About Ron Crocombe

RONALD GORDON CROCOMBE was born on 8 October, 1929 in Auckland, New Zealand, and raised in Piopio in the Waitomo District of the North Island. Later he attended Otahuhu College in Auckland. He is today listed as one of their notable alumni.

Leaving school, he travelled through post-war Europe and, according to his son Tata, it was while sleeping under a bridge in Dresden that, “he was awoken with a startling epiphany that he would dedicate his life to education in the South Pacific.”

Ron Crocombe initially came to Rarotonga in 1950 as a Clerk of Works for the Public Works Department, a role which according to his friend Paiere Mokoroa, involved “ordering materials to build new buildings at Public Works Headquarters and ensuring that other buildings for the government were designed, roads around Rarotonga were maintained, water outlets on Rarotonga were maintained, and so on.” He travelled extensively in the outer islands and became proficient in the Cook Islands Māori language.

In 1955 he met a New Zealand educated Cook Islands teacher trainer, Marjorie Tuainekore Hosking. They were married on 7 April 1959 in Masterson.

Recalled to New Zealand by the Department of Island Territories in 1956, Ron completed, the final year of a degree in Anthropology at Auckland University College, a degree he had commenced extramurally in Rarotonga.

Moving to Wellington he studied Economics and Cultural Psychology at Masters level but before completing his degree he was recalled to the Cook Islands as akavānui (Resident Agent) for Atiu.

His period as Atiu’s Resident Agent (1957 – 60) resulted in a lifelong association with the people of the island, particularly with Rongomatane Tetupu Ariki, one of the island chiefs and Vainerere Tangatapoto, a school teacher, community leader and later Member of Parliament.

In 1961 Ron applied for and received offers of a PhD scholarship from Harvard, Stanford and the Australian National University (ANU).  “Everyone I had consulted,” he said, “had advised me against the ANU.” Despite this, he accepted their offer, completing his doctoral thesis between 1958 and 1961, under the supervision of H.E. ‘Harry’ Maude at the ANU Research School of Pacific Studies.

Two important publications resulted from Ron’s time in Canberra;  the publication of his PhD thesis as a monograph by Oxford University Press - Land Tenure in the Cook Islands (1964). This work was considered groundbreaking for its use of vernacular sources to reconstruct the pre-contact land tenure system of the Cook Islands; and, with Marjorie Crocombe (co-editor), The Works of Ta’unga; Records of a Polynesian Traveller in the Southern Seas, 1833–1896 (ANU Press, 1968). This work, “combining the two strands of ethnohistory and an Islands-focused historiography,” is now regarded as one of the foundational texts of Pacific History (Lal and Munro 2006).

In 1962, Ron and Marjorie Crocombe and their family moved to live and work in Papua New Guinea following Ron’s appointment as an ANU Research Fellow, and from 1965, as Director of ANU's New Guinea Research Unit, based in Port Moresby. According to Ron “The work of this unit is to do research and publish the results” with a particular emphasis on policy-oriented research as the country moved towards independence.

In 1969, Ron was appointed Foundation Professor of Pacific Studies at the newly established University of the South Pacific (USP) in Suva, Fiji. In this role he taught, inspired and befriended a generation of future Pacific community and political leaders and academics. As a member of the University Senate, he championed the devolution of the faculties to the USP’s member countries.

From 1976-86 he was Director of the Institute of Pacific Studies, USP, commissioning and assisting the writing, editing and publication of academic and creative works by Pacific authors. Under his leadership IPS became, in the words of Albert Wendt “the greatest publisher of Pasefika writers in the world” helping to make USP “a university to be respected and admired.”

As Morgan Tuimaleali’ifano notes this involved Ron “subordinating his own research interest to a lifetime of cajoling, persuading, and ‘coercing’ islanders to research and write their stories and write their experiences….” By one estimate, Ron’s persistence resulted in the publication of more than 1,700 Pacific islanders during his directorship.

On his retirement in 1988, Ron was appointed Professor Emeritus of the University.

In retirement he continued to write, publish and encourage others to do the same. In 2007 he published a major work, Asia in the Pacific Islands: Replacing the West, documenting the decline of European and American influence in the Pacific and the rise of Japan, China, Taiwan and South Korea, with particular emphasis on China. Arguing that the predominant cultural, economic, political and other external influences on the region were coming increasingly from Asia, he urged Pacific Islanders to recognize and actively engagage with the changes under way.

Ron Crocombe died in Auckland of a heart attack on 19 June 2009. He was returning to Rarotonga after induction as one of six fellows of the 'Atenisi University, Tonga.

He is survived by his wife and lifetime academic collaborator Marjorie Tuainekore Crocombe, (former Director of Extension Services at USP and Director of the Centre for Pacific Studies at the University of Auckland) and by four children, 14 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

The Cook Islands Parliament adjourned to allow the Prime Minister and Members of Parliament to attend his funeral in Rarotonga.

In August 2010, a conference was held at the University of the South Pacific in Rarotonga to commemorate Ron Crocombe's lifetime work. Speakers included family and colleagues, with a keynote address by the novelist, poet and artist Albert Wendt, ONZ, CNZM.

On 13 February 2014, a book -Ron Crocombe E Toa! - was launched as a tribute to Ron's life, his work and academic impact. It contains contributions from fellow academics and those he taught and influenced. The book was edited by his wife, Marjorie Tuainekore Crocombe, and colleagues Rod Dixon and Linda Crowl.

In one of the book’s chapters “The Road to Laucala Bay” the distinguished academic, the late Professor Brij Lal, one of Ron’s former students, wrote –

“Ron ….was a man of many parts, quite unlike any other, unmatchable in his energy and enthusiasm for things Pacific, the likes of whom I know I shall not see again in my lifetime… He taught and researched but his lasting legacy to the region was his indefatigable promotion of research and writing by Pacific Islanders themselves.”


We thank Rod Dixon for compiling this biographical note.