IT SAYS a lot about the nature of the world we live in that I received the news of Ron Crocombe's death via email in Switzerland where I am on holidays. The message is brief: Ron was on his way back to Rarotonga from Nukualofa via Auckland when he suffered a massive heart attack and died on a bus to the airport. No doubt more details will become available in due course as obituaries are written and assessment made of the contribution Ron made to the development of Pacific studies at the University of the South Pacific, where he taught from 1969 onwards before becoming an emeritus professor. I suspect Ron would be happy the way he went: mobile and alert, returning from an academic gathering of distinguished peers, talking and listening while crisscrossing his beloved Pacific Ocean.
Ron had written to me just a few weeks ago about Fiji, saying how sad he was with the way things were there. I had met Ron in person the last time at the PHA Conference in Suva last December. He was in fine form, as always: lively, energetic, full of anecdotes about this Pacific personality or that, full of opinion about everything under the sun. That was Ron, or one side of him. He was more busy in retirement than when he was a fulltime academic, he said. Tome after fat tome testified to his inexhaustible thirst for knowledge about things Pacific. He appeared to know everything and everybody who ever worked on the Pacific. Kenneth Emory: yes, and he would recall some event to make a point. Douglas Oliver, Jim Davidson, Harry Maude, Oskar Spate, "Jack" Crawford, John Gunther, Dick Gilson. That kind of knowledge in one person is now hard to imagine. Ron was one of a kind. There won't be another Ron Crocombe in our lifetime, if ever.
Ron taught me at USP in the early 1970s. I particularly remember his course on Advanced Pacific History. The course ranged from prehistory to the future of the postcolonial Pacific. We were not expected to master every topic, but after a broad introduction, Ron expected us to choose a topic and do an indepth study of it. Despite his affable nature, Ron was a stickler for standards, a task master who did not hesitate to push you near to the edge. He saw a talent for history in me, but I think he wanted me to work on something more in the present. Ron had an instrumentalist view of history: as a means to an end, not as an end in itself. Why would a bright lad like me want to be marooned in the past? But he encouraged me nonetheless. Ron was not a disciplined lecturer. Discipline was "alien" to him. A lecture on prehistory could traverse a very large field, even venture into the present. But that did not matter. He had his reading list, and he expected us to do the learning on our own. He was not an Ivory Tower academic. That side of him impressed me deeply, perhaps even influenced my own intellectual development.
Ron was personally kind to me. As I was finishing my undergraduate degree, Ron wrote to at least two dozen places around the world, from SOAS to the East-West Centre, singing my praises and urging them to accept me (on a scholarship). Eventually, the University of British Columbia did. Its head of History Department, Margaret Prang, was on a cruise ship in Suva. Ron pleaded with her to give me a teaching assistantship in her department. She did: a full graduate fellowship. Ron then arranged with Canadian Pacific to fly me over to Vancouver at their own expense. I shall never forget his personal generosity. Over the years, I disagreed with Ron on many things, but a deep residue of respect for him remained. For Ron, disagreements and debates were never personal. I have a lot to learn from his example.
Ron will be remembered for many things, but perhaps most of all for his work in facilitating the study of the Pacific islands by Pacific islanders themselves through the Institute of Pacific Studies at USP. His vision was right for its time: for its time, I would emphasise. He hoped that after the initial encouragement, those who wanted to pursue an academic career would enter more rigorous institutions for further training. Few did, content to rest on their USP laurels. In private, Ron sometimes muttered his disappointments, but his overall enthusiasm for things Pacific and for Pacific Islanders remained undimmed.
In his early years at USP, Ron was an important institution builder. He founded the South Pacific Social Sciences Association which published a number of important monographs. He founded the journal 'Pacific Perspectives,' which lasted for about 10 years. With Marjorie Crocombe and Albert Wendt, he was instrumental in setting up the South Pacific Creative Arts Society, which published the literary journal Mana. He was the organiser of the first "Pacific Way" conference in Suva in the early 1970s from which came the influential publication The Pacific Way: Social Issues in National Development. (I am quoting the title from memory). The list goes on.
Ron's passing marks the end of an era in the evolution of Pacific studies. He was there at creation, so to speak, and he saw the emergence of a new era with different intellectual and cultural concerns. I am not sure that he totally approved of the new trends. He was a man with his feet firmly on the ground. I feel sad that Ron is not among us today. It is hard to believe that he is not. But he lived a long and rich life with his beloved Marjorie, and has left behind a legacy that will remain long after many of us are gone. Vinaka vakalevu, Ron, moce maca.
- Brij V Lal is professor of Pacific and Asian history at Australian National University's Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies.