March 2, 2016
A Tribute to John Legge:Pioneer who taught Australia about Asia (1921-2016)
by Anthony Milner
In the words of a former President of the Asian Studies Association of Australia, Elaine McKay, John Legge more than any other was the founder of modern Asian studies in Australia. In the great expansionist period of the Australian university system he was (as Professor of history, and then dean of arts) a leader in the building of Monash University – and also in the vital interaction between academic analysts and government policymakers.
Through his international and Australian networks, and growing numbers of students, he influenced Australia’s engagement with Asia. Internationally, Legge was especially recognised for his writing on Indonesia – and also as a theoretician in the discipline of history.
Legge was a graduate of Melbourne University and Oxford, and his early writing was on colonial government, with major books on Papua and British Fiji. The Papua project on Australia’s administration of the territory arose from Legge’s wartime work in the government’s Directorate of Research and Civil Affairs, which recruited also the poet James McAuley and future governor-general John Kerr. At the University of Western Australia in the immediate post-War period (1946-1960), Legge was also a pioneer in the teaching of Asian history – Fred Chaney, Sir Neil Currie and others spoke later of how his survey course changed their lives.
These years in Western Australia, working in the department of history founded by Fred Alexander and living in St Georges College under the wardenship of the respected and eccentric “Josh” Reynolds, were particularly happy ones for Legge. It was here that he met and married, in 1952, Alison Hale, a fellow Oxford graduate and the star of a local production of Shaw’s St Joan. They had three children, David, Catherine and Colin.
In 1956, John and Alison took sabbatical leave at Cornell University, the pre-eminent centre of south-east Asian studies in the United States. Here Legge was impressed by the academic leadership of George Kahin, with his focus on modern Asia not Orientalism, his (often critical) engagement with Washington and his network of relations with the rising new elites of post-colonial south-east Asia. The great Indonesianist, Herb Feith, who knew both men well, once reflected that despite their many common perspectives, Legge’s “emancipatory liberalism” was “more playful and sceptical”.
John David Legge was born in Murchison, WA, on May 24, 1921. He had a particularly Australian style, shaped in part in Western Victoria (at Warrnambool High School and Geelong College). His father was a Presbyterian clergyman and his great-grand-uncle was the missionary James Legge, the translator of Confucius and first professor of Chinese at Oxford. In the midst of academic debate, John Legge’s face – like that of his ancestor – could assume an expression of Protestant tenacity.
At Melbourne University Legge studied in the Department of History – where the influential professor, R.M. (Max) Crawford, was questioning the nature of history as a process of inquiry, and also warning Australians that the age of European empires had ended, and that they must now come to terms with the societies of the new Asia Pacific. In future years Legge addressed these two themes himself as an academic leader, especially when he moved to the new Monash University as foundation professor of history in 1960.
At Monash, Legge created a department of history which was soon regarded as one of the finest in the country. It was distinguished by a fresh approach to the study of theoretical issues, an extraordinary range of expertise – including some of Australia’s most prominent specialists in Australian and European history – and a collegiality which is today still a hallmark.
He was also central in developing the Monash Centre of Southeast Asian Studies – modelling it in some ways on the Cornell Centre, and achieving a wide international reputation for Australia as well as Monash with amazing rapidity. The first south-east Asia specialists who came to Monash – including Feith, Cyril Skinner, Ian Mabbett, Michael Swift, Jamie Mackie and Milton Osborne – were renowned in their various fields. Monash was also now equipped to contribute to the development of south-east Asian studies in the region itself – Legge, for instance, spent 1969-1970 as director of Singapore’s today-famous Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. One of his initiatives there was to institute weekend seminars where public servants, business people and journalists could interact with academics. As always, he believed an academic institution “should not be an ivory tower”.
In his own academic writing following the Cornell sabbatical, Legge’s principal focus was Indonesia – which he recognised as a country of the highest possible importance for Australians to understand. He was the first Australian historian to devote himself primarily to the study of Indonesia, and his best known works are a beautifully crafted biography of Indonesia’s founding statesman Sukarno (first published in 1972) and a general history, Indonesia (first published in 1964). This second work is remarkable in combining Legge’s desire to understand the historical processes which have shaped Indonesia with his commitment to advancing the discipline of history.
It is an achievement in inter-disciplinary collaboration, with the historian Legge reaching out to a range of social science writing. America’s leading anthropologist, Clifford Geertz, acknowledged that it was Legge more than any other scholar who had brought the disciplines together in Indonesian studies.
Alison’s illness in the late 1970s was a blow which the couple met with dignity and fortitude. John faced the untimely death of his 52-year-old life partner with a strength which may have drawn on his childhood in the manse and the early death of his own mother. A second, 16-year marriage to Jane, a fellow Indonesianist, brought new happiness.
It was from his strong academic foundation in history and South-East Asian studies that John Legge played a broader role in Australian public life. Many of his students went to key academic posts around the country, and also to influential positions in government departments. He supported research and educational projects which he believed would help the nation and he accepted high office in a range of public institutions.
Legge was a guiding influence in the Australian Institute of International Affairs (writing its history in 1999) and the Asian Studies Association of Australia – and played a large part in many major forums and “teach-ins”. He was prominent in the contest over Vietnam, debating against supporters of the American-led campaign. From 1987-1993 he was an executive member on the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Board and for many years he chaired the Department of Foreign Affairs Editorial Advisory Board for the series Documents on Australian Foreign Policy.
Legge’s students and colleagues will best remember his delight in debate, fundamental fairness and personal warmth. He was determined that Australia should be in the vanguard of international historical research.