Malcolm Deas (1941-2023): Colombia a “pastime in progress”

Professor Malcolm Deas by Piers Calvert
Professor Malcolm Deas popularized the study of Colombia in his home country, shaping the nation's international perception.

Had it not been for Malcolm Deas, President Alberto Lleras Camargo might not have had an audience during a trip to the University of Oxford. As a graduate student of history, Deas had already stepped foot in Colombia, a nation which for his fellow countrymen and colleagues in academia seemed far “off the map,” and daunting for anyone who took the liberty to travel.

President Lleras Camargo (1958-1962) seemed to break the mold of a South American leader. Here was a man as removed from the caudillos and Generals of the continent, as the halls of Oxford were to the rest of England. He was “impeccably well dressed” and “far more sophisticated than I would ever be,” recalls Professor Deas.

Call it the work of fate or plain wanderlust, but Malcolm Deas in 1963 was meant to come to Colombia. Although his first choice was Mexico, when the graduate with a grant discovered that 20 million visitors headed there every year, he changed direction and boarded a Norwegian cargo ship in New York headed to Panama. The isthmus presented few challenges for the historian and was exactly as he had imagined it. Colombia on the other hand, was an “adventure” that would make for great research.

Despite its many Universities and public libraries, Colombia in the 1960s was a country documented by only a handful of historians. Deas’ research into the origins of conflict, the rise of institutions, the democratic model of Colombia, would not only benefit Oxford, but also shape the way Colombians understood themselves and their place in history.

A pioneer and historian

A serendipitous start, reading books at the Luis Ángel Arango Library led this Fellow of All Souls College to contribute to Oxford’s Latin American holdings and pioneer 19th and 20th century readings of Colombian history. “I wasn’t taught any misleading theories, because there was no one to teach me a misleading theory,” says Deas of his incursion into Colombian academia. “I found it difficult to stop,” claims this professor. “Partly, because I am a creature of habit.”

Artwork by Malcolm Deas photo by Piers Calvert

Little formal research had been done on the history and culture of Colombia until Malcolm Deas brought attention to the Andean nation at Oxford.

Malcolm Deas understates the important role he has played as a historian of Colombia. “Countries are not an easy task,” he says in a living room encased by leather books and curiosities of four decades in his adopted country. Although he travels regularly back to England to see family, Colombia is Malcolm’s great subject. He has witnessed important changes on all fronts, although regrets that Colombia’s image and reputation abroad remains somewhat misunderstood. Partly because, in his words, many visitors only come here once and for a very short period of time, so that “change” is not a dynamic that is easily grasped.

For Deas, one of the important aspects that has changed Colombia during recent decades is that Colombians now “know more about their country” than before. “A lot of people think of countries in a static form. There has been a rapid expansion of the middle class in this country, and an expansion in native expertise.”

Other important changes that Colombia has been subject to are the emancipation of women and the waning of the Catholic Church’s control over people and faith. The sixties made birth control accessible to the overall population and separated the country from others in the region, which were painfully emerging from military dictatorships and a marriage between Catholic doctrine and conservative values.

For a historian, Colombia is history in the making

Colombia has always been “excessively democratic” says Deas, as he recalls how during the official visit by Pope Pius VI in 1968 to Bogotá, the city was enjoying newfound sexual freedoms at a time when liberation theologists were winning over hearts and minds in the countryside.  “The episode of Camilo Torres meant that the Church could never be affiliated with the Conservative party,” remarks Deas of the major turning points of a decade that began as “drab” and ended in color. “I remember a big debate on whether Colombians should own color televisions,” recalls Deas.

Studying the paradigms and changes of  Colombia converted the academic by students of history into a  “Colombianólogo” (Colombia expert) – a word he refers to as “ugly.” As the country progressed, the conflict deteriorated and became an important focus of his work. By founding the Latin American Centre (LAC) at St. Antony College in Oxford, Deas managed to turn the attention of this prestigious institution to a country that before was marked by certain indifference. Although in the 19th century, some intrepid English men had mining interests in Tolima, England tended to study its former colonies in far greater detail than South America. The LAC saw large numbers of graduate students from Colombia interested in writing and researching a country that was sliding ever more quickly into civil war.

Colombia is hardly a failed nation state, although some historians and journalists would have us believe it is, given the intensity of the conflict and the magnitude of the atrocities committed by the guerillas, narco-traffickers, paramilitaries and state security forces. For Deas, the conflict extends back two centuries to the limited economic resources of a young democracy. Essentially an agrarian country whose mineral wealth was dependent on primitive stamp mills and rudimentary coalmines, for Deas, much of FARC and ELN’s motives have come down to securing their place in history. “The chief pride of the guerilla is its own history,” claims Deas. “Manuel Marulanda ‘Tirofijo’ was interested in historical recognition. He wanted to be recognised by the State as the head of an army.”

According to Deas, the very nature of the “vertical” structure of the FARC doesn’t lend itself to debate or forging a lasting peace. Guerillas need to kidnap and extort in order to maintain a resource base. Peace and truces are simply not good for business. One of the important changes recently that this historian has witnessed is the fact that Colombians themselves have understood the importance of security as a constitutional right. “It’s not possible to envisage a peace negotiated with the FARC, because it is not democratically acceptable,” claims Deas. “There are in any democracy limits to what can be offered.”

