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Spate, Oskar Hermann (1911–2000)

by Donald Denoon

This article was published online in 2022

 Oskar Hermann Khristian Spate (1911–2000), geographer, historian, and policy adviser, was born on 13 March 1911 in London, son of Bavarian-born Karl Georg Christian Späth, restaurant proprietor, and his English-born wife Olive Sarah Margaret, née Tester. Oskar’s parents had met in the Salvation Army and managed temperance hotels on the fringe of Soho. The family name was Anglicised to Spate after World War I. During the war Karl had been interned on the Isle of Man. Olive took Oskar to the United States of America and worked for the Salvation Army while her son developed a lifelong love of reading. After the family was reunited in 1919, he studied (1925–31) at St Clement Danes Grammar School, London, the teachers of which ignited his passion for geography and English literature.

Awarded a scholarship, in 1927 Spate went to St Catharine’s College, Cambridge (PhD, 1937), and read English before he switched to geography. Despite becoming absorbed by contemporary politics, he gained first-class honours in part one of the English tripos (1931), and in parts one (1932) and two (1933) of the geography tripos. As European governments crumbled, Hitler loomed, and the Depression set in, he abandoned his family’s Labour affiliation for the Communist Party, and sub-edited a magazine for the Daily Worker. A helpful referee observed that despite Spate’s communist reputation he was really ‘safe and sound’ (Spate 1992), and fully deserved support for his doctoral studies. His thesis topic on the historical geography of London, 1801 to 1851, set the pattern for his most influential writings. He could not separate geography from history, and the study covered a large region and an even larger population. In writing, reviewing, and editing journals and magazines, he had also discovered that he not only loved writing, but had a flair for it.

On 15 August 1936 Spate married Daphne Jean Huband at the Register Office, London; the marriage was to end in divorce in 1959. Anxious for an academic post, he joined the University of Rangoon, Burma (Myanmar), in 1937. By this time, he had gradually reconsidered his commitment to communism, though he would take pride in never becoming a Tory. He immediately began researching and publishing scholarly articles, and working on his first large-scale regional survey. When World War II broke out, he sent his wife and daughter to safety in Melbourne, joined the Burma Auxiliary Force, and trained as an anti-aircraft gunner. Before he could fire a shot, he was badly injured in a Japanese air raid that killed a close-by colleague. Recovering first in Burma, he then went to India where—to his surprise—he was appointed (1942–44) a military press censor at Bombay (Mumbai), during which time he was commissioned (August 1943) as a second lieutenant. He balanced this occupation by seeking ‘intellectual refreshment’ (Spate 1991, 35), including writing poetry. Later, with the rank of temporary major, he was more creatively employed (1944–45) in the Inter-Services Topographical Department, Southeast Asia Command headquarters, first in New Delhi and then at Peradeniya, Ceylon (Sri Lanka). The work prepared him for his proposed regional geography of India. Wherever he was, and whatever he was doing, he read avidly, recorded impressions, and described landscapes in his diaries.

After the war Spate returned to London. Reunited with his family, he embarked on the busiest years of his life. Having served briefly (1945–46) at Bedford College for Women, University of London, he was appointed lecturer, later reader, in South Asian geography at the London School of Economics and Political Science (1946–51). In 1947 he was an adviser to the Ahmadiyya Muslim community in its representations to the Punjab Boundary Commission. He found time to initiate an increasingly complex and critical correspondence with the historian Arnold Toynbee about Toynbee’s twelve-volume A Study of History. Exploiting every moment, he also composed his immense synthesis, India and Pakistan: A General and Regional Geography (1954). With a permanent appointment in London and an expanding family, he seemed settled, but his career took a sharp turn when the anthropologist Raymond Firth told him that the new Australian National University (ANU), Canberra, was seeking to appoint an inaugural professor of geography in its Research School of Pacific Studies. He applied at once and was appointed in January 1951.

The ANU was created as a research institution, and its conception of the Pacific encompassed much of South and East Asia. Spate assembled colleagues to study the whole region and to include the expanding range of the discipline’s methods and approaches. His own research interests expanded into the Pacific, and in 1953 he became convenor of an ANU working party to advise the minister for territories, (Sir) Paul Hasluck, on the development and governance of the Territory of Papua and New Guinea. This commitment continued beyond Hasluck’s term in office. Spate was a member (1963–64) of the three-member Currie commission on higher education which proposed the creation of the University of Papua New Guinea (UPNG) as an autonomous institution.

Equally important, and more rewarding personally, was Spate’s research in Fiji for the British government, in which he examined the traditions and institutions that kept most indigenous Fijians rustic and poor, while most Indo-Fijians were thriving economically. His 1959 report, The Fijian People: Economic Problems and Prospects, was lucid and incisive, but it did not alter the direction of political and economic change. Consultancies such as this provoked Spate to question the role of the expert and to write soberly on his responsibilities.

