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Spate, Oskar Hermann Khristian (1911–2000)

by Peter J. Rimmer

Professor Oskar Spate saw his report, The Fijian People, written in 1959 for Her Majesty's Government in London as one of his crowning achievements. When the Foundation Professor of Geography in the Research School of Pacific Studies, and later its Director, passed away on 29 May 2000 aged 89 years he was not aware that Fiji was once again in crisis — this time led, ironically, by a near-namesake. If the government had followed Oskar's prescriptions more faithfully perhaps Fiji's recurrent upheavals could have been averted. His one-man inquiry into the economic problems of the Fijian people was to enable them to better hold their own with the Indians who had been brought to Fiji as indentured labourers. Oskar thought then—and subsequently maintained since—that what really held the people back was not a lack of energy or innate intelligence but an antiquated hierarchical system. Oskar thought the system, alluding to the Romans, was not designed to stop the plebeians doing glorious deeds but to make sure nobody could do glorious deeds. Indeed, as he often said, if he were to be remembered at all he would like it to be as a footnote to Fijian history.

Oskar Spate was well equipped to offer expert advice. When he came to The Australian National University in 1951 he was already a seasoned academic. He had obtained a First (English and Geography) at Cambridge and completed his PhD there in 1937 on the Historical Geography of London, 1801-1851 (sadly never published).

While at Cambridge he was deeply involved in left-wing student politics and after graduating he was dispatched by his professor to become a lecturer at the University of Rangoon — ideally to transmogrify as a Tory, a fate he studiously avoided. His perceptive pieces on colonial Burma and his meticulous maps of Rangoon's urban morphology are the work of a classical geographer. In 1941, Oskar was badly wounded in the first Japanese air raid on Rangoon airport. He was evacuated, still very ill, to convalesce in India and was very fortunate to recover. Later his illiberal education continued as a military censor and part-time irreverent poet. By then he had learnt that you do not have to be solemn to be serious. In 1944, Oskar moved to the Inter-Service Topographical Department, Southeast Asian Command, in New Delhi where, appropriately enough, he was Major in charge of the Burma Section. Subsequently, the Section was moved to Kandy in Ceylon.

In 1947, he returned to England and took up an assistant lectureship at Bedford College for Women at London University. His stay was short-lived as the London School of Economics offered him a full lectureship. Oskar's war years were not wasted as he conceived a book on India and, while this book was in gestation, he was invited to serve on the Punjab Boundary Commission in 1947. This provided the stimulus for jointly editing and contributing to The Changing Map of Asia — an excellent treatise in political geography. Meanwhile his book on India and Pakistan had blossomed from 150,000 words in 18 months, to 360,000 words in six years.

Following his arrival in Canberra, his writings as a geographer, essayist and critic flowered profusely and the Department of Geography in the Research School of Pacific Studies flourished. India and Pakistan was published in 1954 and later translated into Russian. This magisterial work was awarded the Prix Charles Garnier of the Society de Geographie of Paris and the Jawaharlal Nehru Medal of the National Geographical Society of India.

In 1965, Oskar's entertaining collection of partly geographical essays, Let Me Enjoy, was well received and a perceptive study of Australia followed in 1968. These books and scholarly papers are models of literate presentation, laced with wit, felicitous phrases and apt quotations or allusions. Oskar's mind was seen to be at once philosophical and imaginative but sharply analytical and precise. He wrote as clearly as he thought. A rough draft and a single retype were all that was necessary.

Oskar Spate's innate ability to get to the nub of any matter brought invitations to advise the Commonwealth Government. Sir Paul Hasluck, then Minister for External Territories, recognised his undoubted qualities as an expert. In the early 1950s he participated in an inquiry into the development of Papua New Guinea. This was seen as his apprenticeship for undertaking his inquiry into Fiji. Later he was to serve as a member of the Currie Committee, which led to the establishment of the University of Papua New Guinea. He thought the University was a gamble—but a good gamble—and he was able to add it to his growing list of crowning achievements together with his role in the founding of the University of the South Pacific.

By the early 1960s Oskar was looking for a career change. Until then he had kept up with trends in geography. He was credited with inventing "probabilism" to short-circuit the interminable philosophical wrangle in geography on determinism versus possibilism. With the swing towards quantification he felt that geography was leaving him — a man without mathematical training — and the time was ripe to depart. He had fulfilled his department's original mission of supplying staff from the crop of fine postgraduates to new and expanding geography departments in Australia and the Pacific.

The School Director's position came at the right time so that he could bow out at an opportune moment. He reckoned that he had done a lot of useful work in geography but there were no great achievements. This was a modest understatement as evidenced by the testimonies of colleagues and former students in his festschrift, Of Time and Place. There was also the Charles P. Daly Gold Medal from the American Geographical Society and the Victoria Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society, London, to substantiate their claims.

Oskar was Director of the School of Pacific Studies between 1967 and 1972, when his original department was divided into Human Geography, and Biogeography and Geomorphology. During these halcyon days he guided the School unerringly towards deepening our knowledge of the Pacific and Southeast Asia. Then Oskar took up a position in the Department of Pacific History where he embarked on writing the history of the Pacific but not, as he stressed, of the Pacific peoples. Admittedly Eurocentric in conception, this study was sufficiently embracive to cover the period between 1520 and 1850 and to include California, Chile and Peru. Over the next 15 years (long after his retirement) he produced three volumes of the Pacific since Magellan — the Spanish Lake (1979), Monopolists and Freebooters (1983) and the presciently named, Paradise Found and Lost (1988). These beautifully produced books — lavished by fine maps from the cartography section he had founded — won several literary prizes. Oskar's scholarship was bracketed with that of Fernand Braudel.

This trilogy has been used as evidence that Oskar was transformed from a geographer into an historian. In establishing the Department of Geography he stressed from the outset the need to write historical geography which made due reference to the political and economic geography of the past age. In fulfilling his objective in the Pacific since Magellan he understood the true importance of studying both time and space. Oskar was a quintessential geographer to the end.

In 1988 he received the Laureat D' Honneur from the International Geographical Union. Also Oskar held the honorary degrees of LLD from the University of Papua New Guinea and LittD from The Australian National University. He was a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities and Honorary Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences. He loved his three children (Virginia, Andrew and Alastair with his first wife, Daphne, who predeceased him) and his devoted second wife, Browning, who passed away in 1994.

Original publication

Citation details

Peter J. Rimmer, 'Spate, Oskar Hermann Khristian (1911–2000)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/spate-oskar-hermann-khristian-927/text928, accessed 21 September 2017.

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