Photo credit: Julio Acosta Matos
Geography developed as an academic discipline in the UK in the late nineteenth century, intimately entangled with colonialism and racism. Many of the men who established departments of Geography in British universities saw the discipline as a way of providing training for the explorers and administrators of the British Empire. British explorers – including women like Mary Kingsley – participated in the colonial enterprise of education, and their accounts of travel and encounter with both non-Western landscapes and communities shaped the discipline.
The School of Geography and the Environment is no exception. From 2009 to 2020, a lecture theatre in the School was named after the British geographer, explorer and politician Sir Halford John Mackinder (1861-1947). Halford Mackinder was appointed Reader by the University of Oxford in 1887 and began teaching geography here; the department was established formally in 1899. His later career included spells as the Director of the London School of Economics (1903-1908), Conservative and Unionist Member of Parliament for Glasgow Camlachie (1910-1922) and British High Commissioner to South Russia (1919-1920). Mackinder is best known for his role in developing the foundations of geopolitics, an environmentally determinist theory which saw force as the natural characteristic of interstate politics. Mackinder was keen to promote his ideas not only amongst Britain’s imperial elites, but also the country’s schoolchildren. His social Darwinian writings had a well-documented influence on intellectual debates in Weimar and Nazi Germany.
In 1899, Mackinder led an expedition to Mount Kenya in an attempt to be the first white man on Africa’s second highest peak. The journey was marked by violence from the beginning. Mackinder used around 170 indigenous slave labourers as porters, whom he compared to animals in his diaries. They were intimidated and disciplined with the whip and the firearm, including by Mackinder himself. Mistreated and facing possible starvation, a group of labourers sought to escape. Ultimately, eight porters were 'shot by orders': Said Umari, Umande Wadi Mahshaka, Ibrahim bin Soorooloo, Sadala wadi Assani, Feruzi Wadi Hamisi, Saidi bin Rumaziri, Musa Wadi Shabani and Ferazi Wadi Hamisi.
In May 2020, a decision was taken by the School of Geography and the Environment to remove Mackinder’s name from the lecture theatre as part of a wider effort to address Geography's implication in the histories and legacies of colonialism, imperialism, and racism.
While our undergraduate curriculum has for some time addressed the historic complicity of Geography as an academic discipline with imperialism and colonialism, the murder of George Floyd in June 2020 and subsequent debates about racism, slavery and colonialism in the School prompted more explicit discussions of racism in the discipline. Several of our student cohorts demanded specific changes to what we teach, how we research and how we recruit both staff and students in the School. We have also learnt from the Rhodes Must Fall Movement and the Black Lives Matters campaigns and protests, and from the statements of the University's BME Staff Network. We stand in solidarity with these movements. In the summer of 2020, we held two meetings open to all staff and postgraduate students in the School, to discuss and plan the implementation of a number of anti-racist actions. These are being worked on through the current academic year and beyond. These include:
- renewed efforts to diversify our undergraduate student body
- efforts to change what we teach, and to diversify the literatures we cite in our teaching
- tactics to increase the diversity of our staff
- ways to better support BAME and BIPOC research students and early career researchers
- discussions about experiences of racism and better support for those experiencing racism
This is, will be and must be an ongoing process of self-reflection and change.