Robin Donkin

Historical geographer

Wednesday 01 April 2009 20:02

Robert Arthur Donkin, geographer: born Morpeth, Northumberland 28 October 1928; King George VI Memorial Fellow, University of California, Berkeley 1955-56; Assistant Lecturer, Department of Geography, Edinburgh University 1956-58; Lecturer, Department of Geography, Birmingham University 1958-70; Lecturer in the Geography of Latin America, Cambridge University 1971-90, Reader in Historical Geography 1990-96 (Emeritus); Fellow, Jesus College, Cambridge 1972-96 (Emeritus), Tutor 1975-96; FBA 1985; married 1970 Jennifer Kennedy (one daughter); died Cambridge 1 February 2006.

Robin Donkin was a distinguished scholar whose main legacy to geographical literature is a remarkable series of monographs on the inter-disciplinary themes of plant and animal domestication and of cultural contact between the old world and the new.

Born Robert Donkin in Morpeth, Northumberland, in 1928 and educated in Morpeth and at Jarrow Grammar School, he took a First in Geography at King's College, Newcastle upon Tyne, in 1950. Remaining in Durham University, he had, within three years, completed a doctorate, under the supervision of M.R.G. Conzen, published in 1957 as The Cistercian Contribution to the Geography of England and Wales in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries.

After National Service as a Lieutenant in the Royal Artillery (which gave him the opportunity of some fieldwork in Egypt and Jordan), in 1955 he was elected King George VI Research Fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, where he extended his interests on monastic institutions to the Franciscan estates in California. The work of Carl O. Sauer, the leading cultural geographer in America and his head of department, was to have a lasting influence on Donkin's approaches to the subject and to its content, for it was at Berkeley that he developed his lifelong interests in agricultural origins and in the aboriginal New World.

Returning to Britain in 1956, he was for two years on the staff of the Edinburgh Geography Department before he moved to a lectureship at Birmingham, where he remained until 1970. During that time he published over a dozen papers on aspects of Cistercian farming activity and, in particular, their role in the reclamation and use of the uplands. His work brought a new geographical diversion to monastic studies and complemented the work of medieval monastic historians, notably David Knowles.

Donkin's wide-ranging knowledge of the historical geography of medieval England may best be seen in his masterly, 60-page synthesis on "Changes in the Early Middle Ages", which he contributed to H.C. Darby's edited volume A New Historical Geography of England (1973).

Although there were further publications on the Cistercians, the 1970s saw a dramatic shift in Donkin's academic interests to Middle America, where he had travelled as a Leverhulme Research Fellow in 1966-67. Appointed to a Lectureship in Latin American Geography in Cambridge in 1970 and not long afterwards to a Fellowship at Jesus College, Donkin was to spend the rest of his academic life as a historical geographer in Cambridge where he worked on a remarkable range of topics and concentrated his efforts on specialised monographs rather than on papers. The first of these, Spanish Red: an ethnographical study of cochineal and the Opuntia cactus (1977), remains the principal work on this important dye-stuff, one of the most valuable commodities for the European textile industry imported by the Spanish from the New World.

There followed Agricultural Terracing in the Aboriginal New World (1979), Manna: an historical geography (1980) and The Peccary: with observations on the introduction of pigs to the New World (1985). Further work on origins and dispersals resulted in The Muscovy duck, Carina moschata domestica - origins, dispersal, and associated aspects of the geography of domestication (1989), which, in his introduction Donkin says was a belated response to Carl Sauer's 1943 call for more information on this bird, one of the few New World domesticates along with the llama and alpaca. His next work, on similar lines, dedicated to Sauer, was Meleagrides: an historical and ethnogeographic study of the guinea fowl (1991).

Seven years later, after a long period of field and documentary research, Donkin produced Beyond Price: pearls and pearl-fishing, origins to the Age of Discoveries (1998), published as a Memoir of the American Philosophical Society and described by an eminent reviewer as "the crowning achievement of a world-class scholar".

Nowhere is the astonishing width of Donkin's learning more evident, not least in the 60-page bibliography of works cited. The book is a remarkable synthesis of worldwide literature; Donkin's text is meticulously documented (his scholarly hallmark) and is supported by numerous illustrations and maps (drafted by him but skilfully redrawn by Michael Young, departmental cartographer, for final publication).

Robin Donkin was a man with remarkable intellectual curiosity. He was particularly fascinated by origins and how things came to be where they are. In his retirement, there was no let-up in his research. The Rare Books Room of Cambridge University Library was his second home. In 1999, he published Dragon's Brain Perfume: an historical geography of camphor and, in 2003, Between East and West: the Moluccas and the traffic in spices up to the arrival of Europeans. A book on maritime explorations in the Atlantic and Indian oceans prior to AD1500 has already been submitted for publication and right up to a day or two before his death Donkin was working on aspects of maize cultivation.

Donkin's scholarship was deservedly recognised by his election to a Fellowship of the British Academy in 1985. In most universities, this would have led to a chair. Cambridge only belatedly managed to stretch to a Readership in 1990. He was awarded a LittD in 1993. In September 1995, he counted it a great honour to give the Carl O. Sauer Memorial Lecture at Berkeley. On this occasion it is said that he was served Muscovy duck.

A dedicated scholar of great integrity, Donkin was happiest when working on his own. He enjoyed gardening, travelling and observing at first-hand whether in Europe or further afield. In the early days he walked, or used a motorbike or what later became a legendary Alvis car. More recently, it was by local transport, be it buses in India or railways in China.

While he had little interest in administration or high office he was among the most conscientious of teachers. Rarely did he miss a lecture or supervision. Students, particularly those for whom he was Director of Studies at Jesus College, remember him with admiration, respect and affection. They also remember his demanding standards and the length of his reading lists. The older ones, several now occupying high academic positions, will recall him behind his typewriter in a fug of pipe smoke, surrounded by banks of record cards, atlases and weighty volumes in foreign languages. By nature a very modest, courteous and kind man, he had a quick wit and a wry sense of humour; his chuckle rings in the memory.

Robin Glasscock

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments