The Supertanker Theory of History

Imagine yourself standing on a coastline looking out to sea. Fifty miles north of your point there is an oil terminal harbour into which and from which supertankers travel. From the south come such ships, some heading into the terminal, some merely en-route to other destinations. You see them travelling along the horizon as you watch from your static position on the coastline.

The ships themselves appear to be travelling at a speed generated by their own engines; they travel by means of their own power. This is your immediate perception of events. However, we know that these supertankers carry so much momentum that they actually need to shut down their engines 100 miles before the terminal harbour. From that position, their own decaying momentum takes them to their final destination. This is a matter of physics.

A consequence of this physics is that the viewer on the coastline has no idea whether the ship being observed is under its own power or if it is simply moving under a decaying momentum which will soon lead to redundancy and a complete halt. To the observer at the specific point on the coast, the ships all appear to have their own power and be travelling on an uninhibited future course. Whether the ship is coming to the end of its journey or will carry on for thousands of miles, the observer on the coast cannot tell simply by looking at its passage through their horizon.

Taking this physical reality we can transform it into a metaphor by constructing the supertankers as a representation of a cultural mass in history. For example, we could see the dominance of kings as a political force as a supertanker which set out on its journey in the early city-states of the Near East 6000 years ago. The engines of that ship were possibly first shut off on the 30th January 1649 with the execution of Charles I in London.

Hackney Coronation Edward VII 1901
Horses working in Hackney 1898

For many standing on that particular coastline of history, the view of the horizon is one lifetime, it may have seemed like the ship of kings still had motive power when Charles II returned to the throne on the 29th May 1660, however, all that was left was the momentum of an old history. The visible and public decapitation of monarchy planted an idea of governance, which would only grow and develop as kingship withered and declined. In an American Revolution of 1776, a French revolutionary execution of kingship in 1793, the supertanker further slowed no matter how much it seemed to be powering along the horizon of individual lives.

The First World War of Kings provided the final harbour for the last motive forces of the monarchy and the ancient 6000-year-old supertanker came to a final resting place with the execution of the Romanovs in Yekaterinburg on the 17th July 1918. There are still those who believe they can see this hulk travelling across the seas of history, but like a Marie Celeste or Flying Dutchman, these are ghost ships, illusions or delusions of persons attached to an ancient past.

The purpose of this Supertanker Theory of History is not as important in analysing the past as it is in looking at our contemporary world and considering the ships of culture we see on the horizon of our own lives. Which ones are losing their momentum and which ones are building up a head of steam? Which ones are on a long journey and which ones will only travel so far? In using this theory, we have a conceptual tool which allows us to look at our historical event horizon and start to perceive something about the forces of momentum in human history.

Standing anywhere on the 300 thousand years long shoreline of the history of humanity and there can be a variety of vessels travelling across the viewpoint of an individual human life. The relationship between men and women is one ancient and enormous supertanker. This ship is now a rusting and decaying body in the water of our times. To many, it still appears to be travelling under its own steam and coursing through the seas but its engines were switched off 125 years ago.

“On 19 September 1893 the governor, Lord Glasgow, signed a new Electoral Act into law. As a result of this landmark legislation, New Zealand became the first self-governing country in the world in which all women had the right to vote in parliamentary elections.” Source

Children in a Primary School, Hackney 1906

After thousands of years of political subservience to the male, a woman suddenly had equity of experience and rights. The engines turned off. For the next hundred years, everyone argued about whether the ship of male supremacy was steaming forth under its own power or if it was possible that it was a redundant force of history. Some could not believe that such a historical momentum of human culture could be turned off in New Zealand, of all places, in 1893.

But this is indisputable for only in the frontiers where men and women had to survive as equals and where women held the fort alone and isolated as men ranged, could it be possible for such a first transference of political power. The claim was undeniable and resistance unsustainable. If the women did not keep the farm going then the ranging of the men was meaningless. The men could not survive without the women and they knew that.

As the volcano exploded so did the lava flow and the channels into which it flowed was the global English speaking culture. That was where the heresy was seeded. As this English speaking culture was also the dominant global culture which then goes on to influence and control the 20th century, the concept of female equivalence in law and rights touched all of humanity.

Those who argue that this Supertanker is not travelling under its own dying momentum into a final resting harbour are the same type of intellects who argued for the future of the horse in the post First World War of Kings England. The invention of the steam engine disengaged the locomotion of the horsepower supertanker and the creation of the petrol engine turned the ship’s motors off completely and guided that ship quickly into the harbour. Even as the anchor was being dropped there was a huge, now forgotten public debate about the future of the horse post-1918. Some advocated with a deep passion that the horse would always be needed for heavy transportation as the petrol engine would never be strong enough to pull the loads’ horses could draw.

Whenever the engines of a large and substantial historical momentum get turned off there are, quite naturally, many who cannot see what is happening and adhere to a redundant past. Some put on Union Jack suits and wave flags at the birth of yet another Royal baby, some still pay women less than men for the same job, some still want to hunt foxes on horseback; these are all people who do not want to get off the ship even when it is slowing down and sometimes even when it has docked. You can spot these persistent passengers of the past because they always look ridiculous in the eye of the contemporary. They are out of time. That they get away with it is simply down to the great momentum of the ship they remain on board of. Such a huge mass was constructed of public perceptions and we, the human beings which make our society, are always reluctant to change our perceptions. The greater the mass, the more individual perceptions which need to change, the greater the length of time that change finally needs in order to extinguish fully the momentum of a past supertanker. This can take generations because the momentum is transportable from parent to child.

If we take time to consider this historical process, then perhaps we are more able to understand that the overturning of past historical structures and prejudices is not naturally the work of a lifetime. We are all part of our own cultural evolution. We stand on a long and ancient shoreline of history and we are not the first any more than we are the last. Down the historical coast stand all of our ancestors. Further up the coast stand our descendants.

How we act and behave today determines what sort of ancestors we will become and what sort of world our descendants will inhabit. The Supertanker Theory of History seeks to provide a perspective on the changes in our societies our own idealism and aspiration yearns to make. In that perspective, we can see that we are part of the change and rarely change it. If we can take this lesson on board, then perhaps we can abandon the anger which sadly occurs when we do not feel things are moving fast enough or we seem to perceive that change is not happening at all. Anger does not help change it only inhibits it. If this theory does anything useful at all it is, in its understanding, to ask us to put anger aside as we all work together to change things and situations that have persecuted us and our planet for thousands of years.

The Supertanker Theory of History was first proposed by Jack Adams at Ruskin College, Oxford, in 1996. The theory speaks to a possible interpretative viewpoint when looking at the historical process of action within the present perceivable moment.

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