a ship sailing to New York. Also on board, to begin university study at Howard, was Ibbit Mosaheb; the trip provided him with an introduction to Williams, whose student and close friend he became.

Eric, always friendly with West Indian students at Howard, both male and female, invited many of them to his home. During these visits Mrs Williams seemed friendly, yet somewhat reserved. Later, when Mosaheb was pursuing his dental studies in Montreal, Canada, at Williams’s request he played host to Elsie Williams for two weeks; one reason for the visit may have been that “things were not right with the [Williams] marriage.”

Elsie gave birth to a son, Alistair, the first of Williams’s two children with her, on May 6, 1943. Williams had hoped to have a daughter. The son’s birth was therefore a surprise, and he expressed this in a letter to Locke. Young Alistair occasionally accompanied his father on trips to Trinidad, where he was looked after by an aunt, Williams’s sister Angela Jeffers. She recalled taking Alistair with her to the convent to meet some children: on seeing a garbed nun little Alistair blurted out, “Is she an Arab?”

Probably because of his extensive travel during the mid-1940s, on behalf of the Caribbean Commission, Williams’s relationship with his wife did not improve. The problems were exacerbated by the birth of their second child, Elsie Pamela, on July 22, 1947, and the issue of paternity. Here, Williams’s characteristic weakness, his affinity for gossip, displayed itself; it would later be the source of some of his most serious problems as a political leader. He acted on the gossip: he took leave of absence from Howard, and in less than a year had accepted a permanent position in Trinidad with the Caribbean Commission and separated from his wife.

When Williams left Washington for Trinidad in May 1948, he left his wife and two children, aged five and one, in faculty housing near the university. As a department head, he could have arranged with the university for his family to remain in the house for at least one more year; but he made no such arrangement, and his family was required to vacate by October.

With the approach of winter, two small children, and no means of earning an income, Elsie took in three university students as boarders. Her neighbour at the time was Warner Lawson, head of the music department at Howard. Lawson arranged a part-time position in music for Elsie — she had studied music in England. She, her children and her boarders moved to a house on Bryant Street, which would serve as the family home for the next 50 years. After renting it for a while, she was able, with the help of her brother in London, to purchase the home. At about the same time she took the US federal government’s civil service examination, passed, and obtained a permanent position with the General Accounting Office in Washington. She maintained this position from late 1948, until illness forced her resignation in the early 1970s.

The financial burden, together with the difficulty of raising two small children as a single working parent, must have made life difficult for Elsie, especially during the first few years. The question of alimony remained a nagging, distressing issue for over eight years. Alistair suffered emotionally from Williams’s withdrawal from the home: he had known his father for about five years, travelled to Trinidad with him, and must have missed him dearly. This manifested itself in aggressive behaviour, violent tantrums, and a show of toughness (“I do not need a father”). He became fiercely protective of his mother. Pamela, at least outwardly, appeared to be much less affected. She was less than a year old when her father left, and for her first 20 years really only knew her mother. She was also more contemplative and reflective than her extrovert brother.

Elsie’s student boarders helped to ease the financial burden, and allowed her to provide the best affordable education for her children, which eventually included private schools. She generally selected medical students, who were somewhat older and more mature, and who remained for longer periods. But she repeatedly claimed that “Eric did not take care of his responsibilities.” When Williams’s alimony became a popular issue in Trinidad in the early 50s, James Bain, Permanent Secretary to Albert (“Bertie”) Gomes, reported: “Bill told Bertie and myself that he had stopped supporting his wife because she refused to carry out his intentions for sending them to Oxford University.”

If Bain’s recollections some 35 years later were correct, Williams’s excuse was curious on many grounds, especially since in the early 1950s his children were still quite young. Of course, his wife may have told him that she would never permit her children to attend his alma mater.

Williams returned to Trinidad in June 1948, settling into his position at the Caribbean Commission. Within a few months he had befriended Soy Suilan Moyou, a typist at the Commission, and not long after began visiting the Moyou family home in Port of Spain. This large family included five girls and one boy. Soy’s father had died, and her mother was the matriarch of the family.

