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Michael P Costeloe, 1939-2011

Emeritus Professor Michael Costeloe

Emeritus Professor Michael Costeloe

19 September 2011

Emeritus Professor Michael Costeloe died peacefully at home, with his family by his side, on 24 August. Colleagues and former students pay tribute to a supportive colleague, an inspiring teacher, a fine scholar, and a warm and generous friend.

Michael Costeloe was a member of the academic community of the University of Bristol for over 45 years. He joined the Department of Hispanic Studies (now Hispanic, Portuguese and Latin American Studies) as Assistant Lecturer in 1965. A prolific and outstanding historian, he became a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society in 1976, and Professor and Head of Department in 1981 (the latter a role he fulfilled until 1993 when he became Dean of the Faculty of Arts). Michael retired in 1998, but he remained actively involved in research, adding several books and articles to his already substantial output, until his sad death from pancreatic cancer on 24 August.

Michael was a renowned and respected scholar in the field of 19th-century Mexican Studies. ‘An indefatigable researcher, incredibly meticulous, astoundingly thorough’, as Will Fowler (former student and now Professor of Latin American History at the University of St Andrews) recalls, he ‘almost single-handedly rescued Mexico’s early national period from oblivion and forced the historiography to rethink the nature of British involvement in Mexico in the 19th century’.

Colleagues and former students will remember Michael not only for the eight monographs and countless articles that changed the historiography on 19th-century Mexico, but for the infectiousness of his enthusiasm, for the curiosity that drove him to travel far and wide chasing every possible new lead – often in the most unlikely of places – and for his remarkable ability to find an interesting story in the most serious scholarship, and to tell it in an engaging and – and often humorous – way. It was his skill as a storyteller and his ability to convey the sheer pleasure of history as a subject that first impressed the generations of students whom he taught. It was, though, the quality of his work that drew so many to share his love of scholarship and pursue original research of their own.

As Head of Department virtually throughout the 1980s, he had to defend the interests of Hispanic, Portuguese and Latin American Studies during very challenging times nationally when the subject was under threat, and when the first research assessment exercises were held. He did so with great skill, and in fact led his Department to a very high score in the second such exercise. It was under his aegis that the Department hosted a number of visiting fellowships, and that the HiPLA Occasional Papers Series was started, endowing the Department with a publishing operation that was to continue for many years. As Head of Department, and later as Dean, he managed to combine administrative efficiency, fairness and good humour in equal measure. 

Michael will also be remembered as a warm and amiable teacher, colleague, and friend. Chris Harris, former student and now Head of Hispanic Studies at Liverpool University, summed him up in these words: ‘He could lead, inspire and guide with a few choice words delivered in a short space of time with a smile, a good sense of humour and a warmth that were characteristic’. Those of us who had the privilege of working with him – current staff, retired staff – will miss most his generosity, sound advice, and his inimitable way of telling a story, not just about people in the past but also in the present, about the famous and the less famous.