The Supertanker Theory of HistoryImagine 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.
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
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.