Sir Halford John Mackinder (1861 - 1947)

Education, Life and Work

Halford John Mackinder was born on 15 February 1861 at Gainsborough, a small port and market town at the river Trent in England. Mackinder's hometown has been described as "one of the dreariest of the midland redbrick towns" (Blouet, 1987). He was the eldest of six children born to Dr. Draper and Mrs. Fanny Anne Mackinder. His father ran a large medical practice in Gainsborough and helped to increase awareness of public health-problems in Lincolnshire. He published several articles in the Journal of Public Health concerning his attempt at correlating the outbreak of disease to environmental conditions. As a result arose his interest in medical geography. Although Draper was a successful doctor, the Mackinders were never very affluent. The money they had was mainly spent on the children's education. Mackinder had the benefit of the teaching of a French governess, Mme. Hostetter. Thanks to her excellent instruction, he was, for all intents and purposes, able to speak French fluently by the time he was nine years old. In addition, his father and relatives were of important intellectual influence. His father was well educated and trained as a scientist. It was he who taught Mackinder to look for "interrelationships between factors in the environment" (Blouet, 1987). The fact that he grew up having well-traveled family connections‹his father having spent some time in France, and his uncle, Halford Hewitt, having a particular interest in Germany‹definitely shaped Halford Mackinder's interest in geography. In 1870 he went to Gainsborough Grammar School and from 1874 he was educated at Epsom College. His father always wanted him to be a doctor, and Epsom had a sound reputation for its advanced training in the sciences. At school Mackinder showed strengths in essay writing, languages, public speeches, and environmental sciences. Furthermore, he developed an enthusiasm for historical geology. In 1880 he and his friend Thomas Walker won a five-year Junior Studentship in physical sciences. In October of the same year the two men went up to Oxford and entered Christ Church. Here, Mackinder specialized in animal morphology, but he also took courses in physics, chemistry, physiology, and botany. During his last two years he attended classes in geology, history, and law. At the university he was involved in a wide range of school related activities. He spent a lot of time in the laboratories and the University Museum. He joined the Union and helped found the Junior Scientific Club in 1882. In the same year he enlisted in the Oxford University Army Volunteer Reserve. During the summer vacations, he often took part in exercises and long marches across the countryside. Another military related interest was his affinity for war games and his membership in the Kriegsspiel Club. There he met many other people who later would be of importance to him. Among those was Herford George who taught military history at Oxford. He wrote on the relationship of history and geography and on the historical geography of the British Empire. In 1886 H. George proposed Mackinder for membership in the Royal Geographical Society. On the 17th of November, 1885 the now twenty-four year old graduate student gave his first University Extension lecture on physical geography for about 400 workmen in the Rotherham Mechanics' Institute. At the Union, Mackinder became part of a movement, led by Michael Sadler, which aimed at educational reform. They hoped to bring the benefits of education to the working classes. Additionally, he was working on the development of a so-called "synthetic geography" which included many subdiciplines ranging from physical geography to the humanities. In a paper entitled "The Scope and Methods of Geography" that he wrote for the Royal Geographical Society, Mackinder outlined his ideas of a "New Geography". He defined geography as "the science of distributions" based on a biological tradition, "in which forces interconnect and play upon each other" (Blouet, 1987). He opines that geography must be "built upon and subsequent to physical geography" (Mackinder, 1887). As a result of the paper and especially of the aforementioned quote, Mackinder is sometimes labeled as an environmental determinist. It was his conviction that physical and human geography formed one subject, and he consequently drew the conclusion that history and geography can never be studied separately. In February, 1887 Mackinder was appointed to the Oxford Readership. He agreed to teach for a five-year term, at an annual salary of £300. In preparation for his work Mackinder was given a grant by the Royal Geographical Society which allowed him to travel to Germany. In 1889 he married Emilie Catherine (called Bonnie) Ginsburg. Over the following 12 years, Halford Mackinder made efforts to establish the teaching of geography at universities. "As a subject for education, however, and as a basis for all fruitful specialization within the subject, we insist on the teaching and grasping of geography as a whole" (Kearns, 1985). In 1992 his readership at Oxford was continued for five more years, and in 1892 the Christ Church opened the University Extension College with Mackinder as the first principal. The College offered classes in history, biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, geography, and arts. It grew rapidly, and by 1898, forty-four staff members were teaching there. Mackinder was sponsored by the Royal Geographical Society and gave lectures to teachers at Gresham College, London. Mackinder always pushed for the founding of a geographical institute in London arguing that there has to be a central place for lectures which are devoted to geography. In 1893 he became involved in the founding of the Geographical Association to stress the necessity of teaching geography in schools. Mackinder's contribution to the founding of the Reading University is considered one of his most important achievements. In 1897 he traveled to Europe where he met leading geographers, such as Joseph Partsch, Ferdinand von Richthofen, and Eliséé Réclus. Besides teaching, writing and educational administration, Halford Mackinder planned the first ascent of Mount Kenya. The idea of an expedition to Africa originated in conversations with his uncle in Gainsborough who always enjoyed traveling overseas. In 1896, the same year the Uganda