T. Bentley Duncan, historian and Latin American Studies center director, 1929-2015

Thomas Bentley Duncan drew upon his native Brazil often throughout his 30-plus-year scholarly career as a historian of Latin America and colonial Portugal.  

Duncan, AM’61, PhD’67, became the first director of the University’s Center for Latin American Studies in 1968. He directed the master’s program in Latin American Studies for many years, with students making careers in the United States and Brazil.

An associate professor emeritus, Duncan died Feb. 24 at the age of 85.

“He grew up at a time when rural Brazil seemed archaic,” said Dain Borges, associate professor of history. “Towns in his region gave European historians like Fernand Braudel the sense that they were glimpsing the ways of life of medieval or early modern artisan trades. Perhaps that is why he gravitated to the study of Portugal’s key position in 17th-century Atlantic trades.”

Duncan built the fields of Latin American and African studies as well as Luso-Brazilian studies (Portuguese-Brazilian), authoring such books as Atlantic Islands (1972) and Uneasy Allies: Anglo-Portugese Relations (2001).

“His research on the Portuguese Atlantic islands demonstrated that, at the moment when Atlantic trades exploded, tiny islands situated in strategic places were pivotal. Madeira fed England’s taste for sweet wines, the Azores were a crucial watering station for cargo ships, immigrant ships and whaling vessels, and Cape Verde was an entrepot of the slave trade,” noted Borges. “Duncan and other historians of his generation demonstrated that the growth of the world economy could not have happened without these islands.”

Walter Kaegi, professor of Byzantine history, who joined the UChicago history faculty in 1965 along with Duncan, remembered him as “very learned, an assiduous researcher in Portuguese archives in Lisbon. He knew much about Brazil.”

Born Aug. 9, 1929, Duncan was raised in Juazeiro, Bahia, and São Paulo, Brazil. In 1952 he received a bachelor’s degree from the College of Wooster in Ohio. He returned to Brazil to teach in one of the first universities in Bahia before coming to the University of Chicago to earn a master’s degree in 1961 and a PhD in 1967. While a graduate student, he worked at the Harper Library and then the Joseph Regenstein Library.

Kaegi also said that Duncan was “a regular and stalwart devotee of the Round Table at the Quadrangle Club until his retirement in 1996.”

According to his obituary, Bentley met and married his wife Eva at the University of Chicago. They were married for 49 years until her death in December 2014. A memorial service celebrating the lives of both Bentley and Eva Duncan has been held.