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Elsa Vesta Goveia (12 April 1925 - 18 March 1980)

Elsa Vesta Goveia was born on 12 April 1925 in the former British Guiana, one of two daughters of a middling family of mixed Portuguese descent. This was at a time when only a minority of Caribbeans could benefit from anything higher than an elementary education, Elsa won a scholarship to St Joseph’s High School, Convent of Mercy, in Georgetown, and matriculated with her Higher Level Certificate.

In 1944 she was the first woman to win a Guiana Scholarship, and came to Britain to study history at University College and the Institute of Historical Research in London, where she later 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 began as an assistant lecturer in 1950 at the University College of the West Indies (now the Mona Campus of University of West Indies) and although she was struck by a debilitating illness, against which she was to struggle for the rest of her life, she quickly rose to prominence as Professor of West Indian history in 1961 when she taught until her death.

Sensitive to their racism, Elsa provides a balanced appraisal of the historical studies of such key late-eighteenth-century writers as Edward Long and Bryan Edwards in 1968 when she wrote that there was urgent need for copies of the books of these two British historians who were viewed as authorities on West Indian colonial society:

"In one of Long's books he has a two page description of “the Negroes” in which he makes every conceivable racist statement about their stupidity and smell, ending with the statement that they are only human because they resemble humans."

The Association of Caribbean Historians sponsors the 'Elsa Goveia Book Prize', which is awarded every two years in recognition of research excellence in the field of Caribbean history. The University of West Indies also has a student prize in Goveia’s name for the best result in courses related to Caribbean history.

Elsa, at the age of 55, passed away in Jamaica on 18 March 1980.


A Study on the Historiography of the British West Indies to the End of the Nineteenth Century (1956, reprinted 1980)
Slave Society in the British Leeward Islands at the End of the Eighteenth (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965) pp. xii, 370
with C. J. Bartlett. The West Indian slave laws of the 18th century (1970)


History Workshop Journal (Issue 58, Autumn 2004, pp. 167-190)
West Indies and Historiography: A Tribute to Elsa V. Goveia (McMaster, CA)
Goveia review of Dr. Eric Williams “English Historians and the West Indies” (1968)
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