The Supertanker Theory of History

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 historical process in action within the present perceivable moment.

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 these ships, some heading into the terminal, some merely en-route to other destinations. You see them travelling along the horizon of your viewpoint.

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. Their own decaying momentum then takes them to their final destination.

A consequence of this action 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 the ships all appear to have their own power and be travelling into a uninhibited future course.

Taking this physical reality we can transform it into a metaphor by transforming the supertankers to a dominating cultural mass of history. As an example the realtionship between men and women would be one of the most substantial supertankers. We can easily see an historical mass which has been moving through the waters of history for as long as human beings have identified themselves.

This particular supertanker of gender politics [see Hornblower 2007] has travelled millions of years under its own power but in the early 20th century the engines were switched off in all of the white, English speaking cultures. This shutting down impacted globally because the white English speaking cultures, rightly or wrongly, dominated other cultures around the world. Once the white supertanker of gender history dating back 4 million years had switched off its engines then the future for male supremacy was confined to the dustbin of history.

Standing anywhere on the shoreline, 4 million years long, of the history of male supremacy and looking out to sea, it is obvious that this largest of historical supertankers is coursing through the waters apparently under full steam. However the engines were switched off in New Zealand.

“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

After millions of years of political subserviance to the male, a woman suddenly had equity of experience and rights. The engines turned off. For the next two hundred years everyone argued about whether the ship of male cultural supremacy was steaming forth under its own power or if it was possible that it was a redundant force of history. No-one believed that such an historical momentum of human culture could be turned off in New Zealand in 1893. But this is indesputable. Only in the frontiers where men and women had to survive as equals and where women held fort as men ranged could it be possible for such a transference of political power.

As the volcano exploded so did the lava flow and the channels into which it flowed was the global English speaking culture. For 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.

Here on the temporal coast line sometime in the 21st century, we look out towards the horizon and see a huge supertanker carry the momentum of 4 million years of male dominance. That is a mass which does not simply stop dead in the water and so even though the engines of this vessel of human history were switched off 100 years down the temporal coastline it still moves resolutely through our socio-cultural horizon. We may have been looking at this ship in any decade of the twentieth century and be convinced that male dominance was still under its own power but all we have been looking at is decaying momentum.

Within the small landscape of our individual lives we can see examples of female repression and male hierarchy all around us but that is just because this is probably the most fundamental relationship in human history; the male/female social transaction. However, that relationship irrevocably changed in 1893 and the effects of that change still have to work their way through our history until the supertanker of male primacy finally reaches the terminal and formally ends its journey. No matter how convincing the arguement that male primacy remains there is another vessel of human cultural history churning the waters of the harbour as its screws seek to build the energy to move forward the new male/female transactional relationship into the global horizon. The old relationship still appears to be going strong but that is an illusion we will only fully realise if we could somehow extend our lifetime another two or three hundred years up the temporal coastline.


The purpose of the supertanker theory of history is to look at huge cultural momentums in human history and see if they are developing into a different future or deteriorating from an old past. Not all we see on our cultural historical horizon from within our own lifetime necessarily has longevity of form. Using this analogy we can start to explore changing times and future features. What is interesting to remember is that not all tankers are the same size or carry the same historical momentum. We can also consider that not all vessels of history are supertankers, some may just be freighters, passenger liners or even simple ferries. The metaphor is adaptable and flexible which allows a lot of consideration of the traffic we see on our own horizon.