February 09, 2012

Who Invented the Pacific Rim?

The geographer Oskar Spate, who said "It's where the future is."

The construction of the truly great histories of the world-Gibbon on Rome, Braudel on the Mediterranean, Morison on America-occupied many years, even decades, of their creators' lives. "Maybe it did take twenty-six long years to write," wrote Geoffrey Parker of Braudel's The Mediterranean, "but which historian would not willingly sacrifice half his working life to create a masterpiece which will stand forever?"

Then, from the distant and somewhat unexpected fastness of Australia, came word of a new work that would seem destined, once it had acquired the patina of scholarly approval, to become another enduring masterpiece. O. H. K. Spate, a name little known to any but academic geographers, finally completed the book that arguable is the definitive work on that most fashionable body of water the Pacific Ocean.

It is a trilogy, a decade and a half in the making, with well over a thousand pages, three-quarters of a million words, and a host of maps, charts, and portraits, filled with three centuries' worth of the unremembered history of every corner of the awesome mass of water, from the Gulf of Tonkin to Tierra del Fuego, from Esquimalt to Cape Catastrophe, from the Bering Strait to The Bluff, embracing the Sulu, the Coral, the Arafura, and a dozen other exotic-sounding seas.

The volumes are titled The Spanish Lake, Monopolists and Freebooters and Paradise Found and Lost, the work is made whole, under an overall title that pays homage to the ocean's first European master mariner, godfather to all our present interests there: The Pacific since Magellan. The trilogy charts Europe's discovery and domination of the Pacific. In so doing, it provides the solid foundation for present-day understanding of the enormous area-an area of ever-increasing geopolitical and economic power.

The marriage of subject and writer seems at first blush a most unusual one. Oskar Hermann Khristian Spate-born Spath in 1911 in London, "behind St. Pancras fire station," the son of an immigrant German innkeeper became a naturalized Australian. His early life was spent as far from the Pacific as it was possible to be. While his father, Herr Spath, was interned by the British during World War I, the boy and his mother went by ship from Liverpool to New York, thence by train to Iowa, where they boarded with a Salvation Army family living beside the Turkey River.

The young Spate stayed in America until the war ended. "It left me with a fondness for the States, maybe, and it left me with a fondness for geography. For my eighth birthday my mother offered me a choice of two books, one on history the other geography. I chose the latter because it had more pictures. I am sure that is why I liked it. It was as simple as that. The world outside seemed so full of pictures."

The formation of that singular being-a British scholar-then continued along more traditional lines.  First St. Clement Danes School, in London, where he was marinated in the riches of English literature then St. Catharine's College, Cambridge, where he took a triple first in geography and English.

He admited to having been an active left winger in the Cambridge of the thirties, that nest of now notorious Apostles. "Far too grand for me, the Apostles, though I knew Burgess and Maclean quite well. I was a good left-wing theoretician they listened to me. And I could be quite active in politics for the simple reason that I didn't have to work too hard, thank heaven. I seem to have been blessed with a good degree of cleverness. I had a brain."

While others of his political bent selected careers in diplomacy, with often disastrous results, the head of the Department of Geography at Cambridge, a rigorous conservative named Debenham, decided that Spate "needed to be made into a Tory." It was a decision that was to have long-term consequences. Debenham helped the brilliant young geographer get a teaching job at the University of Rangoon, in Burma. "I suppose the old man must have failed to make me a Tory, but he brought me to Asia. He brought me out to the Pacific. A strange, Chekhovian country, Burma.  A most peculiar mixture of melancholia and glee. It left an indelible effect upon me. It opened my eyes to the East. It fascinated me."

It nearly killed him, too. Spate was never an athletic type, and his wartime conscription into (despite their name) the Burma Volunteers was not marked by heroic charges into the Arakan or hand-to-hand combat on any Residency tennis court (as happened in Assam, next door). He worked instead in the operations room of an RAF base outside Rangoon and was on the telephone two days before Christmas 1941, when a Japanese bomb scored a direct hit. Spate injured his arms and fingers, broke his feet, and hurt his face"the ideal casualty," he said. "To be wounded nice and early in the war, and wounded badly but not seriously-what more could a man like me want?”

