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Kenneth McPherson, 1944-2010 April 3, 2010

Posted by katesullivan in : India, Stoddart, Brian , trackback

Brian Stoddart

Kenneth McPherson, whose death has occurred in Perth, was destined to write about both India and the sea, and in doing so became an eminent historian of India’s Muslim communities and an internationally acknowledged authority on the peoples and cultures of the Indian Ocean.

Ken McPherson was born in Liverpool and first came to Fremantle with his parents, Joan and Ian, in 1948.  Ian McPherson returned to the United Kingdom and the sea soon after.  Following a socially tough but academically outstanding education at Christian Brothers College in Fremantle, where he was School Captain in 1961, Ken won a Commonwealth Scholarship to the University of Western Australia and began, unsuccessfully, in science before taking a major in history, beginning the specialization on Asia that set his career.  His UWA Honours thesis was on Chinese history, while his Masters tracked the political history of the Madras Muslims, so placing him among the first modern Australian scholars to research Islam deeply and seriously.   He then won a scholarship to the Australian National University in Canberra where a similar study of Calcutta Muslims, directed in part by Ravinder Kumar, earned him the PhD.

A Humboldt Fellowship took him to the University of Heidelberg in Germany where the PhD thesis became a monograph entitled The Muslim Microcosm: Calcutta From 1918 to 1935 and appeared in 1974, and while there he also began the work on the Indian Ocean that became his main focus for many years.

His family background stimulated these intellectual interests.  Joan McPherson was originally a Nichol, and her family had a long history of being soldiers or service personnel in India stretching back to the eighteenth century.  Ken’s grandfather and great grandfather on that side rose to senior military officer ranks.  Ken’s father was a senior steward on passenger ships who travelled the world from the mid-1930s touching ports like Bombay, Sydney, Rio, Capetown and innumerable places elsewhere.  These twin impulses drove Ken’s studies and his global interests, and he began travelling with his mother at age 12 saw Spain, Italy, France, the UK and Monaco where he had an aunt.

After Heidelberg Ken McPherson returned to Perth on the promise of a post that did not eventuate but tutored in the History department at UWA before moving in 1976 to the School of Social Sciences at the WA Institute of Technology, later Curtin University, where he taught survey courses on Asia and the Middle East, and began the first of his programs on the Indian Ocean.

He was a key player in the Indian Ocean festivals that began in Perth in 1979 bringing together academics, artists, musicians and a range of other people with regional interests.  Thus prompted he formed the Indian Ocean Centre for Peace Studies that later became the Indian Ocean Centre, attracting financial support from state and federal governments and from research funding agencies.  Based largely at Curtin, the Centre served as both a research and a policy agency and reached deep into governments around the region.  Ken was a formal adviser on Indian Ocean regional policy for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Canberra, and active around the region on matters such as the emerging Indian Ocean security issues that are now still so current.  Among other things the Centre helped maintain an Australian research interest in India during a period where work in other universities began to decline.  His 1991 edited collection India: Prospects For The Future now seems remarkably prophetic, for example.

That work led directly to his being appointed as a founder member of the Australia-India Council on which he served from 1992 until 2002, helping provide the platform from which the important India-Australia relationship is now being developed.  He served in similar professional capacities on the editorial boards for journals like South Asia, and at the time he took ill early in 2009 was serving as President of the Australian Association for Maritime History.  Ken McPherson was also a key member of the South Asia Research Unit established at Curtin during the 1990s by John McGuire and boosted further when Peter Reeves shifted there from UWA.

Ken’s 1993 book, The Indian Ocean: a History of People and the Sea was an important one, attracting widely favourable reviews for its encapsulation of the history and issues of the Indian Ocean.  The book was later re-published because of strong demand, then later still issued as an omnibus edition of Indian Ocean “classics” alongside the work of Sinnapah Arasaratnam and Holden Furber.   A regular reviewer for journals all over the world, Ken also contributed learned and insightful articles to those journals across a wide range of issues relevant to the Indian Ocean and to Islam.  His last published review appeared in the September 2009 edition of The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology.

Closed unexpectedly and unwisely by Curtin University in 2002, the Indian Ocean Centre’s extremely high international standing allowed Ken McPherson to relocate it to Heidelburg University where he became a Mercator Professor and spent several months a year.  He was appointed to a similar visiting post at Halle University, and would have been permanently in Germany but for his commitment to supporting his mother Joan who had done so much to support him throughout his career.  Anyone who met Ken also met Joan to be impressed by her strength, charm and support for her son. Ken later became an Adjunct Professor at La Trobe University.

Ken McPherson was extremely widely read, even for an academic and that made him an excellent commentator and analyst as well as critic and advisor.  He was also an avid collector with, among other things, his elephant collection both amusing and puzzling his friends.  His eye for antiques, art, maps and Anglo-Indian silver was excellent, and towards the end of his life began to be trained on Straits Chinese porcelain as well.  It is fitting that many of the artifacts he collected relating to the Indian Ocean have now been donated in his name to the Maritime Museum in Fremantle of which he was an avid supporter and Honorary Associate, while his library will be similarly housed at Murdoch University in support of its Asia Research Unit where he was an Honorary Fellow most recently.

