Sir Halford John Mackinder Biography

Early Life

(20th-Century Biographies)

Halford John Mackinder initially hoped to follow the occupation of his father, a medical doctor. Later he shifted his studies to science, then history and strategy, then law, which he actually practiced for a time, and, finally, he began lecturing on “the New Geography.”

Mackinder was the eldest son of Draper and Fanny Anne Hewitt Mackinder, who were both of Scottish ancestry. His education was at Epsom College and at Oxford, where he first gained a junior studentship at Christ Church in 1880. In 1883, he was president of the Oxford Union, and in 1884 he gained the Burdett-Coutts science scholarship. Later, he was called to the bar at Inner Temple and also began lecturing in the university extension system, eventually delivering more than six hundred lectures, mostly in the North and West between 1885 and 1893.

Mackinder was asked to give his lecture on “Scope and Methods of Geography” to the Royal Geographical Society in January, 1887, thus stimulating the revival of the academic discipline of geography in Great Britain. In 1892, he traveled to the United States and lectured at a number of major universities, including Johns Hopkins, Harvard, and Chicago.

Mackinder always involved himself in a number of endeavors simultaneously. Extension lecturing led him into university administration, where he was to make significant contributions at several institutions. During the 1890’s he was director of what evolved into the University of Reading. Between 1903 and 1908 he served as the second director of the newly formed London School of Economics and Political Science. Between 1895 and 1925 he was lecturer and then professor of geography at the University of London. At the same time he was instrumental in the creation of the first institute, and then school, of geography, officially formed at Oxford in 1899. His readership in geography at Oxford, the first such appointment in a British university, was from 1887 to 1905.

In 1889, Mackinder married Emilie Catherine Ginsburg, the daughter of an Old Testament scholar. Emilie Mackinder often lived abroad, and, although she survived her husband, there is rarely any mention of her in Mackinder’s obituaries.

Life’s Work

(20th-Century Biographies)

At the same time that Mackinder was accomplishing so much in university administration and in the academic institutionalization of the discipline of geography, he was also formulating innovative theories on political geography, later known as geopolitics. He had already impressed academic authorities, especially leaders of the Royal Geographical Society, with his early lectures on the New Geography and the scope and methods of geography.

The discipline of geography in Great Britain had been declining, and many considered it unworthy of academic study. Oxford University, influenced by Mackinder, began the most significant steps of the subject’s rehabilitation. During his formative years, Mackinder was influenced by Sir Bartle Frere, president of the Royal Geographical Society in the 1870’s. While working as an administrator, Mackinder published basic texts in geography. Most important was Britain and the British Seas (1902). This book became the standard regional guide and was considered a classic of modern geographical literature. Other texts followed, including guides on India and the Rhine area of Europe.

Mackinder’s close association with the Royal Geographical Society provided a platform for the development of his geopolitical theories. In 1904, Mackinder presented a paper, “The Geographical Pivot of History,” in the Geographical Journal. This was the first statement of his geopolitical theories. The second major statement of his theories appeared in a book, Democratic Ideals and Reality, published in 1919, in which the famous Heartland thesis is found in full. Democratic Ideals and Reality was addressed to the peacemakers at the Paris Peace Conference after World War I. Mackinder continued to refine his views in an article published in Foreign Affairs, a journal of interest to experts in the foreign policy of the United States. The article, “The Round World and the Winning of the Peace” (July, 1943), was written during World War II and incorporates concepts associated with the rapid, dramatic industrial and technological advances of the past several decades.

The essence of Mackinder’s theory is his famous dictum or triptych, first published in Democratic Ideals and Reality:

Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland:
Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island:
Who rules the World-Island commands the World.

Mackinder was never consistent about the precise location of the Heartland; presumably it was an area about twenty-five hundred miles across and the same up and down, and included Western Asia and Eastern Europe. At one point he described the southern Ural mountain region as “the very pivot of the pivot area.”

In the variations of his theory, Mackinder speculated about possible controllers of the Heartland: Russia, Germany, a combination of those two, or a number of small states. The first three possibilities would definitely threaten the hegemony of British or Anglo-American interests, among others, and Mackinder obviously favored a unified British imperial and naval influence; he feared, however, that these interests would be overwhelmed by a powerful land-based axis, especially by the feared combination of Russia and Germany. He anticipated that after further technological advances, such as the railway and air power, sea-based or peripheral powers would decline. In various ways, Mackinder perceived the potential of railroads and of air power, of the rise of Japan,...

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(20th-Century Biographies)

Sir Halford John Mackinder was always ahead of his time and insufficiently appreciated at home. To some extent he has been unfairly maligned, especially for his alleged influence on developments in Nazi Germany and in the Cold War. His political and diplomatic careers seemed plagued by anachronisms, in these cases futuristic and not past. Recognition and credit were often late and distant, fully arriving only after his death because of the global and interdisciplinary nature of his treatises. Few critics had the breadth of vision to appreciate him.

Nevertheless, Mackinder’s contributions are major ones, particularly in the fields of academic geography and geopolitics. He was a leader in reviving the discipline of geography in the late nineteenth century, and his theory of the Heartland has become a geopolitical axiom.