Sunday, October 04, 2020

James Boyce - Imperial Mud: The Fight for the Fens

The process of enclosure that marked the transformation of the English countryside is a historical injustice that is often downplayed or ignored. The destruction of common lands, the land that people could collectively use and share, is usually (even in sympathetic accounts) seen as a tragic necessity arising from inevitable progress. The reality is that alongside enclosure went violence, dispossession and ecological devastation. The scale is unbelievable. As James Boyce points out, by the late 18th century "between 1750 and 1820, 21 per centre of England or 6.8 million acres was enclosed by an Act of Parliament". In the Fenlands of east England a million "wild" acres of marshland were drained in a roughly similar period. Boyce's new book is a study of this process, and the resistance too it.

Boyce begins with the Fens and the people who lived there. Boyce is an Australian historian, and his previous work has looked at indigenous struggles in Australia. He argues that the people who lived in the Fenlands (Fennish to use the term he has coined) had a "distinctive indigenous way of life and outlook on the world that endured regardless of who formally ruled the marsh". 

From 1600 though "Fennish cultural and community life" was threatened by "invaders" who wanted to drain the marshes and lakes and transform the landscape into fertile agriculture. Enclosure in this sense was far more than the destruction of historic legal rights - it was the smashing of an entire culture. 

Boyce Fennish society was not simply about economic organisation - though this was important. These were not peasant farmers as they were elsewhere in England, but groups of people who lived in close relationship with the surrounding wetlands. The regular flooding of the landscape would have been seen by those outside of the area as a disaster, but for the Fennish it was part of the regular inundations that (like the Egyptian Nile) re-fertilised the landscape and gave the soil its amazing fertility. Local society was very different. Rent and tithes could be paid using eels for instance. But such differences were not respected by those that eyed the land greedily. As Boyce points out after Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries, those that took the land in the Fens did not want eels for rent payment.

Repeated (successful and unsuccessful) attempts to drain the land took place from the Tudor period onward. Boyce notes how these were often framed in "classic imperial terms". Here's one plan as presented to Queen Elizabeth.

Given that the lands are freed from the superfluous water, there remains to be described a vast number of benefits and advantages that would accrue to the Crown.. a vague deserted Empire without population turned into a fertile region; and wild and useless products therefrom into an abundance of grain and pasturage; humble huts into a beautiful and opulent city... with good regulation, the drained land will be a regal conquest, a new republic and complete state.

The description of the Fenlands as terra nullius mirrors the language used by colonisers to describe Australia, Africa and North America at the time of European arrival. But as with those who stood against the colonialists, resistance in the Fens to "Imperial" plans was on a huge scale. A combination of legal process (like petitions, and appeals to the monarch, parliament etc) with direct action frequently stalled or stopped drainage schemes. Sometimes thousands were involved. To take just one example, In June 1619 2,000 of the "common sort of people", "gathered to oppose a drainage scheme proposed by the Court of Sewers, the protesters rang bells, banged drums and discharged muskets around bonfires for much of the night". 

Workers and their military guards were intimidated, shot and driven off. Ditches were filled, animals released and homes of landowners attacked. Like similar anit-enclosure protests elsewhere in England opposition to drainage took on the scale of military conflict. The Fens became a major site of conflict before and during the Civil War. Charles I was an ardent drainer, and Cromwell was, famously, on the side of the Fennish. By the end of the period, the new government (and Cromwell himself) was very much in favour of enclosure. The ebb and flow of the resistance, matching the rise and fall of different sides in the Civil War itself. Indeed, radicals like the Leveller John Lilburne, stood with the Fennish against Cromwell.

I think this illuminates the nature of the struggle clearly. Boyce quotes a contemporary account that complained "prioritising the rights of commoners" in the Fens was an "'unsound, destructive principle', that could 'interrupt the great affairs of this Commonwealth'." Parliament's victory in the Civil War opened up the English economy for those that were of a more capitalist' intent. Cromwell might have sided with all those opposed to the King early in the Civil War, but as with the Levellers themselves when their demands challenged the new order, he had to take the other side. 

