John M. MacKenzie

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Professor John MacDonald MacKenzie MA(Hons) Ph.D FRHistS FRSE (born 2 October 1943) is a British historian of imperialism who pioneered the study of popular and cultural imperialism, as well as aspects of environmental history. He has also written about Scottish migration and the development of museums around the world. He is Emeritus Professor of imperial history at Lancaster University and founder of the Manchester University Press ‘Studies in Imperialism’ series (1984).


He is the son of Alexander MacKenzie and Hannah (née Whitby) and was schooled in Glasgow (Scotland) and Ndola (Zambia), before completing his Ph.D (1969) in Vancouver (British Columbia) and London.[1] This cosmopolitan upbringing developed his interest in the history of the British Empire, a subject he has written about in Echoes of Empire[2] and How Empire Shaped Us,[3] and he has travelled extensively throughout its former territories. Among his non-academic posts and responsibilities, he was also chairman of governors of two schools in Morecambe, Lancashire, and was a magistrate of the Lancaster petty sessions (1990-2000). He retired from Lancaster University in 2002 and now lives in Perthshire, Scotland.

Academic career[edit]

At the beginning of his career he taught at the University of British Columbia, and subsequently at the University of Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), the University of Liverpool, and Wilfrid Laurier University, Ontario. His principal post from 1968 was at the University of Lancaster, where he held the chair of imperial history from 1991 to 2002. He was also successively Principal of the County College, Dean of Arts and Humanities and Dean of Education. He holds (or has held) honorary professorships of the Universities of Aberdeen, St. Andrews and Stirling, and is an honorary professorial fellow of the University of Edinburgh. In 2016 he became Visiting Professor at the University of the Highlands and Islands. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

His early work, the subject of his Ph.D, was on labour migration and pre-colonial technology and trade in Central Africa. He conducted oral research throughout Zimbabwe in 1973-74 and this gave him a keen awareness of the traditional relationships between African communities and their environments. He was also influenced by his experiences as an archaeologist both in Scotland and in Africa, which served to emphasise his belief that historical evidence is to be found in sources other than documents. This helped lead to his pioneering development of the study of the popular culture of imperialism in his books Propaganda and Empire (1984) and (edited) Imperialism and Popular Culture (1986), in which he argued that empire had just as significant effects upon the dominant as upon the subordinate societies. He used a wide range of materials from cultural sources, including ephemera. This proved to be controversial since some elements of the historical Establishment considered that British domestic history was somehow little connected with its empire. His ideas also came in for severe criticism from Bernard Porter in the latter’s The Absent-Minded Imperialists,[4] although Porter never actually confronted MacKenzie's evidence head-on. However, MacKenzie’s followers have mounted a vigorous fight-back, not least in the many books (well over 100) in the Manchester University Press ‘Studies in Imperialism’ series which he edited between 1984 and 2014.

His next book, The Empire of Nature (1988), was an early contribution to the environmental history of empire, particularly charting the human relationship with animals, through both hunting and conservation, in the imperial take-over of Africa and India. His wider ideas on environmental history were set out in the Thomas Callander Memorial Lectures at the University of Aberdeen in 1995,[5] and helped to open up a major field to which many other scholars have contributed.

He once again entered the realm of controversy with his critique of Edward Said's Orientalism,[6] published in 1995, which was badly received by post-Saidians and post-colonialists, although many of his early publications pioneered their later work. Said's strict binarism and concentration on concepts of the 'other' were countered by MacKenzie's insistence that Orientalism could, in certain circumstances, involve constructive cross-cultural influences, notably in the arts. These notions were later accepted and developed by other scholars. His interest in the visual arts was reflected in his chapter the subject in the Cambridge Illustrated History of the British Empire (1996)[7] as well as in Exhibiting the Empire (2015).

His 1991 professorial inaugural lecture ‘Scotland and the British Empire’[8] was well received and opened up new fields for him, including various aspects of work on the Scottish Diaspora. This led to his book The Scots in South Africa (with Nigel R. Dalziel) of 2007 (while associated with to the Research Institute of Irish and Scottish Studies at Aberdeen University) and a number of edited works. These analysed notions of sub-British ethnicity and identity, not least in their associational, religious and cultural manifestations. He then developed the concept of the four nations and empire, extending the arguments of J.G.A. Pocock to the British Empire, suggesting that it was not so much ‘British’ as a combination of Irish, Scottish, Welsh and English empires, reflecting a range of ethnic skill sets, cultures and identities which in turn influenced British domestic history.

