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Prof Bridget Brereton: A passionate historian
Bridget Brereton is professor emerita of History at the St Augustine (Trinidad) campus of the University of the West Indies. She has served as head of the Department of History, as deputy campus principal, and as interim campus principal, all at St Augustine. She has been a visiting professor at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore. She has served both as secretary-treasurer and later as president of the Association of Caribbean Historians, and is a past editor of the Journal of Caribbean History.
In 1996, she won the cross-campus Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching, Research and Administration, the first woman to do so. She has been chair of the board of the National Library and Information System Authority, and also chaired the committee appointed by Cabinet to consider the nation’s highest award, the Trinity Cross, and other national symbols and observances. She has served on many university and campus boards and committees.
She is the author of several books, including Race Relations in Colonial Trinidad, 1870-1900 (1979); A History of Modern Trinidad, 1783-1962 (1989); Law, Justice and Empire: The Colonial Career of John Gorrie, 1829-1892 (1997); and From Imperial College to the University of the West Indies: A History of the St Augustine Campus, T&T (2010), as well as many published journal articles and book chapters.
She is the editor of Volume V of the Unesco General History of the Caribbean: The Twentieth Century (2004) and the co-editor of several other books. She has been a teacher for over 40 years, and pioneered courses at St Augustine in the history of T&T, and in women and gender in the history of the Caribbean. She has also written two school texts, Social Life in the Caribbean, 1838-1938 (for CXC) and An Introduction to the History of T&T.
Where were you born and where did you grow up? How did you end up in T&T? I was born in Madras, India (now Chennai), because my father served in the Indian Army during World War II, but by the time of my birth the war was over, and the family returned to Britain when I was a baby. I grew up in Scotland and England (Edinburgh and Exeter) and came to Jamaica aged 17, when my father became Professor of English at UWI, Mona Campus. I studied history at Mona and married a fellow student from T&T…and have been living here for nearly 50 years.
What schools and institutions did you attend?
I went to a little primary school in Edinburgh to age nine, then to the Maynard School for Girls in Exeter, where I did my O- and A-Levels. I got my BA at Mona, my MA at the University of Toronto, and my PhD right here at St Augustine. I was the first person to get a PhD at St Augustine in a humanities or social sciences subject.
Who influenced and inspired you the most in your career and in your life?
My father, an academic and a very humane and cultured man. My husband, who has always given me the space and support which we all need. Inspiring teachers, who later became colleagues, like Douglas Hall, Elsa Goveia, Roy Augier, Keith Laurence, Carl Campbell.
What is your teaching philosophy?
As a university teacher, I tried to inspire students with a passion for studying the past, and with a sense of respect for the people and societies we study.
As an educator, to what do you attribute the low levels of literacy rates?
At the university level, we have all noticed a decline in our students’ ability to deal with more complicated material—the majority, that is. They are less willing or even able to read, and to assimilate what they read; less interested or curious in pursuing intellectual work. Of course, this is part of a worldwide decline in the skills and habits of reading—a solitary and demanding business—and as so many have said, ours is not really a book-reading society. Since the study of the humanities, including history, is based on just that, it’s a problem for university teachers of these subjects.
What are your greatest accomplishments as a teacher and as an author?
I’m proud that I’ve researched and written on important aspects of the history of T&T and the Caribbean, and that some of my books and articles are still widely read, including by students at various levels. I’m pleased that I’ve taught many people who themselves have gone on to teach and research.
Which are your favourite books—not yours, of course?
I’ve read far too many books to be able to cite favourites, but perhaps the most influential in my early development as a scholar was Trinidad in Transition: The Years after Slavery by British historian Donald Wood, an important mentor to me and many others.
What advice/recipe for success would you give to young people aspiring to be teachers or authors?
The best advice for young people aspiring to be teachers or authors is simple and obvious: have a passion for your subject and work very hard at it.
Describe yourself in two words: one beginning with B, and the other with B, your initials.
I could say brainy and brave—but that would be very immodest.