"Invalided out, I went off to Calcutta, then to Simla and Bombay, and joined an outfit with the magnificent title of the Inter-Services Topographical Department, doing geographic intelligence. Just my cup of tea. Lots of fascinating times all over India and Ceylon. Always remember being with Mountbatten in Kandy. Drove like a maniac. Elephants scuttling out of the way before him."

When the war was over and he had returned to England to teach, Spate wrote his first book, a standard geographer's text on India and Pakistan. "Banned in both countries, so it must have been reasonably good," he said. Good enough, at least, to endow him with an international reputation among geographers and to win him an invitation to become a founding father to the stripling Australian National University, in Canberra, now one of the great institutions of the Pacific Rim. The Australian capital itself was barely a quarter century old when, in 1951, Oskar Spate became Foundation Professor there. He settled himself in an unassuming house in one of the American urban planner Walter Burley Griffin's suburbs and lived there in modest obscurity.

He quickly became an authority on the Fiji Islands. The British colonial government commissioned him to write a massive report on the likely political development of the territory.   

In time he became an expert on Australia as well, and the author of a brief but seminal study of the huge island-continent, published in 1968. Spate's Australia was part of a series written by distinguished scholars, but his work was set apart from theirs by its literary merits. The simple language of its dedication, to a dear family friend and his children, speaks eloquently: "To Mamie Sawer, and to Virginia, Andrew, and Alastair-the wattle and the rose entwine."

By this time, Australia was reckoning up her position in the world, a reckoning that was to produce in her national psychology a sea change (the metaphor, however tired, is apt). Her primary allegiance until the mid sixties had been to England and to the nations bordering the Atlantic.

But England was now throwing in her lot with Europe and throwing in the towel with Asia, having neither the money, the sense of responsibility nor the intellectual interest so Harold Wilson decided to keep a military station east of Suez. Australia had to come rapidly to terms with a new reality: her own future lay with not the Atlantic but the power of the Pacific, untapped but immense.

Suddenly England and France, Portugal and Spain, Greece and Italy seemed to thinking Australians strange, outdated, and irrelevant. Japan, California, China, Korea, Singapore-these places and three dozen more were fast becoming the new and exciting areas, the lands with which Australia would have to deal.

The government in Canberra swiftly adjusted to this new way of thinking; so did the Australian National University. It had set up the well-funded Research School of Pacific Studies to foster an academic intimacy with the newly forged region of which Australia was now to be a part. At about the time he became the school's director, Oskar Spate commenced work on the book for which he will be remembered. It was to be a single volume, but, like Topsy, it just grew.

He talked of the Pacific-of the Pacific Rim, the Pacific Basin, the Pacific Community, the Pacific Idea, and the Age of the Pacific, which we seem to have entered, having left that of the Atlantic far behind and that of the Mediterranean even further, as John Hay pointed out in 1902. But the concept of the Pacific as an entity was new.

Lucien Febvre's introduction to another classic, Seville and the Atlantic, by Huguette and Pierre Chaunu, refers to "these studies of maritime relations, these reconstructions of the histories of the Oceans considered as real entities, historical personalities, primary factors in the collective efforts of men." The first scholar-geographer to regard the enormous Pacific Ocean as a body of water uniting rather than dividing the nations that surround it is Oskar Spate. He is the first to have defined the Pacific as an entity. One might go so far as to call him the first guru of the New Pacific, though this modest, retiring old man would have shrunk from such hyperbole.

The early wanderers about the Pacific provide history with a good deal of drollery. The first European to see it was Vasco Nunez de Balboa, who, writes Spate, "steps on to the stage of history, traditionally out of a provision barrel [in which he had stowed away on the voyage from Espanola to Darien] and accompanied by his dog Leoncico… On 25 or 27 September [1513], alone, he looked down on the great waters of the ocean. The solemnity of the occasion was recognized-the conquistadores were always self-conscious of their Place in History. So a cairn was built, and the names of all the Spaniards present ...were recorded. On the 29th Balboa himself waded into the salt water of the Gulf of San Miguel-he had to wait hours for the tide to come up-banner in hand, and formally took possession of the Mar del Sur, and all its lands."

