Goveia, Elsa V.

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Goveia, Elsa V.

April 12, 1925
March 18, 1980

Elsa Vesta Goveia, a pioneering historian of Caribbean slave societies, was born in the colony of British Guiana (now Guyana) in 1925, and she died in Jamaica in 1980. Winning the prestigious British Guiana Island Scholarship (the first woman to do so) in 1944 enabled her to study for a degree in history at University College, London. After earning a First Class degree in 1948, she immediately began research for her Ph.D. at the University of London.

In 1950 Goveia was recruited as the first West Indian member of the Department of History at the newly established University College of the West Indies (UCWI; renamed the University of the West Indies [UWI] in 1962) at Mona, Jamaica. Rising steadily up the academic ranks, she was appointed Professor of West Indian History in 1961, becoming the first West Indian professor in the History Department and the first female professor at UCWI/UWI.

Goveia's major achievements involve her contribution to the emerging historiography of the Caribbean and her leading role in introducing and encouraging the teaching of the region's history at the secondary and tertiary levels.

Her most important work, Slave Society in the British Leeward Islands at the End of the Eighteenth Century (1965), is a pioneering study of the social history of a group of small sugar islands at the height of the institution of slavery in the Caribbean. She was perhaps the most influential historian of this period to conceptualise "slave society" as consisting of "the whole community based on slavery"meaning free blacks, free coloreds, and whites as well as the enslaved. Indeed, she was one of the originators of the concept of a "slave society," which has subsequently become a commonplace term of Caribbean (and New World) historiography. Goveia also contributed significantly to the emerging concept of "Creole society" through her careful analysis of the social and cultural interaction of white, black, and mixed-race persons (enslaved and free) in islands dominated by African slavery.

Of importance, too, is her pioneering 1956 study of the major writings on the history of the English-speaking territories from the sixteenth century to the end of the nineteenth century. This work can be said to mark the beginning of serious analysis of the region's historiographical tradition.

At UWI, Goveia designed, and taught for many years, the first full-fledged university courses on Caribbean history. A superb teacher, she influenced several generations of students by her erudition, her passionate interest in her subject, and her meticulous scholarship. Nor did she confine her work to academia. With her colleagues, she encouraged and assisted secondary school teachers all over the region to introduce Caribbean history into the curricula. She also played a major role in the establishment or upgrading of archives in the different territories in the 1950s and the 1960s.

Elsa Goveia was clearly the most influential historian of the Caribbean in the period between 1950 and 1980, and she made a major contribution to the emerging historiography and scholarship on New World slave societies. She played a pioneering role in the teaching of the region's history at the multicampus University of the West Indies, which she served for thirty years.

See also Education in the Caribbean; University of the West Indies


Higman, Barry H. Writing West Indian Histories. Warwick University Caribbean Studies. London and Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan, 1999.

Goveia, Elsa V. A Study on the Historiography of the British West Indies to the End of the Nineteenth Century. Mexico City: Instituto Panamericano de Geografia y Historia, 1956. Reprint, Washington D.C.: Howard University Press, 1980.

Goveia, Elsa V. Slave Society in the British Leeward Islands at the end of the Eighteenth Century. New Haven, Ct.: Yale University Press, 1965. Reprint, Westport, Ct.: Greenwood Press, 1980.

Marshall, W.K. "History Teaching in the University of the West Indies." In Before and After 1865: Education, Politics, and Regionalism in the Caribbean, edited by Brian L. Moore and Swithin R. Wilmot. Kingston, Jamaica: Ian Randle Publications, 1998.

bridget brereton (2005)

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