Ken died on 29 March aged just 65, having a few months earlier been hospitalized with a serious illness.  At the moment he died he was aware that his last book, “How Best Do We Survive?”: a Modern Political History of the Tamil Muslims, was being printed in Delhi, a fitting closure to his academic journey.   Ken McPherson will be remembered fondly by all who knew him as a great conversationalist, traveller, intellect, collector and, above all, learned friend from whom so much could always be learned.


1. Kate Sullivan - April 4, 2010

Thank you, Brian, for this tribute to one of the most lively and thoughtful India scholars Australia, and the wider South Asia scholarly community, has had the privilege to know and learn from. To those of us who knew Ken at Heidelberg, he will also be remembered as an inspiring and energising teacher, with students flocking to his courses and discussions spilling out into the corridors. Only Ken could generate the kind of creative atmosphere in a Heidelberg seminar series that had students participating in role plays with false beards.

It’s wonderful to know that there is one more instalment of his work waiting in the wings, through which we may remember him.

2. Stuart McPherson - April 8, 2010

I was truly saddened by the death of my dear cousin Kenneth, and had been corresponding with him regularly until his illness last year.
Having worked and travelled throughout the Middle East, and South East Asia for over 10 years, we had quite some illuminating stories to swap in our face to face and on-line meetings.
I was challenged by the family to trace our family history, starting almost thirty years ago, and this was of great interest to Kenneth, especially our travelling ancestors who brought our family name down to Liverpool from Paisley, Renfrew, Scotland in around 1850.
The history currently goes back to 1674 and I’m trying to find further family in my research. I had promised Kenneth an up to date family chart which I have just recently finished.
I and the family here in the U.K. are extremely proud to have had Kenneth as a fond relative, and we shall surely miss corresponding and visiting him and Joan in Perth. (We had planned to visit in September this year).
Stuart McPherson
1st Cousin
P.S. My only regret is that I didn’t get to know of his funeral.

3. Carole Castel - April 13, 2010

Kenneth Mcpherson was a dear friend of ours (and our children) for fourty years, his Aunt Gladys asked if her nephew could come and stay with us when we lived in London and that is how our friendship started.He visited us in all our homes in Belgium, France and Sydney.
I will miss him so much, his letters were hilarious and often made me cry with laughter as were his emails.
It is just so sad that he died so young.
It is my regret too that I did not get to know of his funeral or infact of his illness, I thought his unusal silence was that he was in India again.
My dear Kenneth our family will all miss you.
Carole Castel

4. Clemens Spiess - April 20, 2010

I just learned from Ken’s premature death and I am truly saddened by the loss of a friend and outstanding scholar. I got to know Ken while he was visiting professor at Heidelberg University’s South Asia Institute. I fondly remember our countless discussions over a cigarette in my office (in those days smoking was stille allowed in public buildings!), his help in reviewing my PhD thesis and our last meeting at the Hotel Imperial in Delhi.

Cheers Ken!

5. David Kalivas - April 20, 2010

I found Prof. McPherson’s work on the worlds of the Indian Ocean inspiring — very sorry to learn of his untimely passing.

6. patricia putt (nicoll) - August 2, 2011

I am Kenneths Aunty Pat.

Joan was my half sister .
In Kenneths young years age two and half he lived with our family IN Ealing London England untill he went to Australia 1948.
His grandfather my father died when he was on the ship on the way to perth.
Kenneth loved his grandfather when he came to London our conversation was allways about my father his granddad.
I and all my family there are a lot of them his cousins 1st 2nd will miss him.
I most of all he would pop up unexpected it was geart.
My mother loved him he did come to her funaral and helped me with my speach.
If i had know about how ill the pair of them was I would have gone to austraila to be with them.
Life is full of what ifs.
Do miss them love them all ways.

7. patricia putt (nicoll) - August 2, 2011

please excuse spelling no way as cleaver as kenneth

8. Joseph Christensen - May 18, 2013

Dear Brian,

Thankyou for this tribute. I miss Ken still and am glad that his legacy has been honoured.

9. liz Miles - November 11, 2013

Hello Brian, I am the grandmother of Jodie Nicoll who is a second cousin to Ken. I spoke to Ken several times on the telephone – he made me laugh, he made me cry with stories of the Nicoll family and kindly sent me lots of information. It seems appropriate that on Remembrance Sunday I should write to you. We spoke about the love so many of the Nicoll’s had for horses and he would be so proud to see Jodie, now 12 years, riding her Connemara Horse as though she’s been born on his back. I spent time with Aunt Nick in France and we were great friends. I know that Jo, Joan’s brother had two daughters, who were sadly left without parents at a very young age and boarded at a Convent School in Teignmouth, Devon. Who is Patricia Nicoll? There is so much information I would love to gather for Jodie before we all join Ken and there is nobody to tell her. I hope you can help and I thank you for the beautiful tribute to Ken. Liz (ex Nicoll) Miles