His lifelong interest in museums produced Museums and Empire (2009), a work resulting from a Leverhulme Trust Emeritus Fellowship which examined the dispersal of the idea of the museum in Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, India and elsewhere. This embedded the development of these institutions within the colonial bourgeois public spheres while reflecting contemporary interests in natural history and ethnography which in turn served to develop the individual identities of various colonies. In recent years he has become particularly interested in comparative empires and the manner in which such parallel studies can illuminate the history of the British Empire.

Andrew S. Thompson’s edited book Writing Imperial Histories[9] was published in 2013 celebrating the significance and influence of his ‘Studies in Imperialism’ series. The same year Karl S. Hele’s edited The Nature of Empires and the Empires of Nature,[10] consciously echoing the title of his own earlier book of 1997, examined his environmental work while greatly extending it, notably in Canada.

He has also been an editor of major reference works, including Peoples, Nations and Cultures (2005) and the four-volume Encyclopaedia of Empire (2016), and has contributed many articles and reviews to journals as well as chapters in books. He was editor of the journal Environment and History, 2000-2005 and is editor-in-chief of Britain and the World, the Journal of the British Scholar Society.

He has given BBC Radio talks, has appeared on television programmes relating to the British Empire, and has written for The Scotsman and other newspapers. He was historical adviser for exhibitions at the National Portrait Gallery, London, and the Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh (both on David Livingstone, 1997) and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London ('Inventing New Britain: The Victorian Vision', 2001).


Propaganda and Empire (Manchester University Press 1984)

The Railway Station: a Social History (with Jeffrey Richards) (Oxford UP 1986)

The Empire of Nature (MUP 1988)

Orientalism: History, Theory and the Arts (MUP 1995)

Empires of Nature and the Nature of Empires (MUP 1997)

The Scots in South Africa (MUP 2007)

Museums and Empire (MUP 2009)

Edited books[edit]

Imperialism and Popular Culture (MUP 1986)

Imperialism and the Natural World (MUP 1990)

Popular Imperialism and the Military (MUP 1992)

David Livingstone and the Victorian Encounter with Africa (National Portrait Gallery, London 1997)

European Impact and Pacific Influence (with Hermann J. Hiery) (I.B. Tauris/German Historical Institute, London 1997)

The Victorian Vision (V&A Publications, London 2001)

Peoples, Nations and Cultures (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London 2005)

European Empires and the People (MUP 2011)

Scotland and the British Empire (with T.M. Devine) (OUP 2011)

Scotland, Empire and Decolonisation in the Twentieth Century (with Bryan S. Glass) (MUP 2015)

Exhibiting the Empire (with John McAleer) (MUP 2015)

Encyclopaedia of Empire (four volumes, Wiley-Blackwell 2016)

Global Migrations: the Diaspora of the Scots since 1600 (with Angela McCarthy) (Edinburgh University Press 2016)


  1. ^ ‘John M MacKenzie’, Debrett’s People of Today
  2. ^ ‘Analysing Echoes of Empire in Contemporary Context: the Personal Odyssey of an imperial historian (1970s-present)’, in Kalypso Nikolaidis, Berny Sebe and Gabrielle Maas (eds.), Echoes of Empire: Memory, Identity and Colonial Legacies (I.B. Tauris, London 2015), pp. 189-206.
  3. ^ ‘Empire From Above and From Below’ in Antoinette Burton and Dane Kennedy (eds.), How Empire Shaped Us (Bloomsbury, London 2016), pp. 37-47.
  4. ^ Bernard Porter, The Absent-Minded Imperialists. Empire, Society and Culture in Britain (Oxford U.P. 2004).
  5. ^ Later published as: Empires of Nature and the Nature of Empires : Imperialism, Scotland and the Environment, the Callander Lectures 1995, University of Aberdeen (Tuckwell, East Linton 1997).
  6. ^ Edward Said, Orientalism (New York, Pantheon, 1978).
  7. ^ 'Art and the Empire' in P.J. Marshall (ed.), The Cambridge Illustrated History of the British Empire (Cambridge U.P. 1996), pp.296-316.
  8. ^ Later published as: ‘Essay and Reflection: on Scotland and the Empire’, in The International History Review (Simon Fraser University), Vol.XV, No.4, Nov. 1993, pp.714-739.
  9. ^ Andrew S. Thompson (ed.), Writing Imperial Histories (Manchester University Press 2013).
  10. ^ Karl S. Hele (ed.), The Nature of Empires and the Empires of Nature. Indigenous Peoples and the Great Lakes Environment (Wilfred Laurier University Press 2013).

External links[edit]