Kenneth Robinson

Historian and analyst of the British and French colonial empires

Kenneth Robinson was a leading historian and analyst of the British and French colonial empires and their successor states, and Director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at London University before being appointed Vice-Chancellor of the University of Hong Kong.

Kenneth Ernest Robinson, colonial official, historian and university administrator: born London 9 March 1914; staff, Colonial Office 1936-48, Assistant Secretary 1946-48; Fellow, Nuffield College, Oxford 1948-57; Reader in Commonwealth Government, Oxford University 1948-57; Director, Institute of Commonwealth Studies and Professor of Commonwealth Affairs, London University 1957-65, Director, Commonwealth Studies Resources Survey 1974-76; Vice-Chancellor, University of Hong Kong 1965-72; CBE 1971; Hallsworth Research Fellow, Manchester University 1972-74; married 1938 Stephanie Wilson (died 1994; one daughter, and one son deceased); died London 18 January 2005.

Kenneth Robinson was a leading historian and analyst of the British and French colonial empires and their successor states, and Director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at London University before being appointed Vice-Chancellor of the University of Hong Kong.

Born in London in 1914 and graduating in both Modern History and Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Hertford College, Oxford, he joined the Colonial Office as an official in 1936. To start with, he worked in the West Indian Department ("riots everywhere"), moving on to the CO's general department just before the Second World War, where he dealt with a very wide range of subjects, from passports and aliens to obscene publications.

During the war, he was posted to West Africa to work with Lord Swinton. Swinton was British minister in West Africa and Robinson was to be a member of his security executive. This proved a brief posting, when illness caused recall to Britain. There, he dealt increasingly with issues associated with the international accountability and control of British and other countries' colonies, mandates and protectorates, subjects of enormous importance in developing relations with Britain's leading wartime ally, the United States.

In essence, the wartime team of Hilton Poynton and Kenneth Robinson was concerned to limit the international control of colonial questions pressed by US interests at this time, while conceding the necessity of promoting "good colonial administration and the material well-being of dependent peoples". As Robinson wrote subsequently in an article in International Organization ("World Opinion and Colonial Status", 1954):

One of the more extraordinary illusions which surround this whole area of international relations is the conviction that the malpractices deemed inherent in "imperialism" can only be prevented by the intervention of "disinterested" states. These latter states, having no general national interest at stake, can afford only too easily to barter the misgovernance of these territories in return for some quid pro quo in the form of a vote on some matter of greater real interest to themselves.

Granted his wartime concerns, it is not surprising that Robinson should have written important essays on "The Dilemmas of Trusteeship" before the Second World War, published in book form in 1965, and devoted other essays to decolonisation and the international community after it.

But why did this high-flier leave the Colonial Office so shortly after the war for a post at Oxford University? Partly it was restlessness, partly the academic aspiration evidenced earlier by the award of a Beit Studentship. But partly also, according to Robinson himself in later years, it was his predecessor as Reader in Colonial Administration, Margery Perham: she suggested that he should apply for this post at Nuffield College, Oxford, when she vacated it, and that was what he did in 1948.

He worked at Nuffield for nine years, teaching colonial cadets about to become district officers in what remained of the British Empire as well as officials returning for reflection and instruction in mid-career. He also used his time at Oxford after the war to deepen his knowledge of French politics and colonial affairs, and he published a number of pioneering accounts of politics in French-speaking West Africa, not least in Five Elections in Africa (co-edited with W.J.M. MacKenzie, 1960).

In 1957 he moved to London University to become Director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies. Among the colleagues attracted to work with Robinson in Russell Square were scholars of the calibre of Dennis Austin and Ken Post (on West Africa), Shula Marks and Stanley Trapido (on South Africa), Trevor Reese (on Australia), T.E. Smith (on South-East Asia) and Donald Wood (on the Caribbean). In his own words, he sought to build up

a larger and more varied disciplinary base, more seminars and meetings, better facilities for visiting scholars, more international contacts, conferences - and, above all, more research students who could be helped to work in an academically congenial association, in a word, a more magnetic centre.

In these endeavours he undoubtedly succeeded by the time he departed in 1965 for a seven-year stint as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Hong Kong.

Michael Twaddle



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