venerdì 20 febbraio 2015

“Britain and the British Seas”. British strategic and imperial geography in Mackinder’s thought.

In 1902, the British geographer Sir Halford John Mackinder (1861-1947) edited an important geographic digest on the description of the regions of the world. This work included the account of all geographic areas divided into the following volumes: Britain and the British Seas; Western Europe and the Mediterranean; Central Europe; Scandinavia and the Arctic Region; the Russian Empire; the Nearer East; Africa; India; the Farther East; North America; South America; Australasia and Antarctica. The first of these volumes, that regarding Britain, was written by Mackinder himself and it represents a wonderful example of how geographical features influence upon the history, the political system, the philosophical mentality and the ethnography of a country.
Sir Halford John Mackinder
Mackinder starts the description of Britain focusing on her position.  He admits that before the great geographical discoveries of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the known lands laid almost wholly in the Northern Hemisphere and spread in a single continent from the shores of Spain to those of Cathay. Therefore, Britain was then at the end of the world, or almost out of the world. Consequently, during two thousand years, Britain was at the margin, not in the center, of the theatre of politics, and, for most practical purposes, her position was accurately shown in the maps of the Greek geographers and in the fantastic charts of the medieval monks. Notwithstanding, the Columbian discoveries of the Americas changed completely the British position in the world. Indeed, in pre-Columbian times, Britain laid off the western shore of the world, almost precisely midway between the North Cape and the coast of Barbary, the northern and southern limits of the known. Northward and westward was the ice; southwestward lay a waste of waters; southward, beyond the Mediterranean, was the great Saharan desert. Only eastward and southeastward did the world of men spread far through the known into the half-known, and only in those directions was Britain related to opposing coasts. Nevertheless, after the finding of the Americas and the circumnavigation of Africa, Britain suddenly appeared to be in the very midst of the world, standing almost half the way from the old Eurasian continent and the lands of new discovery. Britain was now the center of the world because, due to her maritime position, she could project power along different trajectories: towards America, towards Africa and towards Eurasia.

Mackinder believes that Britain possesses two geographical qualities, which are complementary rather than antagonistic: insularity and universality. Before Columbus, the insularity was more evident than the universality, but after Columbus, British significance began to rely on the oceanic links, which are in their nature universal.  The oceanic routes led Britain to the rule of the waves and to becoming the dominant sea power in modern history. The dualistic position of Britain, partly in Europe and partly in the Atlantic Ocean, dragged the island country to roll away from the European continent and to expand beyond the sea. The sea preserved liberty, and allowed the rise of private initiative, as well as more liberal forms of government because liberty is the natural privilege of an island people. Moreover, Britain owes to the submarine platform the currents and tidal fluctuations which have shaped the detail of her coastlines, increased the value of her estuarine harbors, contributed to the motive power of her shipping, determined the position and seasons of her fisheries and ultimately pushed the country to develop a maritime power.
According to Mackinder, there are six essential qualities of the British environment:

- Insularity, which has tended to preserve the continuity of social organization.

-Accessibility, which has admitted stimulus from without, and prevented stagnation.

-Division into a more accessible east and a less accessible west, which has made for variety of initiative and consequent interaction.

-Productivity of soil and climate, the necessary basis of a virile native growth.

-Possession of a vast potential energy stored in deposits of coal, the mainspring of industrial life.

-Interpenetration by arms of tidal sea, giving access to the universal ocean-road of modern commerce.

