In Memoriam, Prof. David Higgs (1939-2014)

The PCHP is saddened to learn of the death of David Higgs, who passed away peacefully at Mount Sinai Hospital on October 20, 2014. We had the pleasure of meeting Prof. Higgs; some of us as undergraduate students at the University of Toronto, and others during PCHP business. Together with Grace M. Anderson, Higgs authored A Future to Inherit (1976), the first comprehensive study of Portuguese migration to Canada, which remains a central source of information for anyone interested in that topic. In 2010, we invited Prof. Higgs to donate his research notes and other archival records related to the Portuguese communities in Canada, and facilitated their transfer to the Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections, York University Libraries, where they are available for consultation – see finding aid. In 2011, we were also honoured to have him speak at the launch of our online exhibits (pictured above).

The members of the PCHP – Gilberto Fernandes, Emanuel da Silva, Raphael Costa and Susana Miranda – express our condolences to David Higgs’ family and loved ones, along with our deep appreciation for his valuable contribution towards advancing Portuguese scholarship in Canada. In this moment of retrospection, we are glad to have helped preserve an important part of Prof. Higgs’ work and memory.

Below is the letter circulated by Prof. Nicholas Tepstra, Chair of the History Department at the University of Toronto, summarizing David Higgs’ life and scholarly career.

“David Higgs passed away peacefully at Mount Sinai hospital on October 20, 2014.   A long-time member of the Department of History of the University of Toronto, where he once served as graduate coordinator, David was also a fellow of University College and a founding member of the Sexual Diversity Studies programme.

David’s interests were remarkably wide-ranging.  He wrote scholarly articles in English, French and Portuguese. He penned important studies in social history, political history, religious history, queer studies, cultural history, covering an equally breathtaking geographic scope: France, Portugal, Brazil, and Canada.

David was born in Rugby, Britain in 1939.  His family moved to British Columbia when he was young.  He earned his BA jointly in French and History at UBC in 1959.  He obtained an MA in History from Northwestern University in 1960, and went on to complete his PhD under the direction of famed French historian Alfred Cobban at the University of London in 1964.  He later transformed the thesis into an excellent first book, published with Johns Hopkins University Press in 1973:  Ultraroyalism in Toulouse: From its Origins to the Revolution of 1830.

This was 1960-70s history at its best: one discerns the imprint of the Annales, careful, painstaking local research, the unmistakable influence of Cobban on the legacy of the Revolution.   The book examines the founding moment of French ultraconservatism, by investigating the networks and social universe of counterrevolutionaries.  These were not just conservatives in the classic sense of the term: they actively sought to turn back the clock—as David contends, much like Vichy or the OAS would later aspire.  He shows how an idealized return to the past proved impossible even after the royalists returned to power in 1815, their paternalist, ultra-traditionalist values having proven difficult to re-instill in a France marked by the legacy of 1789.

David would take up some of these themes again in his remarkable study: Nobles in nineteenth century France: the Pracitice of Inegalitarianism (Johns Hopkins, 1987), in which he delved into the kinship bonds of the nobility, examining everything from milieu, to property, and transmission of socio-cultural capital.  The book was translated into French, as always to consistently outstanding reviews (Nobles, titrés, aristocrates après la Révolution, 1800-1870).

In between these two connected books, David had turned to other interests, indeed other fields, whose stakes and contours he mastered in record time. In 1976, he produced a book on the Portuguese communities in Canada—translated into French three years later, and co-edited an important comparative volume Church and Society in Catholic Europe of the eighteenth century, with Bill Callahan, published with Cambridge University press in 1979.
David subsequently edited two wide-ranging volumes: Portuguese migration in Global perspective  (Multicultural History Society of Ontario, 1990), another, Queer Sites: Gay Urban Histories since 1600 (Routledge, 1999), in which he authored chapters on Lisbon and Rio de Janeiro.  Here David turned his attention not only to sexual diversity studies, a field on which he taught a path-breaking seminar for the University of Toronto’s History Department starting in 1998, but also to urban spaces: looking at gay sites of leisure, socialization, and sociability.

David retired from the University of Toronto in 2004, but remained an active member of several academic communities, in Portuguese studies and French history, most notably.  His research notes and findings on the Portuguese community in Canada are housed in a special collection at the York University archives.

Until recently, David was still working on several projects. One was tentatively titled: “A Tropical Inquisition: Brazil in the late eighteenth century.”  Another dealt with Enlightenment, Inquisition and the Lisbon Tribunal, and a third was provisionally entitled: “Three Portuguese Portraits from the late eighteenth century.”  He also evoked a sequel to his book on the French nobility, which in his more whimsical moments he would refer to as “Nobs II.”

David’s colleagues, graduate students and friends will remember him for his kindness, good-humour, wit, collegiality and guidance.  He is survived by his partner Kaoru Kamimura. He will be dearly missed.”

5 thoughts on “In Memoriam, Prof. David Higgs (1939-2014)

  1. Thanks be to David Higgs for all he did to the Portuguese and to the study of our communities in Canada.
    A most kind, caring gentleman, from the first time I met him I could only see resemblances between him and my beloved professor and PhD thesis adviser Philip L. Quinn, a great American philosopher of Irish descent.
    Long live their memories.



  2. Professor David Higgs was a good friend since my arrival at the university in 1985. He always showed much interest in talking to me about everything to do with Portugal and the Portuguese communities. We worked together in several projects and became quite close. We always spoke in Portuguese. That was special for David.
    He was generous and with a great sense of humour. I will miss him very much.


  3. A história da emigração portuguesa na época contemporânea deve ao Professor David Higgs muito pelo seu interesse, exploração do tema, orientação de trabalhos e testemunhos da sua cordialidade e sabedoria. Bem haja, estimado Professor, pelo seu legado cinetífico e humano. À sua Universidade, familiares e amigos próximos envio as minhas sentidas condolências. Jorge Arroteia


  4. David Higgs was a kind soul, a consumate scholar and a pioneer in the study of Portuguese-Canadian immigration. Decades ago, I met him through academic contact in this area and he eventually served on my PhD thesis committee. After my graduation, he became an excellent mentor, as well as a dedicated friend, both to me as well as my family. He has left a lasting legacy through his work, the inspiration that he’s given to younger scholars and, ultimately, in the ready friendship that he offered others. I will miss him greatly, as will the field of Lusophone studies.


  5. It is with the deepest sorrow that I’ve learned of Professor Higgs’ passing.
    I was his student more than twenty years ago, at the University of Toronto.
    He was a gifted, exceptional and kind human being, who will never be forgotten!
    Thanks for everything, Professor Higgs!


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