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Open Seminar book

Image: Signing-in book for the CLAS Open Seminar, 1968

The Centre in the Early Years: Rory Miller, PhD student at Cambridge, 1970 -1973

Reader in International Business History, University of Liverpool

At the time I was in Cambridge as a PhD student (1970-73) there were five ‘Parry’ centres in Britain, as well as Essex, which was also developing a strong interest in Latin American studies, especially in political science and sociology. Cambridge had been quite strong in Latin American Studies in the early 1960s in terms of the number of staff involved from different colleges and different faculties. Disciplines ranged from archaeology to (possibly) zoology but the core was in Spanish, History, Geography and Economics. This was in the days before an SPS degree was introduced, so it was much weaker in sociology and politics than it became later on. There was therefore quite a strong core of Latin Americanists here in the early 1960s; I think that when the Parry Committee visited Cambridge in 1963/64 they talked to around 13 people who all had interests in Latin American studies from different perspectives. Three mid-career scholars at Cambridge were heavily involved in a London Committee for Latin American Studies, which became the Society for Latin American Studies (SLAS) in 1964. They were Jack Street, who was a joint appointment between Modern and Mediaeval Languages and History and was here until the late 60s/early 70s (Street was a member of the Parry Committee); Clifford Smith, who was a geographer from St. John’s (Clifford later moved at the end of the 1960s to become Director of the Centre for Latin American Studies in Liverpool, where I was appointed in 1973); and David Joslin, who was an economic historian and who had been commissioned in the late 1950s to write the history of the Bank of London and South America (BOLSA), which was then one of the largest British businesses in Latin America.  Joslin became fascinated with the economic history of the region, while Clifford Smith, a historical geographer, got interested through a UNESCO grant that allowed him to spend a year doing research in Peru. These three – Street, Joslin and Smith – were probably the driving forces at the time the Parry Committee came to Cambridge in the early to mid 1960s.

The other important element in the 1960s was that Cambridge University Press also became very interested in Latin American Studies. That was the point at which Cambridge University Press was beginning to establish area studies journals (Modern Asian Studies; Journal of African History). As of 1964/65, CUP was already talking about a ‘Journal of Latin American Studies’  It eventually began publication in 1969. Jack Street had been one of the primary interlocutors with CUP over this. David Joslin was one of the first two editors when the first issue was published in 1969, but he died suddenly the following year. After that, he was succeeded by Clifford Smith, who was then just about to move to Liverpool. So there was always a very strong Cambridge imprint on the Journal of Latin American Studies, not only because it was published by CUP, but also because Cambridge academics were strongly involved in it right the way through to the end of the 1970s. The connection certainly gave Cambridge a position of influence in the early stages.  At least two of the more recent Editors of the Journal of Latin American Studies have been Cambridge graduates, Gareth Jones and me.  Cambridge University Press also started publishing its Latin American monographs series in 1967 with David Joslin and Jack Street as the editors; the early books it published included revised versions of Cambridge PhD theses by Simon Collier, Peter Calvert, Brian Hamnett and Peter Bakewell.

The Parry Committee had been set up in 1962, with the initiative coming primarily from the Foreign Office and R.A. Humphreys, who was Professor of Latin American History at University College, London. The Foreign Office was essentially concerned about British business and the decline of British trade in Latin America, as well as the lack of academic research on the region in Britain. That was the impetus for the Parry Committee, and it chose the model of multi-disciplinary area studies centres concentrating on postgraduate studies and research, which had recently been set up in certain British universities for African and for Japanese studies. The Parry Committee probably visited about 15 different universities that had expressed an interest in hosting a Centre of Latin American Studies, before deciding on five (London, Cambridge, Oxford, Liverpool and Glasgow). The Committee was also very concerned about library resources on Latin America, which were rather thin in the UK at the time. That was another advantage that Cambridge had, because as a copyright library it received everything published in the UK on Latin American studies, and it had also bought and received donations of books in the 1930s and 1940s. This was almost certainly an important factor in the establishment of a centre in Cambridge, along with the core of academics that I have mentioned.

The Parry Committee was extremely concerned about the lack of qualified staff in the UK who could research and teach on Latin America at postgraduate level. Several PhD graduates were being poached by universities in the United States, which were building up Latin American studies there in the 1960s. The Committee wanted the Centres to build up staff resources, and you could argue that they certainly did that – there are probably 500 people across the UK teaching Latin American studies now. Ten ‘Parry’ awards a year were created specifically for PhD research in Latin American studies, and social scientists could also apply for SSRC [Social Science Research Council] grants. ‘Parry’ awards included money for travel, an important consideration at the time.  Quite a few Cambridge students obtained these grants, including David Rock in 1967 and me in 1970 (and I think Robert Howes as well). The Parry Committee hoped to create Centres that would be self-sustaining by the mid- to late-1970s, with a whole cohort ready to teach on Latin America. It was quite a vision.