That said, we must be careful of making too sweeping a generalisation. Boyce, following the historian Heather Falvey, argues that resistance to drainage/enclosure in the Fens was a cross class struggle involving a cross section of Fennish society. It was not just the poor that resisted but the whole community. Boyce argues this is a result of the "pre-modern" nature of Fennish society which was defended collectively. Even wealthy locals were "bound by communal and familial connections". 

There is, of course, much truth in this. All communities have connections that cause different tensions for individuals - people can be pulled by personal connections at the same time as being tugged by wider forces such as their class interests. It is notable that in numerous early modern revolts, such as the Lincolnshire Rising and Pilgrimage of Grace of 1536/7 local lords sided with the commons against the King. Their reasoning was less to do with community ties and more to do with fears for their livelihood and land. I suspect the reason that drainage was opposed by a cross section of society was more complicated than just being about Fennish identity on the part of the wealthy. In describing Fennish society "pre-modern" is perhaps a less useful a term than "pre-capitalist". The wealthy Fennish had much to lose from drainage by outside interests - which forced them into alliance with the poorer classes who they might well have opposed in normal times.

Resistance was massive and on occasion successful. Boyce's book is full of entertaining accounts of the defeats of enclosures. Sometimes these read more like accounts of guerrilla warfare. In the Isle of Axholme, so successful was resistance that hundreds of years later the success was still writ large in the numerous small farms that survived. "Persistence and unity" in the community combined with direct, mass action, was often successful.

But the same military, centralised, industrial state that subdued India, parts of Africa, the Americas and Australia would eventually defeat most of the Fennish areas. In doing so, a culture was extinguished and an ecology was destroyed. The final sections of Boyce's book looks at what that meant and how the Fens survived into modern times. 

Ironically the process of dispossession and enclosure itself was not widely successful. The drained landscape dried out peat and caused costly problems for farmers and "improvers". As Boyce argues, "whether enclosure increased total economic output is unclear, but there is no doubt that it increased the share going to large landowners". As with almost every other part of the world colonised by Europeans, the arrivals ignored the "customary knowledge" of the inhabitants storing up ecological, economic and social problems for the future.

When I first opened Imperial Mud, I wasn't sure I would agree with the author's analysis. Part of this is because of his framing the struggle as an "indigenous" one. The word itself, when used by people in Britain, is usually associated with far-right politics that pretend the English are a (white) historic race stretching back into the distant past which must be defended from (non-white) immigrants and migrants. But as I read further I began to appreciate the arguments more (while still feeling uncomfortable with the term). Boyce is arguing that pre-capitalist societies resisted their transformation and its a process that has distinct parallels with what took place under colonialism. 

The book is also an important protest against those that cannot imagine a collective future. Boyce criticises Garrett Hardin, whose "tragedy of the commons" thesis argued that the commons themselves could never be successful because of individual greed. What the Fennish struggles show is that, in Boyce's words, "Hardin was wrong about the commons because he was wrong about commoners".

Today neo-liberal capitalism continues to force itself into every nook and cranny it can find. The ongoing dispossession of people from their land, the imposition of new forms of production which destroy traditions, cultures and practices are issues that impact millions of people globally. In understanding that process today, we can learn and be inspired from similar struggles that shaped our own world. But we can also learn about how, in a more rational, sustainable and just world, things might be organised differently. James Boyce's wonderful book is a celebration of historic struggles in order for us to shape a better future. I highly recommend it. 

Related Reviews

Readers who might like to learn more about rural struggles like those in the Fens might be interested in my own book "'Kill all the Gentlemen': Class Struggle and Change in the English Countryside".

Turner - Enclosures in Britain: 1750-1830
Yerby - The English Revolution and the Roots of Environmental Change
Linebaugh - Stop Thief!
Shrubsole - Who Owns England?
Sharp - In Contempt of All Authority: Rural Artisans and Riot in the West of England: 1586-1660
Thompson - The Making of the English Working Class

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