Obituary: Ronald Edward Robinson

Author: Kenneth Wilburn, East Carolina University
Date: Tuesday, 13 July 1999

Reply-To: H-NET List for African History and Culture
Sender: H-NET List for African History and Culture

From: Kenneth Wilburn, East Carolina University


With great sadness I announce the passing of Oxbridge historian Ronald Edward Robinson on 19 June 1999 at 78 years of age. A memorial service was held in Cambridge, England attended by family and friends from both the academic and RAF worlds. Ronald Robinson is survived by his wife, Alice Denny Robinson, and their four children.

Africanists and historians of British imperial and commonwealth history will remember him well as half of the Robinson and [John] Gallagher team who wrote the influential work, Africa and the Victorians, first published in 1961. Over the years the excentric Robinson continued to expand our understanding of imperialism and colonialism by probing testy relationships between the imperial power (the metropole) and the colony (the periphery), at times in partnership with Roger Louis, the Editor-in-Chief of the Oxford History of the British Empire.

In 1988 Oxford's Beit Professor of British Empire and Commonwealth History came to East Carolina University, Greenville, North Carolina as the Department of History's Brewster Lecturer. Robinson spoke on "The Ending of Apartheid in Zimbabwe," partly from personal experience. He responded to my introduction with that mischievous gleam in his eye we all so cherished and with his broad smile his friends carry with them still. As I walked from the stage he quipped, "Thank you Kenneth for that fine obituary!" The audience roared; I hear the distant, uplifting echo now. The introduction and entire lecture are online. Also online is the London Times' obituary of Ronald Robinson that successfully captured some of his vigor.

In 1990 Clarence Davis and I struggled to bring Railway Imperialism to fruition. Nine contributors wrote case studies that examined how railways were used as tools of empire, and in some cases, as anti-imperial tools. While Clarence and I pushed on with the routine of a co-edited work, we anxiously wondered how we were ever going to tie these seemingly disparate case studies together. Then Ronald Robinson stepped on to the pitch, as he had so many times before, and wrote an engaging introduction and brilliant conclusion. I remain in awe.

In his 1997 work, In the Realms of Gold, Roland Oliver recalled some of Robinson's joie de vivre, which so infected his students. Reflecting on the 1960 Leverhulme history conference in Salisbury, Rhodesia [Zimbabwe], which was attended by all history department heads of Anglophone universities in Africa and held just after the Congo gained its independence, Oliver wrote,

After four days of conferencing for long hours we were all put into a big white bus on the fifth morning and driven for 750 miles around the stone monuments of Southern Rhodesia. ...On the open road [the bus] was noisy, dusty, and unsprung with a wheel span too wide for the narrow tarmac strips of Rhodesian roads. We had to cling to our seats the whole way. Even so, it was always late and left us little time for archaeological sightseeing. Mostly, it was an experience of common suffering, and we got through it, as any group of private soldiers would have done, by singing the equivalent of marching songs. The Southern Rhodesian author and politician Ndabaningi Sithole was of our number and taught us Zulu war cries. These were interspersed with bouts of "Rule Britannia" and Ronald Robinson's favourite number, which consisted of the words "Lloyd George knew my father, my father knew Lloyd George," repeatedly endlessly to the tune of "Onward Christian Soldiers." Jan Vansina stood beside the driver conducting the music. [p.239]

Generations of students, myself among them, wish they could have occupied the back seats.

Ronald Robinson loved Africa and loved Britain. He even loved Yanks. So many friends; so much grief. Know that you live on in us, Robbie. And as you used to write to your friends and students so far from England in place and time, I return to you, "For auld lang syne, my dear." God bless and God speed, Professor.


The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History published an entire issue commemmorating Ronald Robinson's retirement as Beit Chair of the History of British Commonwealth at the University of Oxford in the autumn of 1987. See especially George Shepperson, "Ronald Robinson: Scholar and Good Companion," 16/3 (May 1988), 1-8. While discussing Robinson's academic career, Shepperson gives another, fuller account of the Leverhulme Inter-Collegiate History Conference recalled above by Roland Oliver.

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First Online: 11 August 1999
Last Revised: 1 September 1999

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