The Pacific Ocean was far from pacific when Balboa claimed it; according to diarists of the time it was "turbulent" and "raging." Greater ironies unfold: the unfortunate Balboa was later beheaded on a trumped-up charge, and, thanks to Keats's great sonnet "On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer," his name is now hopelessly confused with that of the great conquistador "stout Cortez…silent, upon a peak in Darien."

Ferdinand Magellan was not the first to circumnavigate the globe. He got only about two-thirds of the way around it, for he was killed on Cebu Island (one of the more restive of the southern Philippines). It was left to a now-forgotten member of his expedition, Juan Sebastian del Cano, to take the ship Victoria home to Spain and receive for his pains a pension and a coat of arms with the motto Primus circumdedisti me (Thou first circumnavigated me). Oskar Spate was amused by the Magellan memorial standing in Cebu: one side of the cross records his death as a tragedy; the other honors the local raja, Lapulapu, whose forces killed him, as a hero of the Philippine resistance.

Of thousands of such minutiae and of scores of more sober thoughts is Spate's trilogy constructed, and it is always sheer pleasure to read, a book to take along on a holiday as one might pack a copy of Gibbon. The works are filled with arresting ideas and fascinating anecdotes and can be savored for the language in which these matters are expressed.

Sir Francis Drake was Spain's scourge up & down the Pacific.

The three volumes cover as much geography as they do history, for the immensity of the ocean about which Spate writes-a third of the earth's surface. To put it another way, readers learn of currents and wind patterns, landmasses and natural resources, even while the narrative traces individuals and events. The Spanish Lake begins with Balboa's first paddle, in September 1513;  Paradise Found and Lost ends with the cities of Sydney, in Australia, and Vancouver, in Canada, struggling to their feet in the 1820s. Why did Spate not take the story of the Pacific up to the Panama Canal, whose construction reversed all the ocean's trading patterns, or until the beginnings of the nuclear Pacific at Hiroshima, or the reemergence of Japan after the peace treaty was signed, in San Francisco's magnificent beaux arts War Memorial Opera House in 1951?

Captain James Cook explored it from the Antarctic to the Bering Sea

The answer is that those three centuries saw the roots of the modern Pacific being laid down. In all the good and evil of those days, from the start of European discovery to the start of European economic dominion, we see the reasons for all that is happening today. It is the most interesting period, too. I feel he could safely leave the later stuff to historians of the modern Pacific. He found the roots, or laid the foundations, or what have you.

He was proud that his volumes were applauded for their literary merit as well as for their value as works of scholarship. So much of history can be so dreadfully dry.  There is absolutely no need to be solemn to be serious. I only wish all scholars would recognized that. He showed us all that a sound knowledge of the classics, a good grounding in English literature, and a brilliantly absorbed sense of history and geography can produce a work of genius, a work that has a luminous and lasting quality.

Among the many honours heaped on him were the Victoria Medal of the Royal Geographical Society, the Gold Medal of the American Geographical Society, the Laureat d'honneur of the International Geographical Union, and the Nehru Silver Medal. He was appointed Commendador de la Orden de Isabela la Catolica.

I wonder how he had managed to put so vast and amorphous a subject into such a finely crafted form. I thought for a moment and then remembered that his father kept small hotels in Bloomsbury. Well, one of them was number 48 Doughty Street. Do we know who lived there?  Most Londoners do.  It was an odd and rather wonderful coincidence, the kind that makes one wonder about the truth of the famous axiom that the historian is a failed novelist. Number 48 Doughty Street, where Oskar Spate spent many of his formative years, used to be the residence of Charles Dickens and is now a museum dedicated to him.  As Spate might have said in his precise, quiet way, "Q.e.d." 

1 comment:

Charles said...

Dear Ms. Edna, thank you for this extraordinary post (I’m packing). What a small, curious little world we live in. Only Tuesday did we (Syl and I) visit 48 Doughty Street (Dickens day!) between all the stops ‘dictated’ by DvH design. The place has an interesting aura, perhaps I was picking-up Oskar Spate’s vibrations since I now know that we both have/had a passion for the “Pacific Rim”. The books are wonderful, thank you for this thoughtful gift.

Bty Syl got her cell back.