All the Centres of Latin American Studies started at roughly the same time, around 1965-66. The one that was best financed was the London Institute for Latin American Studies, which also acted as the National Information Centre, collating all the information on who was doing research in which areas, who was teaching on Latin American subjects in UK universities, and what books and journals libraries were purchasing.

By the end of 1970, the three figures who had driven the study of Latin America in Cambridge during the 1960s – Jack Street, David Joslin and Clifford Smith – had all gone. David Joslin died very suddenly from a heart attack in autumn 1970; Jack Street became ill and was no longer very active by the time I started my PhD; Clifford Smith moved to Liverpool as Director of the Centre there. So the initial dynamism that was there in the mid 1960s had begun to dissipate by the time I became a PhD student in 1970.

The new Director, Christopher Platt, who had arrived in Cambridge from Exeter at the beginning of 1969, virtually had to rebuild the Centre. He obtained an SSRC research grant for a project on British business and ‘informal’ imperialism in Latin America that allowed the appointment of Robert Greenhill as a postdoc and Charles Jones as a PhD student; I would never have gone into Latin American history without his support. He certainly encouraged a lot of research activity on Latin America in 1971-72 before he left to become Professor of Latin American History at Oxford, organizing the weekly seminar series himself and encouraging the Research Fellows in the Centre to organize conferences. Certainly at the time that I was a PhD student here there were two very successful ones. The first was the one that David Rock organized on Argentina in the Twentieth Century. David edited the book that came out of that; it also involved Walter Little, who was a PhD student of Jack Street’s at Cambridge in the late 1960s and later a colleague of mine in the Liverpool Centre. The second was the one in 1972 that gave rise to Ken Duncan and Ian Rutledge’s edited book on Land and Labour in Latin America. That was a hugely successful conference and that book was extremely influential in the 1970s and 1980s.

The Centre wasn’t really much like a department at the time. There was a physical presence, two or three offices at the top of the History Faculty building. Even when Christopher Platt was Director, the seminars weren’t even held there – they took place in his rooms in Queens’. I have a mental image of the seminars. Christopher’s then wife was an interior designer and this was the era of Habitat: Christopher’s rooms had very modern furniture, very modern lighting and a cord carpet. He used to sit the speaker, whoever it was, in an easy chair in the corner under a light. A few complained that it felt like being interrogated by the Gestapo when we got to questions, but essentially it was a very relaxed sort of atmosphere because people were sitting in very comfortable chairs. It wasn’t like sitting around a table or in rows in front of a lectern and listening to someone lecture to you. It was much more informal and intimate.

It was all rather informal in those days. As a PhD student you didn’t have classes, as you would now, and there was no Master’s degree, so you wouldn’t necessarily know the other postgraduate students who were working on Latin America. David Rock and Walter Little both started PhDs in 1966 or 1967, I think. David was working on the Radicals in Argentina in the early twentieth century and Walter was working on Peronism. They both had the same supervisor, yet one of them, probably Walter, told me that the first time they really knew of each other’s existence was when they met playing cricket in Buenos Aires. They were in different colleges so there was no reason for their paths to cross. You certainly can’t imagine that happening fifty years later. In pre-internet days, it was all about personal networks, which overlapped in different ways. The whole academic infrastructure has changed so much since then.

When Latin American studies started in the UK, it was mainly history and literature with a bit of geography, at the time when geography was regional geography rather than systematic geography. Development economics was just getting under way in the 1960s and one of the things that you continually read in the Parry Committee minutes on their visits to different universities was that Latin America was of key interest to economists then because of inflation of the kind experienced in Argentina or Chile or Brazil in the 1950s and early 1960s.  At the time of Parry, there were barely one or two anthropologists in the whole country with any interest in Latin America (most anthropologists were oriented towards research in Commonwealth territories), no specialists in any indigenous language at all, very little archaeology and a bit of sociology, but not very much. My impression is that Cambridge had very few researchers in sociology and contemporary politics in Latin America until the Social and Political Sciences degree was established.

The Centres were set up with five-year planning cycles and assured a certain level of funding for the first five years; the level of funding would then depend on what had been achieved to date. The Cambridge Centre lost University Grants Committee funding from 1971 onwards because it had not set up the taught Master’s course expected by the Parry Committee. It is difficult to know why, because the three key players are no longer alive. But there was clearly a lack of impetus at that key point; the impetus picked up later, but by then the funding was probably much more limited.

The Centre certainly had a bumpy ride in the first few years, with momentum being lost as Directors moved on (Brian van Arkadie, who was not really a Latin Americanist, replaced Platt in 1972), but then the appointment of David Brading and David Lehmann meant more sustained activity and continuity from the mid-1970s. One of the major strengths of CLAS, in my view, has been the number of research fellows who have started their careers here over the decades, who have helped to give the place a real dynamism.