In terms of the dynamical aspects of British geography, or in other words her strategic geography, the role of the control of the seas is the main element for safeguarding Britain’s power. Mackinder believes that strategic geography means that branch of geography that deals with the larger topographical conditions of offence and defense, and that defense is essentially the protection of the means of economic subsistence. Accordingly, the British geographer affirms that the defense of Britain rests fundamentally upon the theory implied in the command of the sea. Mackinder speculates that in a military sense a country has command of the sea, as against another country with which it is at war, when it has destroyed the enemy's fleet or securely blockaded it, and has thus carried the national frontier for the purpose of the war and for that purpose only, to the enemy's coast. Giving an example, had Britain obtained command of the sea in a war with France, the effect would be to carry the British frontier to the coast of France, and to add the Channel to Britain as a part of the globe within which the commanding country could prepare attack against the enemy. It is clear that under such circumstances, England would be safe from invasion by sea, and France would be liable to it. Mackinder reminds the reader that there is an expression that states that the navy is Britain's shield, and the army her spear. In terms of projection of power over the coastline, Mackinder believes that the enemy's coasts are the utmost limit of sea power, whose final office is to give freedom in the selection of the point at which to deliver an attack with land forces. The opposite example given is the following: had France obtained command of the sea, France would move freely in the Channel, and would deliberately choose her anchorage for the invasion of Britain. Viewed from this standpoint, Mackinder reckons that the defense of Britain resolves itself into three problems:

-The retention of the command of the sea, or rather, of the power of taking that command should occasion demand it.

-The defense of Great Britain should the command of the sea be temporarily lost.

-The separate defense of Ireland in the same contingency, for under such a condition the prompt and certain reinforcement of the army in Ireland would not be practicable.

According to Mackinder, the regions of Britain most threatened are those about the continental angle and the Channel entries.
The British Grenadier Guards
At Mackinder’s time, all the chief bases of naval action laid within Metropolitan England, near the shores of the Narrow Seas. Chatham, Sheerness, Portsmouth, and Devonport were the dockyards, standing opposite to the Rhine mouths, to Cherbourg, and to Brest. Harbors of refuge laid between them at Portland, at Dover, and at Harwich. The great naval arsenal was at Woolwich. The naval schools were at Dartmouth, Portsmouth, and Greenwich. Walmer, on the coast of Kent, was the depot of the marines, and the three divisions of the marines ashore were stationed at Chatham, Portsmouth, and Devonport. The dockyards of Pembroke in Wales, and Queenstown in the south of Ireland, were the only important naval stations beyond the limits of Metropolitan England, and their position had an obvious bearing on the defense of the ocean roads where they enter the St. George's and the Bristol Channels.  The exercise ground of the navy, on the other hand, was often to the west of Ireland, clear of the steam lanes of commerce, in waters where seamanship could practice in oceanic weather. Moreover, the centers of the mobile army in England were at Aldershot and on Salisbury Plain, on the flank of an enemy's line of march from the south coast to London, and in a position to relieve Portsmouth and to repel attack either from the Devonian Peninsula or the Bristol Channel. They were also convenient for the shipment of an army going overseas from Southampton, London, and Bristol. Colchester was the prepared basis for the defense of the Metropolis from attack on the east. Dover, Chatham, Portsmouth, and Devonport had garrisons, but Portsmouth was probably the only first-class British fortress. There used to be a small garrison at Portland, and there were large depots at Winchester and Canterbury. There were Guards at Windsor, and Cavalry at Hounslow, in the western outskirts of London. Woolwich was the chief station of the Artillery, and Chatham of the Engineers. At Woolwich, Sandhurst, and Camberley were the institutions for military education. At Waltham and Enfield on the Lea were the factories of explosives and small arms, and at Pimlico the clothing factory. In Industrial England and in Scotland there were military centers at York and at Edinburgh; but the troops stationed in these districts remote from the Continent were but a few thousand for recruiting purposes and for the support of the police. They consisted usually of regiments lately returned from Foreign Service, whereas those preparing to go abroad were concentrated at Aldershotand on Salisbury Plain. As in the case of the Navy, there were private works in Industrial England, which formed an ultimate reserve for the manufacture of weapons. In Ireland, the location of the military forces was analogous to that in the greater island, and for somewhat similar reasons. Strategy in Ireland turns necessarily on Dublin, and on the roads in rear of the Wicklow mountains, which communicate between Dublin, on the one hand, and Waterford and Cork on the other. The chief military station, apart from Dublin, was the Curragh, the Irish Aldershot, near Kildare on the Liffey, where the roadways branch which led down the valley of the Barrow to Waterford, and across the plains of Queen's County and Tipperary to Cork and Limerick. Most of the remaining troops were distributed among a number of small stations within and about the triangle Waterford-Limerick-Cork. In the north and west were but a few scattered units, comparable to those commanded from York and Edinburgh, used for recruiting purposes. In conclusion, the effective forces were within and about the continental angle, but the reserves of men and constructive power, both military and naval, were distributed through Industrial England, Scotland and Ireland.  

