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Department of Geography


Robin Donkin

Robin Donkin

The Department received, with great sadness, news that Dr Robin Donkin, Fellow of Jesus College and a former member of the Department, died on 1 February 2006. The following is the text of the eulogy spoken at the memorial service.

Robin was born in Morpeth, in Northumbria, a county of which he was immensely proud, and where he first felt that interest in the history of the landscape which he developed throughout his life. He studied both as an undergraduate and as a graduate at Durham University, where he completed a doctorate in 1953 concerning the contribution of the Cistercians to the geography of medieval England and Wales. He then served two years National Service in Egypt, as an officer in the Royal Artillery. Following that, in 1955-6 he spent a year in Berkeley in the School of Geography, where, under the inspiration of Carl Sauer, he learnt the meticulous interpretation of cultural landscape that he transmitted to all his pupils. He returned to Britain, teaching for two years in Edinburgh and then twelve in Birmingham, before coming to Cambridge in 1970 as Lecturer in the Geography of Latin America. He was made a Reader in Historical Geography in this University in 1990. He was elected a Fellow and Tutor of Jesus College in 1972, and Emeritus Fellow upon his retirement in 1996. He became a Fellow of the British Academy in 1985, and the degree of Doctor of Letters (Litt.D.) was conferred on him in 1992.

Robin combined great erudition, centred upon the Rare Books Room of the University Library, surprisingly perhaps with great adventurousness. He made long and demanding fieldtrips to North Africa on his motor bike; he went to Middle and South America for work on agricultural terracing, travelling on foot or by local transport; and then to South India and Southern China for his research into pearls and pearl fishing; and, most recently, over the Karakorum Highway into Chinese Turkestan.

During his retirement he suffered a serious road accident, and showed great fortitude and determination in the long period of recovery. He then resumed cycling into Cambridge from Barton; this period saw the publication of his books on spices and the spice trade, and he leaves a work on the cultural geography of maize incomplete.

The central feature of Robin's life was his family. In 1970 he married Jennifer, who had studied Geography in Birmingham. They together with Lucy, their daughter, spent the majority of their family holidays in the Lake District, where he enjoyed working in his fell-side garden at Grasmere, engaging in such practical pursuits as propagating rhododendrons, rebuilding dry stone walls, felling trees, and lighting bonfires. Otherwise, they travelled widely, and culturally, in Scotland, Italy and elsewhere in Europe.

Robin was not a man who would have appreciated a eulogy; so I will not elaborate further, except to recall aspects of his person and character, which gained him both affection and respect: his unassuming modesty, his courtesy, and kindness; his wit and sense of humour; his great intellectual curiosity, and pleasure in sharing his discoveries; his lively commentaries on current events; his adventurousness and self-discipline in travel; his steadfastness in the face of adversity; and his love of those close to him, and his pleasure in their company. May he rest in peace.

Dr. Tim Jenkins, Jesus College