When ‘improvement’ is a downside
Review: Imperial Mud, James Boyce, Icon Books
The Fens, an area of low marshes and farmland on England’s east coast and the subject of James Boyce’s latest book, might seem a long way from colonial Tasmania and Melbourne, the subjects of previous books from Boyce, but what links them all is Boyce’s concern with the dispossession of Indigenous people, the transformation of rich lands in the name of progress, and the agency of Indigenous people often minimised in historical accounts. (Also: Boyce discovered he had ancestors who lived in the Fens.) The experience of particular marginalised people often has resonances with all marginalized people, whether they be Fennish, Indigenous Australians or Native Americans – the denigration by outsiders of nuanced ways of living on the land, and destruction disguised as civilising.
The Fens is a rich, watery landscape, with an abundance of fish and birds that ‘astonished’ visitors and provided grass for stock, nourished by periodic silty floods. The Fens were subsequently densely populated millennia ago, archaeological studies show. Locals benefitted from common land, which supported both the itinerant and propertied, and later, the builders of monasteries were attracted to the land, becoming part of a rich cultural landscape, as well as an abundant physical one, in contrast to ‘imperial’ attitudes which saw ‘unimproved’ landscape as unproductive (also reflecting contemporary negative attitudes to wetlands as the source of disease-causing miasmas).
This imperial attitude manifested explosively in the 1600s when an outsider aristocracy – newly enriched by the Reformation’s dissolution of the monasteries – eyed the land greedily and convinced the government that the land would be more productive if drained and enclosed. This simply meant, as it did elsewhere, more common land falling into the hands of the already-wealthy and an upsurge in inequality. ‘Improvement’ was simply theft, says Boyce, bluntly.
The locals went down swinging, even burning down John Welsey’s father’s house (he was alleged to have been a government, and therefore outsider, sympathiser), and organising soccer matches in order to disguise the removal of newly-constructed dykes and ditches. But opposition was depicted, in age-old fashion, as futile resistance to the inevitable march of progress, and the locals as lazy and susceptible to superstition. The theft was disguised in moral terms. The mysterious marshes were alleged to corrupt the locals, whereas drainage and enclosure would civilise them. The homeless, for whom the marshes had been a safety net, were criminalized.
The drained Fens are a site of industrial agriculture area now, but some of the wetlands are being restored. Ironically, drainage over centuries has lowered the land, making it more susceptible to inundation from seawaters. As is common, ‘improvement’ has turned out to have a downside. Artificial means of drainage must be maintained against the relentless creep of the ocean, and the spectre of rising sea levels from climate change, helped by intensive, industrial agriculture adding more carbon to the atmosphere, threatens to turn the area back into something like what it was when it was first peopled.