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Rose, Frederick George (1915–1991)

by Peter Monteath

This article was published online in 2016

Frederick George Godfrey Rose (1915-1991), public servant, anthropologist, and communist, was born on 22 March 1915 at Croydon, London, second of three children of George William Rose, municipal clerk, and his wife Frances Isabel, née Godfrey. Educated at Whitgift Grammar School, where he played in the rugby union first XV, in 1933 Frederick won a scholarship to St Catharine’s College, Cambridge (BA, 1936; MA, 1940). There he was exposed to left-wing political ideas that were at odds with his parents’ social and political conservatism. During his final year he developed an enduring passion for anthropology and in 1937 travelled to Australia with the goal of undertaking fieldwork and pursuing a career in the discipline.

After working in Sydney as an analytical chemist and undertaking a course in meteorology, in November Rose was appointed an assistant meteorologist with the Bureau of Meteorology and moved to Darwin. He performed anthropological research alongside his duties as an assistant meteorologist. In 1938 he was posted to Groote Eylandt and in the following year to Broome. Rose’s most sustained and important fieldwork was carried out on Groote Eylandt (1938-39, 1941).

On 3 March 1939 at the registry office in Perth he married German-born Edith Hildegarde Linde, whom he had met in Britain in 1935 and whose communist ideas had greatly influenced his political views. After the Japanese bombing of Broome in March 1942 they moved to Perth. There he joined the Communist Party of Australia. From 1943 he was employed by the Bureau of Meteorology in Melbourne as a climatologist and after the war moved to Canberra to work in a series of public service positions. In 1948 he returned to Groote Eylandt as a temporary member of the American-Australian Arnhem Land Scientific Expedition led by Charles Mountford. The Groote Eylandt research was the foundation of much of Rose’s scholarly work, above all his book, Classification of Kin, Age Structure and Marriage Amongst the Groote Eylandt Aborigines (1960).

It was said of Rose, ‘It is hard to imagine a less trendy man'; that 'in spite of a comfortable background in the English middle class', he took on 'the manner and appearance  . . .  of an Australian worker' (Maddock 1991, 67). Being a communist, Rose was under surveillance by the Australian Security Intelligence Organization. In 1953 he resigned from the Department of Territories when his position was abolished and settled on King Island in Bass Strait, intending to farm cattle. He appeared twice in 1954 at the royal commission on espionage in response to allegations of involvement in a Soviet spy ring. Although no firm evidence was produced to lay charges, suspicions have persisted that he was the Soviet contact code-named ‘Professor’ (Ball and Horner 1998, 215). From early 1955 he worked as a stevedore on the Sydney wharves and in March 1956 left Australia to join his wife and four children in the German Democratic Republic. Edith and three daughters had moved to Berlin in 1953.

He was appointed to an academic post in the anthropology department at Humboldt University, East Berlin. Promoted to professor in 1961, between 1974 and 1980 he was attached to the Museum of Ethnography, Leipzig. His numerous attempts to resume fieldwork in Australia, specifically on Groote Eylandt, were largely thwarted by the Federal government. Refused entry to Aboriginal reserves in 1962, he conducted fieldwork at Angas Downs station in Central Australia, which resulted in his book, The Wind of Change in Central Australia (1965). He was a strident advocate of Aboriginal rights. In his scholarly work, which moved beyond its initial focus on kinship to broader studies of Australian Indigenous culture and society and, finally, hominisation (the process of developing characteristics that are distinctive of humans), he remained firmly anchored in his Marxist worldview, which is evident in his books, Australia Revisited: The Aborigine Story from Stone Age to Space Age (1968) and The Traditional Mode of Production of the Australian Aborigines (1987).

A committed communist and supporter of his adoptive homeland, Rose also worked for the Ministry of State Security as an unofficial collaborator. Nevertheless, he found it 'a bit of a bugger living behind the iron curtain’ (Maddock 1991, 68). Survived by his wife and three daughters, his son having predeceased him, Rose died in Berlin on 14 January 1991, three months after German reunification, about which he was sceptical.

Research edited by Brian Wimborne

Select Bibliography

  • Ball, Desmond, and David Horner. Breaking the Codes: Australia’s KGB Network, 1944-1950. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1998
  • Commonwealth of Australia. Royal Commission. Official Transcript of Proceedings of the Royal Commission on Espionage. Canberra: Government Printer, 1954-55
  • Horner, David M. Spy Catchers. Vol. 1, The Official History of ASIO, 1949-1963. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2014
  • Maddock, Kenneth. ‘Frederick Rose, 1915-1991. An Appreciation.’ Oceania 62 (1991): 66-69
  • Monteath, Peter, and Valerie Munt. Red Professor: The Cold War Life of Fred Rose. Adelaide: Wakefield Press, 2015
  • Munt, Valerie. ‘Australian Anthropology, Ideology and Political Repression: The Cold War Experience of Frederick G. G. Rose.’ Anthropological Forum 21, no. 2 (2011): 109-29
  • Rose, Frederick George Godfrey. ‘Frederick Rose Further Papers.’ Unpublished manuscript, 1992. State Library of New South Wales. Copy held on ADB file

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Peter Monteath, 'Rose, Frederick George (1915–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/rose-frederick-george-19126/text30701, published online 2016, accessed online 24 September 2017.

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