Railway started, Mackinder received permission for the expedition to Kenya. He was supposed to map an unknown territory and to take part in the ascent of Mount Kenya. On June 8, 1899, Mackinder's party left London. They sailed from Marseille, France, and arrived at Zanzibar on June 28. In Kenya, the group had to face many problems, such as an outbreak of smallpox and a famine. Nevertheless the expedition to East Africa turned out to be a great success. The zoological work, especially, provided information about many new species unknown in Europe. A new species of eagle-owl, for example, was named after Mackinder, and several other birds and plants were named after members of his team. Coming back in the Fall of 1899, he began to live apart from his wife. At the end of the year he resumed giving lectures at Oxford. The first two years of school, he lectured on historical geography of North America, Australia, and the Cape (Cape of Good Hope). He also taught classes on the natural regions of the world, the historical geography of Western and Central Europe, and the development of geographical ideas. In 1902 his "reading" at Oxford received University College status. In the same year he published his book Britain and the British Seas. In addition to very well-written chapters on climate, weather, and sections on economic geography, his book provided the first comprehensive account of the geomorphology of Britain. His first major work became an example "of a regional study in a global context" (Martin, James, 1993). Two years later, in 1904, he presented his well-known paper "Geographical Pivot of History" at the Royal Geographical Society. He wrote that "my aim exhibit human history as part of the life of the world organism" (Kearns, 1985). Moreover, he argued that the world was coming to the end of the "Columbian epoch". Sea power was declining relative to land power, and railroads led the way to continental areas (Blouet, 1987). His thesis, widely-known as Mackinder's Heartland Theory, suggests that there was a pivotal area "in the closed heart-land of Euro-Asia" which was most likely to become the seat of world power, because of its inaccessibility. Before World War I, he had not made any predictions as to the countries that might try to gain control of the heartland. His theory was more or less a model based on world history and geographical facts. Mackinder defined a "world island" that consisted of the two continents Eurasia and Africa. In 1919, however, after the War, Mackinder came to the conclusion that the struggle for the command of the Heartland would most likely be between Germany and Russia. In order to keep the two struggling countries apart Mackinder suggested the formation of a buffer zone between them which could be composed of several small states. Throughout his theory he gave more weight to Germany than Russia in aiming for world domination. Interestingly enough, the prediction made by Mackinder proved to be remarkably accurate with Eastern Europe being the crisis area. By 1939 Germany had control over Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland. In 1941, the Germans invaded Russia, a move that Mackinder would interpret as an approach into the Heartland. Admittedly, Mackinder's Heartland concept was oversimplified, but as a model it helped to understand complex sequences of events (Blouet, 1987; Martin, James, 1993). In Democratic Ideals and Reality Mackinder summarizes his concept by saying: Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; Who rules the heartland commands the World Island; Who rules the World Island commands the World (Mackinder, 1919). Only by the 1940s did his book become very successful. It was reprinted several times. From 1913 to 1946 Halford Mackinder was chairman, and in 1916 he was elected President of the Geographical Association. After World War I Mackinder wanted to take part in the postwar boundary-making decisions. A few months after the publication of his influential book he was called to the Foreign Office and asked to go to South Russia, as British High Commissioner. In 1920, when he returned from Russia, Mackinder assembled a good knowledge of the situation from Poland to south Russia, and he worked on the foundation of an anti-Bolshevik alliance. His idea was to subdivide Eastern Europe further into little states, such as White Russia, the Ukraine, South Russia, Georgia, Armenia, etc., in order to lessen the danger of Russia becoming the great Heartland power. In 1923 he was given a personal chair in Geography at the London University. When he retired from there he still took part in public life, especially on the imperial committees and other important commissions. He became a Privy Councilor in 1926. Due to deafness, Mackinder was less able to give public speeches, but he was active in updating his school texts and Britain and the British Seas. Three years before his death he was awarded the Charles P. Daly Medal by the American Geographical Society. Mackinder's geographical work was often criticized as being too political, and his scientific reasoning was often accused of being too primitive. Although he was an excellent lecturer, "his frequent absences both in mind and body" caused a lack of respect and admiration.

Summary: Mackinder's Scientific Ideas and Geographical Thought

According to Mackinder there are three correlated arts which he thought were characteristic of geography: observation, cartography, and teaching. "The observer obtains the material for the maps, which are constructed by the cartographer and interpreted by the teacher" (Kearns, 1985). Basically, Mackinder's philosophy of geography is a result of three major elements. First, he was influenced by his biological training which shaped his conception of environment and human beings (environmental determinism). Secondly, he put much effort into establishing the study of geography as a serious academic subject at universities and schools. He was involved in the founding of the Reading Society and the London School of Economics. Finally, Mackinder was convinced that geography was a distinct discipline with its own methodology (Kearns, 1985). Mackinder became "the grand old man of British geography" who, with the development of his New Geography, lead the field from an age of exploration to an age of education (Martin, James, 1993).


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