Obituary: Professor Ronald Robinson

"O RON, you don't want to finish up like that, do you?", Ronald Robinson's anxious mother asked him as a bent senior fellow shuffled across the college court at the outset of her son's career as one of the principal historians of Empire. Mercifully he didn't. Well into his seventies, Robinson continued straight of back and sharp of eye. Because he was so invariably straight, Cambridge often found him disconcerting.

In 1947, meanwhile, Mrs Robinson's question was spot on. For in the year in which Denis Compton was flailing the bowling all over England the dashing young Robinson must have seemed the antithesis of everyone's idea of the cobweb-covered don - particularly to the cobweb-covered confraternity itself. And so Robbie (as he was universally known except at home, where for reasons best known there he was Mark) continued. Throughout his time at St John's College he was the Compton of the Cambridge courts - as later he remained of the Balliol quads.

A Battersea boy who never forgot his debt to Battersea Grammar School, he was a born communicator. In his early years he had preached on Battersea Rise in the Plymouth Brethren interest, and, although it was sooner rather than later that he parted company with anything resembling organised religion, to the end he retained his affection for the psalm which in the late 1930s he preferred as his text. Psalm 107, with its ultimately up-beat message, no less than Dickens, Seeley and Kipling, imbued him with his abiding philosophy.

These and the RAF. Elected a History scholar of St John's, in December 1938, in 1941 he was posted to Coastal Command and sent for training to Rhodesia. The experience of the next four years in 58 Squadron, during which he was awarded the DFC, was formative. Formative and decisive.

Early on in their careers his post-war supervision pupils would learn of Louis XIV's "tarmac heart", and in the bar after, when the dubious merits of one or other of the arguably clubbable grandees of the History Faculty were mooted, would find themselves faced with the really taxing question: "But would you fly with him?"

The war years had wed Robinson to Africa, and between 1947 and 1949 he was a research officer in the African Studies Branch of the Colonial Office, working on "trusteeship" for his PhD. From this he emerged with a precocious understanding, edged with scepticism but also informed by sympathy, of the complexities of government decision-making: an understanding he turned to good account as a youthful member of the Bridges Committee on Public Administration in 1961-62, and throughout the 1960s as the ever- quizzical Chairman of the series of Cambridge Conferences on the problems of developing countries - the importance of which, as well as his galvanising contribution to their success, is recounted in one of the contributions to the volume in his honour edited by A. Porter and R. Holland, Theory and Practice in the History of European Expansion Overseas (1988).

Better than anything else perhaps, the title of that volume indicates the nature of the changes that had overtaken the subject since Robinson had set out to study the infrastructure of what was then still called imperialism, and in his first venture into print, written in conjunction with the late Jack Gallagher, had turned a vast and highly topical subject upside-down and inside-out.

"The Imperialism of Free Trade", Robinson and Gallagher's 15-page essay in the 1953 volume of the Economic History Review, may well be accounted the most influential article in any field of post-war British historiography. It was followed in 1961 by their Africa and the Victorians: the official mind of imperialism, a subtle and coruscating critique of the Marxist interpretation of the imperial theme. Robinson and Gallagher's was an academic collaboration (though conspiracy describes it better) which set the agenda for the next generation of historiographical reconstruction and beyond.

As its title-page proclaims, Africa and the Victorians was written "with the help of Alice Denny". Without Alice ("Tony" in real life, confusingly matching Robbie's "Mark") and their then young family in whose chaotically convivial Thorneycreek domesticity undergraduates found themselves immediately at home, Robbie would have been inconceivable.

Then there were the evenings in the "dug-out", the St John's rooms he shared with his close friend the medievalist Edward Miller. On presenting myself for a scholarship interview in the late 1950s I found a game of room cricket in progress and was banished to square leg until the arrival of the next candidate while Miller carted Robinson "with contumely" (a much-favoured phrase) to all four corners. To pupils, those rooms were one of the places in which they grew up. (On some evenings, the dug-out witnessed other, ostensibly more intellectual activities: meetings of the College History Society, for example, not least the Kipling occasions when "Songs of Empire" was performed.)

So it was as much a wrench for Cambridge as it was for him when in 1970 the Smuts Reader, which by then he was, was not preferred to the Smuts Chair. The remainder of his career Robinson spent in Oxford, as Fellow of Balliol and Beit Professor.

"We voted for pleasure," Richard Cobb revealed on the occasion of the Oxford election - though, as was not infrequently the case with Cobb's revelations, that was not the whole of the story. Pleasure was only part of the package. By one of the Balliol history tutors who knew him best Robinson is remembered for supplying a leaven of levity, and for a genius for remaining invisible, but equally for a capacity for materialising djinn-like when he was really needed, especially by his graduate students, as well as for his readiness to take on thankless chores far beyond the call of duty.

In his capacity as Chairman of the Modern History Board, he played a key role in the faculty's colonisation of the Oriental Institute, and by means of a succession of succint, ex cathedra one-liners effectively redrew Oxford's boundaries of political incorrectness.

Spare and agile (he had won Soccer Blues in goal), in any gathering Robinson appeared taller than he measured. Famous (and famously feared) for his impromptu interventions on state occasions, he often said he hated the Establishment ("bastards"). But the Establishment was not so easily put off. Try as he might, no one was. With his ever-mobile face and almost audible eyebrows, he was the most enchanting of men.

Endlessly generous, he gloried in spontaneity ("lovely") and reports of "the Good Ol' Boys" (a secret society not notable for the input of its academic contingent). Sometimes he seemed not to be listening. But he always heard. He delighted in words, in both the play of them and their resonances; he was a master of words. And, as well as words, singing; he was an unremitting singer. Having frequently driven his friends close to distraction in his middle years by missing appointments either by hours or entirely, later on he punished them with Christmas cards in the first week of December (Christmas could never come soon enough for him).

He had little time for institutions, glorying instead in his warm and wide family, and, uncertain as he affected to be about other particulars, keeping a patriarchal count of his numerous grandchildren and their offspring. He was especially blessed in his family, above all during the last gruelling months.

Beyond that, he regularly had his old air crew home for a New Year sing- song, more often than not dismissed life's problems as "a piece of cake", and (although his own was not without its cruel reverses) persisted in shrugging off and laughing throatily at the absurdity of it all, and almost until the end restoked his apparently permanently coked-up pipe with Gold Block. He leaves behind him hosts of friends and pupils infused with something of that "lyric spirit" in accordance with whose generous precepts he continued to live life to the full and well beyond almost until the very end.

Ronald Edward Robinson, historian: born London 3 September 1920; DFC 1944; Fellow, St John's College, Cambridge 1949-71, Tutor 1961-66; Lecturer in History, Cambridge University 1953-66, Smuts Reader in the History of the British Commonwealth 1966-71; CBE 1970; Beit Professor of the History of the British Commonwealth, Oxford University 1971-87 (Emeritus), Chairman, Faculty Board of Modern History 1974-76; Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford 1971-87; married 1948 Alice Denny (two sons, two daughters); died Cambridge 19 June 1999.