Professor Gerry Kearns

Above: Professor Gerry Kearns

The first in Oxford Geography's new All-School Seminar series, hosted in collaboration with Uncomfortable Oxford, tackled the controversial history of the School's founder, Halford Mackinder.

Halford Mackinder introduced Geography as a subject to the University of Oxford. On 18 October the Halford Mackinder Lecture Theatre was filled with an audience of 200 students, support staff and academics to hear a talk on Mackinder and his influence, given by Professor Gerry Kearns from Maynooth University. You can listen to a recording of his talk below.

The author of Geopolitics and Empire: The legacy of Halford Mackinder, shared his research into Mackinder in a fascinating and wide-ranging talk which kept the audience rapt. Kearns outlined powerfully, and sometimes chillingly, how Mackinder’s racist and imperialist views drove his geographical interests – whether that be exploration, writing school textbooks, or attempting to influence geopolitics in Russia. We learnt how Mackinder’s expedition to Mount Kenya, whilst bolstering his masculine credentials as a traditional geographer, proved fatal for eight of the 90 African porters he had bought from a slave owner to carry his supplies. They were shot at his command.

Much of Mackinder’s work was educational, evangelising British people to think ‘imperially’. He principally wrote school textbooks, in which he described the population of India, for example, as barbaric and exotic. His books omitted to mention the colonial violence meted out by the British, despite this being well-documented at the time. Kearns argued that we cannot excuse Mackinder’s views as being a product of their era, since some of his contemporaries had very different standpoints.

As Kearns insisted, Mackinder “bequeaths us a troubling legacy. It is a legacy of force and racism; and we need to be honest about this.”

Ongoing uncomfortable conversations

There is a tension between, on the one hand, acknowledging our history, and on the other, detaching ourselves from the unpleasant elements of our School’s past. As Head of School, Gillian Rose is seeking views specifically on what to do about the name of the lecture theatre. There will be discussions this term and next, and postcards were handed out at the event to gather responses and thoughts on the issue.

If you haven’t yet handed in your postcard please leave it at reception to pass on to Gillian Rose or Claire Hann. If you would prefer to give your views by email, please contact equality@ouce.ox.ac.uk.

The School plans to hold an All-School seminar in Week 1 of each term, the intention being to bring the whole department together at a family-friendly time of day to hear an illuminating and accessible talk on a subject related to geography.