Elsa V. Goveia
Elsa V. Goveia was a historian who is considered to be the foundation of historiography of the British West Indies. She has authored seminal works on West Indian history, the major ones being; A Study of the Historiography of the British West Indies (1956) and Slave Society in the British Leeward Islands (1965).
Early life and education
Born on 12 April 1925 in the former British Guiana, Elsa Goveia was awarded the British Guiana Scholarship in 1944. She studied history at University College and the Institute of Historical Research, London where she won the Pollard Prize for English history in 1947 and earned her doctorate in 1952. Her thesis, Slave Society in the British Leeward Islands at the End of the Eighteenth Century, was eventually published in 1965.
She joined the staff of the then University College of the West Indies in 1950 as Lecturer in the Department of History. In 1961, she was appointed Professor of West Indian History. She was a brilliant lecturer and outstanding scholar, she was the author of seminal works on West Indian history the major ones being: A study of the Historiography of the British West Indies. (American Institute of Geography and History), 1956 and Slave Society in the British Leeward Islands. (Yale University Press), 1965.
With the exception of biographical works, Goveia’s historiography is a comprehensive survey and commentary of important pre-1900 books on the British West Indies located at the University College of the West Indies and the Institute of Jamaica. One can quarrel with omissions in Goveia’s examination. None of the works of Hans Sloane, including A Voyage to the Islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica, with the Natural History of the Herbs and Trees, Four-footed Beasts, Fishes, Birds, Insects, Reptiles, etc. of the Last of Those Islands (1707, 1725), is mentioned, for example. Nonetheless, she discusses some 75 major works, starting with Fernando Colon, Petri Martyris, Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés Oviedo, Bartolomé de las Casas, and Antonio de Herrera before 1700 and ending with P.G.L. Borde, N. Darnell Davis, C.P. Lucas, J.A. Froude, and A.T. Mahan at the close of the nineteenth century.
Goveia’s analyses and insights were carefully measured. With respect to Jean-Baptiste du Tertre’s Histoire générale des Antilles habitées par les François (1654, 2nd ed. 1667-71), for example, she stated that the great value of his work lies in narration and description. Yet she notes that Du Tertre was, first of all, a Catholic and a Frenchman. As a result, he was contemptuous of Protestants and Jews, but at the same time he was sympathetic to the plight of native Indians and Black slaves. In her conclusions Goveia observes that the great majority of writers on the West Indies were sincere in their convictions. Sincerity, she maintained, is not a good criterion for detachment or the lack of it. Moreover, she argued, detachment and objectivity in historical discourse are not one and the same. Goveia’s historiography remains a cornerstone and pioneering study of the West Indies.
Death and legacy
Elsa Goveia died on 18 March 1980, aged 55.
The Annual Elsa Goveia Memorial Lecture commemorates the pioneering work of the late Professor Elsa Goveia, who is considered the foundation of Caribbean History at the UWI.
The Elsa Goveia Prize, previously awarded every three years by the Association of Caribbean Historianas, has been awarded every two years since 1995. It recognizes excellence in the field of Caribbean history.
The Elsa Goveia Reading Room in the West Indies and Special Collections at the UWI Mona is reserved soley for the consultation of material from the Collections. It was named in memeory of the late Professor Elsa Goveia.