Elsa V. Goveia, Slave Society in the British Leeward Islands at the end of the Eighteenth Century.
(New Haven, 1965, Yale Univ. Press, 370 pp., $8.50)
Professor Goveia of the University of West Indies has produced a splendid volume which significantly supplements the seminal works in the field published earlier by Richard Pares, F.W. Pitman, Louis J. Ragatz and Eric Williams.
Her studies examine with great care the slave-based and sugar-based communities in the colonies of Antigua, St. Kitts, Montserrat, Barbuda, Anguilla and the British Virgin Islands in a generation of crisis induced by significant economic change, the American and French Revolutions, and the developing power of political and social challenges.
This work is based largely upon the sources in the Public Record Office in London (as well as published material, of course); it was completed before access to local records – still being catalogued – was possible. It seems probable, however, that the latter when available will fill in details but will not alter the basic patterns and developments described by Professor Goveia.
The volume demonstrates the pervasive and fundamental character of slavery; its brutality rationalized by the concept of the bestiality or – at best – the inferiority of the slaves; and its viability maintained by elaborate laws, mores, ideologies, and armed might. It does not omit the fact of slave unrest – though this reviewer would have appreciated more detail – and it is strong in spelling out the economic and political difficulties facing the island planters and the British authorities, leading to outlawry of the slave trade and, finally, to Emancipation.
The volume demonstrates the oligarchic tendency of plantation slavery, the chronic indebtedness of the planters, the dominating insularity with its fundamental effects upon politics. The latter leads Professor Goveia to remark that the planters viewed the connection with Britain as vital – with or without slavery – as it “seemed to offer the best guarantee of the survival of the whites” (p. 102). Perhaps substituting the word, “dominance” for “survival” would be more exact here, but the overwhelming force of insularity is clear.