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November 2011: John MacKenzie

1.  Where, when, and why did you become interested in British history?

When it comes to history I was a refugee. I did Scottish Highers at school and concentrated on sciences and languages. I went to University to study English language and literature, but abandoned that at the end of my first year and fled into history! I then had two more false turns, one into medieval history (of Britain) and another into archaeology (the Romans in Scotland mainly, influenced by Professor Anne Robertson). I spent quite a lot of time pursuing those interests, but eventually I remembered my formative boy hood experience, which was to spend some time in the 1950s in Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) where my father worked for the Public Works Department. Going back and forth to Africa by sea gave me a fascination with maritime affairs and the history of shipping. All these led me ultimately into British imperial history. But my upbringing when not in Africa was in Glasgow and I was always enthralled by the history of that city, not least its connections with empire. The Glasgow of my 1940s and 1950s childhood still felt like a quintessential imperial city, with its shipyards, docks, ubiquitous ships, ferries, and Clyde steamers, not to mention locomotive manufacture and other forms of heavy engineering, as well as its connections with missionary activity and its role as a significant starting off point for so many emigrants. The architectural fabric and statuary of the city also seemed to be imbued with empire. Ultimately I brought all these influences together in pursuing my concerns with the interaction between the British Empire and Britain itself. That is the thread that has run through my more than forty year study of empire in relation to Africa and other parts of the world, the cultural history of Britain, environmental histories, and much else.

2.  Who most influenced your academic development?

I spent some time in Canada and there I was influenced by Professor Bob Kubicek, a meticulous historian of aspects of southern African history. Later I was greatly influenced by Professor T.O. (Terry) Ranger, who pioneered the route to new forms of African and therefore of imperial history. But perhaps the greatest influences on me were at Lancaster University, where I entered an exceptionally lively scholarly environment which included Stephen Constantine (who neatly combined British with imperial history), Jeffrey Richards, who helped to channel many cultural interests, not to mention scholars in other departments who pointed to inter-disciplinary modes, such as Ninian Smart in Religious Studies, and Hugh Tinker and Christopher Clapham in Politics. But negative influences were powerful too. I never approved of the writing of British history as English history only and I always found the suggestion that British history and the history of the British Empire could be studied in separate compartments (except in economic affairs) as being extraordinary.

3.  If you hadn’t become a historian what career path would you have chosen?

For a long time I wanted to be a lawyer, a Scottish advocate swaying court rooms with impassioned rhetoric. I became an English magistrate instead and always enjoyed putting lawyers in their place. There were also wild fantasies – how about an orchestral conductor, an opera singer, a ship’s captain?

4.  Of your academic projects, which one has proven to be most fulfilling?

Some years ago I would have nominated my work on hunting and conservation which led me into environmental history. But now I would probably suggest that my greatest fulfilment would be related to my good fortune in being promoted to a chair in Lancaster in 1991. I was duly invited to deliver an inaugural lecture. I spent a long time thinking about what I could say and then, one evening, I had a ‘eureka moment’. I should make the lecture somewhat autobiographical and talk of ‘Scotland and the British Empire’, a field I had never entered before. I thought that would be an occasional piece, but it opened out to much else, including a book on the Scots in South Africa, an argument about a four-nations approach to the history of the British Empire, and the editing of Scotland and the British Empire for the Oxford History of the British Empire Companion Series. In the future, I may well give another answer – my interest in museums, research on which has led me all round Britain (and to acting as consultant curator on at least two exhibitions in London) and to fascinating museums in North America, Africa, Asia, and Australasia.

5.  Where do you see the field of British history heading in the next few years?

The writing of history always seems to me to reflect present politics. With devolution and the emergence of Britain as an asymmetrically devolved state, its history is going to be written much more along the lines of the ‘four nations’ approach. Then the great challenge will be to integrate it all again!

6.  What advice do you have for graduate students and beginning academics about finding a topic of interest and publishing on it?

My advice would be never to be afraid to follow up your own personal interests, hobbies or hobby horses. The best history is written with enthusiasm and passion. Some historians write the history of phenomena that appeal to them; others the history of matters of which they disapprove. But either way conviction is vital and that need not be prejudicial to writing that combines the dispassionate with the committed. Achieving that balance is the true historian’s challenge.

You may read more about John MacKenzie and his work on his website at:


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