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Mackinder, Halford

Mackinder, Halford



Sir Halford John Mackinder (1861–1947) was both an academic geographer and a practicing politician. After reading physical science and modern history at Oxford, he served that university’s pioneer extension scheme for adult education. He was deeply convinced of the value of this missionary effort to spread knowledge more widely in England. He lectured up and down the country between 1885 and 1893 on what he called “the new geography.” He was a natural orator, and he preached his geographical gospel with zeal and fervor.

At that time the subject of geography did not occupy a high place in British or American education; it had little or no prestige in the universities. The fame of Mackinder’s Oxford extension lectures reached the Royal Geographical Society of London. In January 1887 he was invited to lecture to the society on the scope and methods of geography. In the discussion after the lecture he defined geography as “the science of distribution, the science, that is, which traces the arrangement of things in general on the earth’s surface” (1887, p. 160) and urged that physical and political geography be combined. An examination of the lecture shows that many notions that are now commonplace in geographical teaching were first enunciated by Mackinder.

Mackinder had a special mission for geography that still has considerable importance: in the 1887 lecture he said that “one of the greatest of all gaps lies between the natural sciences and the study of humanity. It is the duty of the geographer to build one bridge over an abyss which in the opinion of many is upsetting the equilibrium of our culture” (p. 145). In the same year that he gave this lecture Mackinder was appointed to a readership in geography at Oxford; he claimed that he was the first Oxford reader in geography since Hakluyt, the Elizabethan. As a result of Mackinder’s efforts, the school of geography was established at Oxford in 1899; this was the first British university department of geography.

The idea of the region was an implicit part of Mackinder’s argument for geography as an academic discipline. At Oxford one of his regular annual courses was always concerned with the analysis of a particular region. His Britain and the British Seas (1902) is one of the few classics of modern geographical literature. This book was the first of a series planned by Mackinder to present “a picture of the physical features and condition of a great natural region, and to trace their influence upon human societies” (1902, p. 7). By their efforts at Oxford both Mackinder and his successor, A. J. Herbertson, placed the study of regions in the forefront of geographical work. Mackinder also taught that geography is a unity which should not be split into fragments. These ideas about the unity of geography as a subject and the necessity for basing it on integrated studies of regions are the foundations upon which modern British academic geography has been built.

In January 1904 Mackinder read a paper entitled “The Geographical Pivot of History” to the Royal Geographical Society. He was then still teaching at Oxford but had just been elected di-rector of the London School of Economics. Mac-kinder described a central part of Eurasia as “the pivot area,” a term he later changed to “heart-land.” In his lecture he laid down two principles. The first was that since the modern improvement of steam navigation, the world had become one and, in so doing, had also become one closed political system. The second and main point of his argument concerned the importance to the world of the modern expansion of Russia. He asserted that “the pivot region of the world’s politics” is “that area of Euro-Asia which is inaccessible to ships,” and is controlled by Russia (1904, p. 434). If the world is regarded as a unit, he argued, combinations of power “are likely to rotate round the pivot state, which is always likely to be great, but with limited mobility as compared with the surrounding marginal and insular powers” (pp. 436–437). In the discussion after the lecture Mackinder bluntly asserted that the development for the first time in recorded history of a great stationary population in the steppes constituted a revolution in the world (p. 442). In 1919 Mac-kinder expanded his paper into a book, Democratic Ideals and Reality, which was described by J. Russell Smith as “a tract addressed to the Peace Conference at Versailles” (1945, p. 148). It contains the famous warning: “When our Statesmen [at Versailles] are in conversation with the defeated enemy, some airy cherub should whisper to them from time to time saying: “Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland: Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island: Who rules the World-Island commands the World” ([1919] 1942, p. 150).

Between the two world wars Mackinder’s theory of the heartland received little attention in the English-speaking world; but it was closely examined in Germany, where it became a basic idea among the students of geopolitics (Zeitschrift fiir Geopolitik, passim). General Karl Haushofer (1937) described Mackinder’s 1904 paper as the greatest of all geographical world views. During World War II, Mackinder’s idea of the heartland received considerable attention in both Britain and America. In 1943 Mackinder, then 82 years of age, restated his heartland theory, with modifications, in an article in Foreign Affairs. He believed that his concept of the heartland was even more valid than it had been forty years earlier, and he boldly asserted that “.. . if the Soviet Union emerges from this war as conqueror of Germany, she must rank as the greatest land Power on the Globe. Moreover, she will be the Power in the strategically strongest defensive position. The Heartland is the greatest natural fortress on earth. For the first time in history it is manned by a garrison sufficient both in number and quality” (1943, p. 601).

Mackinder’s writings on land power can be compared with those of Mahan on the influence of sea power [see the biography of MAHAN]. It has been suggested that modern air power destroyed the validity of the arguments of both Mahan and Mackinder. But Mackinder in 1919, and again in 1943, used the coming of air power to support his older thesis. He also stated his conviction that the conquest of the air gave the world’s unity a new significance for all mankind. W. Gordon East, in a reasoned commentary of Mackinder’s theories in the light of more recent events, similarly insisted that Mackinder’s “geopolitical thinking is still relevant to the task of winning the peace” (1950, p. 93).

Mackinder’s interest in politics led him to become a practicing politician, and he was a member of Parliament from 1910 to 1922. He also served as British high commissioner for South Russia in 1919–1920. But his achievements in politics are not as memorable as his pioneer research in the field of applied geography. He created modern British geography as a university subject. He can be regarded as a founder of several of its branches, especially that of political geography, but he steadfastly believed in the unity of the subject as a whole. He wanted geography to enlighten the practical affairs of daily life. In his own words, “geography must underlie the strategy of peace if you would not have it subserve the strategy of war” (1931, p. 335).

Edmund W. Gilbert

[See alsoGeography, article on Political Geography.]


1887 On the Scope and Methods of Geography. Royal Geographical Society, Proceedings 9:141–174. → Includes 14 pages of discussion.

(1902) 1930 Britain and the British Seas. 2d ed. Oxford: Clarendon.

1904 The Geographical Pivot of History. Geographical Journal 23:421–444. → Includes seven pages of discussion.

(1919) 1942 Democratic Ideals and Reality: A Study in the Politics of Reconstruction. London: Constable; New York Holt.

1931 The Human Habitat. Scottish Geographical Magazine 47:321–335.

1935 Progress of Geography in the Field and in the Study During the Reign of His Majesty King George the Fifth. Geographical Journal 86:1-12.

1943 The Round World and the Winning of the Peace. Foreign Affairs 21:595–605.


East, W. Gordon 1950 How Strong Is the Heartland? Foreign Affairs 29:78-93.

Gilbert, Edmund W. 1951 Seven Lamps of Geography: An Appreciation of the Teaching of Sir Halford J. Mackinder. Geography 36:21-43. → Contains a bibliography.

Gilbert, Edmund W. 1961 Sir Halford Mackinder, 1861–1947: An Appreciation of His Life and Work. London: Bell.

Haushofer, Karl 1937 Weltmeere und Weltmdchte. Berlin: Zeitgeschichte Verlag.

Smith, J. Russell 1945 Heartland, Grassland, and Farmland. Pages 148–160 in Hans W. Weigert and Vilhjalmur Stefansson (editors), Compass of the World: A Symposium on Political Geography. New York: Macmillan.

Unstead, J. F. 1949 H. J. Mackinder and the New Geography. Geographical Journal 113:47-57.

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