'The Ornithorhynchus of the Western World': Environmental Determinism in Erin Anderson Walker's South African History, 1911 - 1936

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South African Historical Journal

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University of Cape Town

The article traces the changing role of environmental determinism in the invention of ‘South African’ history after 1910 through a close reading of the social biography and scholarship of Eric Anderson Walker, professor of history at the South African College (now the University of Cape Town), 1911–36. The dominant liberal historiography still acknowledges Walker as one of the founders of the national academic discipline in English, but otherwise ignores his scholarship which is now deemed irredeemably Eurocentric, empiricist and conservative. By relocating and re-reading Walker in the context of the first quarter century of the new settler nation state confected by Britain out of the wreckage of the South African War, the supposed disciplinary dead-end of his scholarship becomes the route into an examination of historical knowledge as both construct of and aide memoir to the new imaginary of white South African nationhood. It also provides a salutary warning to the modern practitioners of environmental history of the non-innocence of their field and the need to reckon with its determinist past.