Soy’s father had arrived in Trinidad at age 30 from China, having apparently stowed away on a ship. His name was Moy-Yen-U, which was corrupted in Trinidad to Moyou. His wife, Soy’s mother, was of African/Portuguese/Chinese descent; she was from Princes Town and a cousin of the wife of the future Governor General, Sir Solomon Hochoy.

From all the evidence, it is apparent that Williams fell deeply in love with Soy. In January 1950, after attending a Caribbean Commission meeting in the US Virgin Islands, he instituted divorce proceedings there against Elsie. She responded with an injunction restraining him from proceeding with his petition. He dropped the proceedings, and in a letter of April 1950 submitted to the jurisdiction of the District of Columbia court, agreeing to abide by its decision and be bound by an order regarding alimony.

But a few months later Williams again started divorce proceedings, this time in Reno, Nevada. His haste was probably due to the fact that Soy was pregnant.

Reno, Nevada, was well known as a location for “quick divorces”. Two years earlier, C. L. R. James had gone there seeking a divorce from his first wife. James had asked Williams to obtain the relevant data in Trinidad to hasten the process. Since James’s divorce was apparently approved, Williams assumed that his would be also.

But there were some additional factors that prompted his trip to Nevada. Throughout his life, Williams had been dogged by sinus problems and hay fever. Even in Washington he was aware that the dry, semi-desert climate of Nevada was more conducive to his health; he may have considered a permanent move. At this time he was disenchanted with his position at the Commission, and was upset with the recent appointment of a Secretary General who lacked “all educational and professional qualifications for the post.” He wanted to settle down and write a history of the Caribbean, but the pressures of his formal position would not permit this. As a resident alien of the United States, he had a legal right to return. He settled for a compromise: he was due for six months’ long leave, and decided to spend that time in the United States.

Williams stated in his autobiography that he “had six months’ long leave at the end of 1950 which I spent in the US in various libraries.” But the stay was more complicated than that. He did spend an active six months in the United States, but his activities went well beyond research.

In September 1950, Williams and Soy Moyou travelled to New York, where he purchased his famous maroon Buick Dynaflow car (he eventually brought it back with him to Trinidad). It was probably the first vehicle with automatic transmission in Trinidad. He had seen a beautiful Buick owned by his friend Dr Dolly at Point-à-Pierre, and wanted a similar vehicle. He and Soy drove this convertible across the country to Reno, where they settled in for a six-month stay while he pursued divorce proceedings against his first wife. In Washington, Elsie became aware of these proceedings and obtained a preliminary injunction preventing her husband from making any attempt at divorce, on the grounds that he had earlier subjected himself to the jurisdiction of the District of Columbia court.  However, Williams filed formal proceedings for a divorce on November 24, 1950.

On December 13, Williams was ordered to appear in court, probably because he had filed for a divorce in Nevada, even though he had earlier submitted himself to the District of Columbia court system. He did not appear, even though a lawyer had been assigned to him. On December 22, he was ordered to be taken into custody by a US Marshal. His lawyer in Nevada pointed out that his divorce had been granted, though a search of the court records showed no entry for a final decree. Williams had apparently met the six-week residential requirement to obtain a Nevada divorce. On January 2, 1951, he married Soy Moyou in Reno, in a ceremony performed by the Reverend Munroe Warner of First Christian Church, in the presence of Mrs D. L. Robinson and Charlotte Hunter. Their daughter Erica was born on February 12, 1951, in Reno.

Elsie Williams obtained a divorce from Eric Williams on January 20, 1951, on grounds of desertion. This was made effective on July 21, 1951, and Williams was ordered to pay the sum of $275.00 monthly as maintenance for his first wife and the two children of this marriage.

The Elusive Eric Williams, by Dr Ken Boodhoo, is published by Prospect Press and Ian Randle Publishers.