In considering Imperial Britain, Mackinder affirms that the reason of British imperial expansionism was to be found in the upholding of the idea of supporting a trade that would have been open to all the world.  The reasons for British expansion were very clear: when order broke down, or foreign interference was threatened in a land in which large British interests were at stake, Britain was often compelled to add to her possessions by assuming authority among an alien and distant population. Indeed, Britain undertook the conquest of India in the course of trade-competition with France; she extended her Indian domain to prevent interference with her rule from without; she became mistress of Egypt and of the Cape because they command the roads to the Indies; she conquered the Sudan for the purpose of ensuring the water supply of Egypt; she has annexed Rhodesia and the Transvaal in order to protect her position at the Cape. For Mackinder, a well-known imperialist, the empire had for Britain two meanings: the federation, loose or close, of several British commonwealths, and the maintenance of British rule among alien races: all of this was due, of course, to economic purposes. Mackinder considered the British Empire as the most enlightened and well governed of the time. Regarding the British maritime empire, the British fleet in the Mediterranean, based on the diminutive territories of Malta, Gibraltar and Cyprus was one of the most extraordinary instances of detached imperial power to be found in all history. The ships were there primarily for the defense of the road to India, but owing to the fact that both France and Russia had coasts on the Northern Seas and on the Mediterranean, the British Mediterranean fleet acted incidentally for the defense of London. Were Malta abandoned and the ships withdrawn to the English Channel, France and Russia would be free to concentrate a larger part of their naval strength in northern waters. Thus the Mediterranean fleet, while maintaining the imperial road, served also the purpose of the defense of the island. Owing to the continuity of the ocean and to the consequent mobility of sea power, Mackinder believes that the same may have been said of every British squadron, whether in the Indian Ocean, at the Cape, in the China Seas, in the Australian Seas, off the Pacific Coast of America, in the West Indies, or at the Falkland Islands. The strength of each was adjusted to the number of foreign ships in the same waters, because each foreign ship in a distant sea was absent from the neighborhood of Britain itself. Even the army in India, maintained always on a war footing, was a school for the training of officers and men, who, on their return to Britain, formed reserves, whether officially recognized or not, tending to reduce the risk of invasion, and helping to avert the political dangers of a great standing army at home. Nonetheless, Mackinder foresaw the elements of instability of the British Empire and depicted the potential portrait of a Great Britain lacking of her own world empire: Foreign markets would have been lost, and employment for British workers reduced; capital may have been repaid by debtor countries, and the annual interest may have ceased to be received; the carrying trade may have dwindled, and shipping be transferred to other flags; the preference of later generations of colonists may have grown weaker, and they may have bought more impartially from the competitors of the mother country; finally, the coalfields at home may have been exhausted, and no fresh supply of energy be available.
The defense of Rorke's Drift (1879)
Mackinder concludes his volume affirming that, at the beginning of the twentieth century, a new balance of power was being wrought, and already there were only five great world-states, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States of America. Their expansion was a clear threat for world peace. France and Germany were obliged to maintain great armies, and could not afford supreme fleets, although possessing vulnerable colonies. The United States had sacrificed an impregnable isolation, and had to care for the defense of the ocean paths to her new possessions. Even Russia had come down to the coast at points accessible to sea power. All of them had emerged from continental seclusion, and had made themselves neighbors of Great Britain in the ocean. All the Britons were threatened by the recent expansion of other European powers, and therefore all were ready to share in the support of the common fleet, as being the cheapest method of ensuring peace and freedom to each. Thus, the chief danger of the British Empire were not the subjugated colonies, but rather the colonial and imperial rise of other countries. This obliged Britain to maintain a fleet at least equivalent to those of the United States and Russia.
For sure, Mackinder forecasted two of the main reasons for the breaking out of World War 1: the naval arms race and the rivalry for colonial expansionism.    


Sir H. J. Mackinder, Britain and the British Seas, London, Heinemann, 1902. 

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