An­thro­pol­o­gist, com­mu­nist, in­former. Fred Rose made his own choices, as a new bi­og­ra­phy makes clear, writes Ni­co­las Roth­well

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

The grainy, off-kil­ter photo tells its tale: two men caught in con­ver­sa­tion, one goa­tee-bearded, wear­ing a hat, hands thrust deep into his jacket pock­ets, the other clutch­ing a full leather brief­case. It is a sur­veil­lance im­age taken on April 5, 1962 by an un­der­cover ASIO op­er­a­tive at Ellery Cres­cent on the cam­pus of the Aus­tralian Na­tional Univer­sity.

The first of the pair is in­stantly recog­nis­able — the his­to­rian Man­ning Clark. And the sec­ond, the tar­get of the spy agency’s at­ten­tions? Fred Rose, the no­to­ri­ous “red pro­fes­sor” of an­thro­pol­ogy, a pi­o­neer of re­mote-area Abo­rig­i­nal field stud­ies, a com­mit­ted com­mu­nist, a man whose com­plex path in life bore wit­ness to the ide­o­log­i­cal wars of the mid-20th cen­tury.

Rose has been ef­fec­tively writ­ten out of the in­tel­lec­tual history of Aus­tralia de­spite the em­blem­atic na­ture of his fate. The an­thro­po­log­i­cal es­tab­lish­ment pre­serves prac­ti­cally no mem­ory of his pi­o­neer­ing work on Groote Ey­landt in the 1930s; the rad­i­cal in­tel­li­gentsia whose cir­cles he once fre­quented have long since moved on from the con­cerns that shaped his life.

There is a rea­son for this ne­glect, a sin­gle, all­dom­i­nat­ing rea­son: the episode that lies at the heart of the sub­tle new bi­og­ra­phy of Rose by Flin­ders Univer­sity history aca­demics Va­lerie Munt and Peter Monteath. Rose was caught in the crosshairs of the 1954 Petrov royal com­mis­sion, es­tab­lished in the wake of the sen­sa­tional de­fec­tion by an Aus­tralian-based Soviet in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer at the height of the Cold War. Rose de­nied any in­volve­ment in es­pi­onage and main­tained a lofty si­lence un­der ques­tion­ing. Soon af­ter­wards, his Aus­tralian prospects blighted, he moved to East Ger­many, achieved a mea­sure of be­lated aca­demic dis­tinc­tion and served for years as an ac­tive col­lab­o­ra­tor of the state se­cu­rity po­lice.

This star­tling tra­jec­tory had a logic to it. Rose was shaped not only by his back­ground but by the pol­i­tics he ab­sorbed: his map for un­der­stand­ing the forces at work in the world be­tween the two great Euro­pean wars. His so­cial ori­gins were mod­est. He grew up in “the smug op­pres­sive at­mos­phere” of sub­ur­ban outer Lon­don, went to Cam­bridge and came into con­tact with rad­i­cal thought cur­rents for the first time there. He met the young woman who would be­come his wife, Edith Linde, who was from a prom­i­nent, pro­gres­sively in­clined Ber­lin le­gal fam­ily. He fell un­der the in­flu­ence of the oc­to­ge­nar­ian Al­fred Cort Had­don, the pi­o­neer of Tor­res Strait re­searches. He be­came an in­tel­lec­tual dis­ci­ple of the Pol­ish an­thro­po­log­i­cal the­o­rist Bro­nis­law Mali­nowski.

Rose longed to test these ideas in the field — in a new field: Aus­tralia. He made the long boat pas­sage and ar­rived in Syd­ney on an over­cast day in April 1937 with a suit­case and a sec­ond­hand trunk full of books and for­mal clothes. He went to see the pope of an­thro­pol­ogy in Aus­tralia, AP Elkin, who dis­patched him to ob­serve Abo­rig­i­nal life in La Per­ouse in south­east­ern Syd­ney. But Rose wanted the re­mote bush: he trained as a me­te­o­rol­o­gist and had him­self posted to the north. Dar­win was his transit point. It seemed charm­ing at first, with its cor­ru­gated iron cot­tages and strange, stilt-mounted white bun­ga­lows, but soon the sweat and heat be­came op­pres­sive and the true na­ture of the north­ern cap­i­tal re­vealed it­self to him: “Sin, sor­row, soreeyes, sand and syphilis.”

Rose spent his time fre­quent­ing the Abo­rig­i­nal fringe camps and earned the hos­til­ity of the lo­cal white es­tab­lish­ment. He found lodg­ings with the lo­cal stringer for Syd­ney’s The Daily Tele­graph, who had gone troppo: from this land­lord Rose in­her­ited the task of proof­ing Capri­cor­nia for Xavier Herbert. The time came to head for his post at Emer­ald River on Groote. He was 23 years old and on the an­thro­po­log­i­cal front­line at last. “With my ri­fle over my shoul­der, case in ei­ther hand and my poplin suit, shoes and socks as a bun­dle un­der my arm, I strug­gled to the shore.” Rose’s seven months on Groote marked the be­gin­ning of two im­por­tant friend­ships: with the Anindilyakwa peo­ple, whose fa­mil­ial struc­tures he was able to record with great rigour; and with the swash­buck­ling white king of the mis­sion set­tle­ment, Fred Gray.