Meanwhile Spate’s department, like geography everywhere, flourished and spread into new fields of enquiry. This tendency provoked him to mount a defence of qualitative studies, which he saw to be under threat from scholars who preferred quantitative research. As new approaches were usually more specific and smaller in scale, his own regional surveys were falling out of fashion. In 1967 the tensions were resolved by splitting the department. Human geographers were behaving more like social anthropologists, while biogeography and geomorphology had more in common with other natural sciences. Neither cluster felt a need for Spate’s commitment to historical geography or regional syntheses. At the peak of his career, therefore, he became institutionally homeless.

The anomaly was settled when Spate was appointed director of the Research School of Pacific Studies, a position he occupied until his retirement in 1972. As director, he enjoyed opportunities to survey and contemplate the whole region, having studied Australia and New Zealand, as well as Fiji and Papua New Guinea in addition to his original fascination with South Asia. When he retired and could select his own office, he moved smoothly into the department of Pacific and Southeast Asian history, alongside scholars with interests consistent with his own.

At an age when many scholars wind down, Spate undertook his most individual and ambitious project. His three-volume The Pacific since Magellan began with The Spanish Lake (1979), continued with Monopolists and Freebooters (1983), and concluded with Paradise Found and Lost (1988). The wide-ranging and engaging work was informed by Iberian and East Asian sources, as well as the more familiar English and French records. It was acclaimed by reviewers and admired by readers, but it proved too large in scale to encourage emulation. Once more, he was swimming vigorously against an academic tide: most of his new colleagues favoured indigenous perspectives and history-from-below on a more intimate scale.

Spate’s approach to geography formed in the 1930s. He was willing to carry out small-scale projects, feeding into a domain where all scholarly work could be synthesised. That was the vision that inspired his historical geography of London, the general and regional geography of India and Pakistan, and The Pacific since Magellan. In Fiji and Papua New Guinea, geographers were the generalists, pulling together all other expert knowledge. That was the concept he defended against Toynbee in the 1950s and his own colleagues a generation later. This vision demanded such deep involvement in the humanities and social sciences that only someone who matched his own commitment and intelligence, with a literary flair that is all too rare, could engage with it. His approach to geography was labour-intensive and it isolated him, especially as he never employed a research assistant.

In 1991 Spate wrote of his international adventures in a lively memoir, On the Margins of History: From the Punjab to Fiji. His awards included the Royal Geographical Society’s Gill Memorial prize (1948), the Société de Géographie’s Charles Garnier medal (1956), the National Geographical Society of India’s Jawaharlal Nehru medal (1956), the American Geographical Society’s Charles P. Daly medal (1969), and the Royal Geographical Society’s Victoria medal (1971). He served on the councils of the ANU (1968–69, 1971–72), UPNG (1964–73), and the University of the South Pacific (1967–72). UPNG conferred on him an honorary doctorate of laws in 1981.

Spare and compact, Spate exuded the style of a Cambridge don, courteous and even courtly, weighing his words and usually veiling his acute sense of the absurd. He delighted in reading and composing poetry, and he was stimulated by the company of Canberra poets. In ponderous academic meetings, his colleagues sometimes suspected that he sought private refuge by recalling or composing apposite verses—or mapping imagined topographies. His playful wit was reserved for his friends and family. On 2 July 1960 he had married an American teacher, Browning Hervey Daneke, in Los Angeles; she died in 1994. Survived by the daughter and two sons of his first marriage, he died on 29 March 2000 in Canberra, and was cremated. He had no interest in formal religion, but recalling the way his parents had met, he suggested that mourners donate to the Salvation Army. In typical style, he expressed his own values, citingLet Me Enjoy’ by Thomas Hardy:

Let me enjoy the earth no less
Because the all-enacting Might
That fashioned forth its loveliness
Had other aims than my delight.

 

Research edited by Malcolm Allbrook

Select Bibliography

  • Australian National University Archives. ANUA 19, O. H. K. Spate Staff Files
  • Jennings, J. N., and J. G. R. Linge, eds. Of Time and Place: Essays in Honour of O. H. K. Spate. Canberra: ANU Press, 1980
  • National Library of Australia. MS 7886, Papers of Oskar Spate
  • Rimmer, Peter J. ‘Fijian Footnote for Quintessential Geographer.’ ANU Reporter 31, no. 9 (21 July 2000): 2
  • Spate, O. H. K. Interview by Daniel Connell, 15 May 1990. Australian National University Oral History Project. Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University
  • Spate, O. H. K. Interview by Joseph Powell, 13, 14 February 1992. Sound recording. National Library of Australia
  • Spate, O. H. K. Let Me Enjoy: Essays, Partly Geographical. Canberra: ANU Press, 1965
  • Spate, O. H. K. On the Margins of History: From Punjab to Fiji. Canberra: ANU Press, 1991

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Donald Denoon, 'Spate, Oskar Hermann (1911–2000)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/spate-oskar-hermann-927/text39258, published online 2022, accessed online 1 December 2022.

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