The Great Levelling

October 17, 2022

I read Annie Proulx’s Fen, Bog & Swamp on a recommendation from Russell (we seem to be bouncing rivers back and forth at the moment. It was… fine, obviously well written, but lacking anything deep or revelatory.* It did make me think though that I need to know more about European and British long environmental politics, trauma and protest history though.

Another friend recently floated the idea – with much more detail than I’m going to recount here – that European colonists’ encounters with and suppression of various indigenous forms of sustainable agriculture, which involved periodically burning forest areas, were in part the result of their trauma at their own destruction of Europe’s forests. Again: I need to know more history.

This all led me to James Boyce’s Imperial Mud (thanks Justin), a history of Britain’s fenland enclosures, which among other things demonstrates how pre-colonising Britain developed such policies at home before exporting them. The draining of the fens in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was an act of primary accumulation whereby tens of thousands of commoners were deprived of their livelihoods and driven off their lands by the destruction of their wetland homes, which were appropriated for private grazing and grain agriculture. It was also an act of cultural and environmental destruction, as the wetlands – as Proulx notes – were some of the most socially independent, ecologically richest and most biodiverse areas of the country, as well, as we know now, incredibly important sites of carbon sequestration and containment. And, importantly, these things cannot be disentangled:

What the commoners lost when the wetland was drained cannot be measured in economic terms alone. The Fennish were not individual agents focused only on maximising personal wealth as later free-market economic theory assumed everyone to be. Rather, they were a pre-modern people defending their country, culture and community; the relationships that defined their land.

Those who obtained rights to the new land included financial investors, nobility, royalty, soldiery, and foreigners employed to drain and work the fields (some of the latter were granted citizenship in response: an early form of Golden Visa). Boyce refers to them explicitly as ‘colonisers’. Moreover:

Even the few commoners made relatively wealthy by enclosure were bound by communal and familial connections to people and land. What did they feel when people they had known all their lives were thrown into poverty? When customs and gatherings were discontinued because the resources around which they were based had been lost. When birth sites and sacred places were destroyed? The drainage of the common and the transformation of the landscape destroyed not just a wetland but a way of being.

The enclosures and draining works were heavily opposed, and often sabotaged in acts of violent resistance. These were variously punished, culminating in a policy of occupation and collective punishment, again a pre-echo of colonial policies: “Employing the same tactic that would be used to counter the resistance of indigenous people across the empire, ‘justice’ was now meted out to entire villages.”

On the night of 31 January 1654, an enclosure ditch was filled in at Soham Fen. As usual, no offender could be identified but the sheriff decided that ‘distresses’ should be levied upon the villages nearest to the enclosure to pay for its restoration. In March and April 1654, a bridge was burned down and drains filled in. Again, adjoining villages were levied to fund the repairs.

One of the key historical events that brought the enclosures to completion was the English Civil War. Previously, local nobility and distant royalty had to rely on local militias to police and protect the enclosures, whose sympathies often lay with their fellow fennish people; following the war, there was a standing army of non-locals to call upon which could be brought in to quash dissent, beginning an English practice that extends all the way from the Imperial period to the Black and Tans and the miner’s strikes. Boyce cites one of my favourite books, Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down:

The revolution began with Oliver Cromwell leading fenmen in revolt against court drainage schemes; its crucial turning point was the defeat of the Leveller regiments at Burford, which was immediately followed by an act for draining the fens.

The Levellers, bless them, were great supporters of the Fennish, and opponents of enclosure in all its forms, and Boyce concludes:

If the Levellers had been triumphant and the power of the great landed families had been broken (as would occur in France in the following century), the Great Level wetlands might have been preserved. This region was drained because the victors in the English Civil War were determined to protect the property rights of the landed class.

* Proulx did introduce me to the term psychozoic though, which I’m going to hold onto.

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