Tribute to Malcolm Deas 1941-2023

The College community is deeply saddened to hear that our much-loved and respected colleague, Malcolm Deas, passed away peacefully at his home in North Oxford on 29 July at the age of 82.

Professor Roger Goodman remembers him in this tribute:

Malcolm graduated in 1962 with a First in Modern History from New College where Raymond Carr was his tutor. He was a Prize Fellow at All Souls between 1962-66. In 1966, at the age of 25, he was appointed as the University Lecturer in the Government and Politics of Latin America together with a Fellowship at St Antony’s. He was a Fellow of the College until his retirement in 2008 and an Emeritus Fellow ever since. He was one of the original staff at the Latin American Centre (LAC), founded by the then-Warden, Raymond Carr. He was Director of the LAC several times and, among many other contributions, he was key in building the University’s Latin American collections which are today among the strongest in Europe. 

Malcolm’s research was chiefly on the nineteenth and twentieth-century history of Colombia, where he first spent two years in 1964 and 1965. He was regarded as a pioneer of Colombian historiography, not just in the Global North – his work was highly esteemed in Colombia itself for his original contributions on a wide range of topics, including fiscal and agrarian history, the history of civil wars, elections and photography.  He leaves behind a prolific academic legacy: a recent bibliography lists over 130 titles, including his book Intercambios violentos, his collections of essays Del poder y la gramática (2019), and two major biographies Vida y opiniones de Mr William Wills (2 volumes, 1996) and Barco (2019).  

Malcolm also worked on the history of Argentina, Ecuador and Venezuela and was made a member of the Order of Andrés Bello (Venezuela) and the Orden de Mérito (Ecuador), as well as receiving an Honorary Doctorate from the Universidad de los AndesBogotá. Just last year, he also received an Honorary Doctorate from the Universidad del Norte in Barranquilla (Colombia) and was elected a member of the Venezuelan Academy of History. He served for a decade as Managing Editor of the Cambridge University Press monographs on Latin America. 

As well as his many academic works, Malcolm wrote for more popular publications such as The New StatesmanThe ListenerThe Spectator and The London Review of Books. He also wrote some leaders related to Latin America for The Times.

During the early 1990s, Malcolm was an advisor to President Cesar Gaviria helping to design policies to reduce the high levels of violence in the country. For this work, he was awarded Colombia’s highest honour, the Cruz de Boyacá, as well as an OBE from the Queen. In 2008, he was made a citizen of Colombia.

In his 42 years as a Fellow of St Antony’s, Malcolm in many ways came to define the College. He served on and chaired many of its main committees. He was always an extremely active member in debates and was never afraid to challenge the accepted orthodoxy. The high regard in which he was held by his colleagues was exemplified by the Governing Body electing him to serve as Senior Proctor for 1987-88, a position which he both greatly enjoyed and in which he excelled. One of his more unusual roles while Senior Proctor was the very rare responsibility to oversee the election of a new Chancellor to succeed Harold Macmillan. (There were only three Chancellor elections in the whole of Malcolm’s lifetime.) This was a very hard-fought election with the vote split in three directions (Lord Blake, Ted Heath and Roy Jenkins); Malcolm not only had to inform the successful candidate (Jenkins) of the result but also the unsuccessful ones, including Heath.

Malcolm was much in demand as a supervisor and a tutor. In total, he had almost 60 doctoral supervisees. The high regard in which they and his other tutees held him was clearly demonstrated by their establishment, on his retirement, of the Malcolm Deas Fund which today awards a wide range of grants to support lectures, workshops, fieldwork and conferences to enhance the intellectual life of the LAC. 

None of the above can hope to capture Malcolm’s inimitable personality. He had an extraordinary range of intellectual interests as well as strong (and often heterodox) views on an even wider wide range of topics. Once he had got going on a subject, he could quickly become passionate about expressing his views, always supported with a copious amount of historical, sociological, statistical data and often a wicked sense of humour. Although Malcolm’s health was not good in recent times, he was happily able to maintain his love of debate and conversation until his last few days. For those who would like to be reminded of Malcolm in full flow, there is a wonderful recent YouTube interview available: Malcolm Deas: ‘Álvaro Uribe saved Colombia from civil war’ – YouTube  

It will be hard to imagine St Antony’s without thinking of Malcolm. He was a generous colleague who cared greatly about the college community – fellows, students and staff. He will be greatly missed.

Funeral details will be circulated as soon as they are available. In the meanwhile, the College Flag will be flown at half-mast in memory of Malcolm and all that he contributed to St Antony’s.

Where next?