The an­thro­pol­ogy Rose em­barked on at Emer­ald River was the foun­da­tion of all his later work and it re­tains a cer­tain aus­tere force to­day, as do the var­i­ous mem­oirs and rem­i­nis­cences he de­voted to those first days in the re­mote in­dige­nous north. On, next, to Broome and a new stage in his po­lit­i­cal jour­ney. His son Kim, named for the Kim­ber­ley, was born there. He fell in with a doc­tor named Alec Jolly, who had a taste for Marx­ist thought. They worked to­gether and wrote pa­pers to­gether. Their views were plain enough: pol­icy to­wards Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple should be shaped, they felt, by an­thro­pol­o­gists, not by “un­trained mis­sion­ar­ies or po­lice­men, whose ob­jects are al­most in­vari­ably di­a­met­ri­cally op­posed to the well­be­ing of the abo­rig­i­nal: the one at­tempt­ing to graft worth­less forms of Chris­tian­ity on to the shat­tered be­liefs of the abo­rig­i­nal, the other to en­force the white man’s law”.

By the time World War II was reach­ing its crescendo Rose had been shifted by the weather ser­vice once again, to Perth. He saw the con­flict in stark fash­ion. He had spent time in Nazi Ger­many in his stu­dent years. He knew the Third Re­ich at first hand. The Red Army had just turned back the Wehrma­cht at the gates of Mos- cow. For a man of Rose’s lean­ings, it seemed in­creas­ingly plain that the Soviet Union was morally and so­cially su­pe­rior to the West. He de­cided to join the Com­mu­nist Party of Aus­tralia. “It be­came his bedrock,” his bi­og­ra­phers write. “He would build his world on it.”

Rose tried for po­si­tions in aca­demic an­thro­pol­ogy in Aus­tralia, but was blocked — by Elkin, he sus­pected. In­stead, he took up a se­ries of public ser­vice jobs in Can­berra in the post­war re­con­struc­tion bu­reau­cracy. This brought him back into con­tact with the Top End. He was able to re­turn briefly to Groote in sup­port of the land­mark Amer­i­can-Aus­tralian Sci­en­tific Ex­pe­di­tion, whose leader, Charles Pearcy Mount­ford, wrote him out of the record.

By now, Rose was de­vel­op­ing a dou­ble life: prin­ci­pal re­search of­fi­cer in the Depart­ment of Ex­ter­nal Ter­ri­to­ries by day, CPA ex­pert on Abo­rig­ines by night. His Can­berra home was a hive of rad­i­cal net­work­ing. Noth­ing illegal in that, since the ban on com­mu­nist pol­i­tics had been re­scinded; but a new shadow was hang­ing over left­ist sym­pa­this­ers in the na­tional cap­i­tal.

From in­ter­cepted and de­crypted Soviet tele­grams it was clear to US in­tel­li­gence that there was a leak in the Aus­tralian Depart­ment of Ex­ter­nal Af­fairs. Clas­si­fied doc­u­ments were be­ing passed to the Soviet lega­tion. The ev­i­dence against a hand­ful of de­part­men­tal staff was com­pelling, but was Rose a mem­ber of their ring? He came un­der scru­tiny. At­ti­tudes to com­mu­nism were hard­en­ing once more. Robert Men­zies nar­rowly failed in a bid to se­cure by ref­er­en­dum the power to ban the CPA. Se­cu­rity screen­ing also in­ten­si­fied. Rose was in line for a new post that would have made him the se­nior public ser­vant in charge of the North­ern Ter­ri­tory’s Rum Jun­gle ura­nium de­posit. ASIO was called in, and hit on a way of eas­ing Rose out: his job would sim­ply be made re­dun­dant.

A hinge point in his life now loomed. He left A young Fred Rose, left, pho­tographed by his wife Edith; Rose with Man­ning Clark caught on cam­era by ASIO, above; Vladimir and Ev­dokia Petrov, right the public ser­vice, moved away from his wife and chil­dren and set up with a new com­pan­ion as a dairy farmer on King Is­land in Bass Strait. Then, on April 4, 1954, Vladimir Petrov, os­ten­si­bly the third sec­re­tary at the Soviet em­bassy in Can­berra, in fact a se­nior in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer, de­fected to the West, bring­ing with him ci­pher codes and guides to agent net­works around the world.

That July, Rose was called be­fore the royal com­mis­sion held to probe Petrov’s leads. Monteath and Munt cover the events around the com­mis­sion in foren­sic de­tail: “Fred Rose had lit­tle more than a cameo role,” they write, “but it would be enough to be­smirch his name for­ever.”

The bi­og­ra­phers tend to ac­cept Rose’s ac­count of his po­lit­i­cal ac­tiv­i­ties and con­vic­tions at that time. They view him as a be­liev­ing CPA mem­ber who re­frained from es­pi­onage, who knew he had no ap­ti­tude for the cloak-and-dag­ger as­pects of clan­des­tine work. Other ac­counts of the Petrov saga have tended to the view that Rose may have served as a “con­tact point” be­tween ac­tive agents in Ex­ter­nal Af­fairs and their Soviet han­dlers.

The royal com­mis­sion re­port was in­con­clu­sive. There was no firm ev­i­dence that could be pre­sented against Rose, and even in the se­cret in­ter­cepts of Soviet ca­ble traf­fic there were only vague hints at an uniden­ti­fied agent listed as “pro­fes­sor” — a cover name in code. But Rose’s stonewalling per­for­mance at the com­mis­sion’s hear­ings did him no good. The re­port de­scribed him as “one of the most un­sat­is­fac­tory wit­nesses called be­fore us” and his ev­i­dence as “full of pre­var­i­ca­tions and eva­sions”. Af­ter this there was no prospect of an aca­demic ca­reer in an­thro­pol­ogy for him in Aus­tralian univer­si­ties. Rose went to work on the Syd­ney wa­ter­front.

In 1956 he made the ex­tra­or­di­nary de­ci­sion to leave Aus­tralia, re­join his wife in Europe and re­unite his fam­ily. He would start afresh in East Ber­lin, cap­i­tal of the Ger­man Demo­cratic Re-

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