Bogotá: isolated and insulated

Part of the reality of a security perception depends on Bogotá and its physical location that is higher and increasingly isolated from the rest of the country. As the capital continues to expand, less attention is given to the regions where the conflict continues. This has been historically documented ever since Colombia faced it first test as a new Republic with the Thousand Day’s War (1899-1902) between warring Liberals and Conservatives. This bloody chapter in which Colombia “lost” Panama, was essentially fought far from the capital and halls of power. Except for the popular uprising of the Bogotazo on April 9, 1948, after Jorge Eliécer Gaitán was shot, Bogotá has emerged somewhat unscathed from three centuries of conflict. The capital city, by its very topographical nature, fuels an “us” versus “them” type scenario.

In 1990, Professor Malcolm Deas was asked by President César Gaviria to be “an advisor to his advisors” on the State’s Committee for Security and Defense. Deas worked to design policies to reduce Colombia’s high levels of violence and for which he was awarded the country’s highest honor, the Cruz de Boyacá and from his native country, the Order of the British Empire – O.B.E.

Professor Malcolm Deas by Piers Calvert
Professor Malcolm Deas on the history of Colombia

During the Gaviria years, Deas got to see first hand how members of the National Police were being targeted for a fee by Pablo Escobar’s motorized hitmen, the sicarios. He ventured into Medellín’s communes to understand another conflict –this time urban – and whose fast-growing resource base, cocaine, was destroying the social fabric of the city. Deas became frustrated by the notion that “nothing could be done” to stop the violence.

Colombia had to break with fatalism and theories that it was “condemned” because it joined the ranks of poor and undeveloped countries. The narco-conflict brought out a national trait which became a focus of his work. Colombia is a country reluctant “to pay the bill” – always looking outside its borders for financial aid and international assistance, remarks Deas with British droll.  “What are the Swedes offering this week? More Dialogue?”

Despite the steady “drip drip” of violence, Professor Deas was not deterred to leave Colombia nor relent on his research into conflict. Instead, he sought practical solutions so that President Gaviria could modernize the police force and army. He wasn’t obsessed by  looking for the “objective causes” of violence, but rather offering his outsider’s advice on how to solve it. “Most Colombians hate violence. There are plenty of studies that show this,” remarks the historian.

After the Gaviria years, Professor Deas continued to be called upon by Colombian Presidents for advice on how to explain the complexities of violence. All of this while lecturing at Oxford and expanding the historical collections of the Bodlein Library. He contributed to prestigious publications such as The New Statesman, The Spectator, The London Review of Books and The Times.

With an Honorary Doctorate from the Universidad de los Andes, Professor Deas has also written three books on Colombian history: ‘Del poder y la gramática’ (2006), ‘Vida y opiniones de Mr William Wills’ (1996), and  ‘Intercambios violentos: Reflexiones sobre la violencia política en Colombia’ (1999). He recently curated an exhibition by the Banco de la República on the history of Colombia through photography, titled: ‘Historia de Colombia a través de la Fotografía 1842-2010.’

Colombia: A visual memory

Another area of interest to Malcolm Deas is documenting Colombia’s visual memory. From examining private collections to the illustrations of 19th century Colombia by English mining maverick Joseph Brown, Deas leaves no family portrait or selenium tinted postcard unturned. He has recovered from historical obscurity the photography of Thomas Whiffen’s Witoto in the Putumayo as well as rare works by the photo reporters at the short-lived newspaper, El Gráfico.

Artwork by Malcolm Deas photo by Piers Calvert

Deas’ watercolors and sketches provide a uniquely illustrated counterpoint to his lifelong research.

While previous generations “never bothered” about photography, Deas believes it reveals a lot about this country – that when it did turn the lens on itself, it tended to capture upper class civility rather than landscapes or common people. In other words, the “who” rather than the “where.” His exhibition at the Art Museum of the Banco de la República marks a departure from traditional representations of Colombian daily life, as many of his subjects are campesinos immersed in vignettes of violence.

From photography to canvas, Deas, who edited with Efraín Sánchez and Aida Martínez a collection of watercolours of Colombia in the 1820s and 1830s entitled ‘Tipos y costumbres de la Nueva Granada’ (1989), has himself begun painting his Colombia. In a black diary, the Professor shows me his ‘View of Honda’ as well as a small watercolor of President Uribe – the “great communicator” – captured while giving a speech at a communal gathering in San Vicente de Chucurí, Santander.

Having recently retired from Oxford, Malcolm Deas plans to continue in Colombia and to “scribble, scribble, scribble” – words borrowed from the founding father of the Republic, Francisco José de Paula Santander (1792-1840) and one of Malcolm’s life long subjects of research. But he may also “sketch, sketch, sketch” as Colombia, for this historian, is a pastime in progress.

Editor’s note: Malcolm Deas passed away on July 29, 2023, at age 82.


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