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.”
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 remains Malcolm’s great subject. He has witnessed important changes on all fronts, although he 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, 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.