I spotted this book about the Fens, having finished reading ‘The Fens’ by Francis Pryor, which is about the rich archeological excavations in the Fens that have been carried out over fairly recent years. My interest in these books stems partly from being brought up in Peterborough and remembering weekend trips to the family caravan. These trips meant travelling through the Fens, past Thorney and Guyhirn on long, level straight roads across the Fens to Heacham, Hunstanton, Wells and beyond, in the undulating countryside that adjoins the coastal salt marshes of North Norfolk.
What became clear about Imperial Mud by James Boyce, is that it is a history of the Fennish (a word created by Boyce to describe the indigenous people of the Fens) resistance to the draining of the Fens.
The move to drain the Fens is portrayed in conventional histories as the conversion of swamps and mires into productive agricultural land and thus a part of the a benign agricultural revolution. But, as the author points out, it is also a part of the narrative of the plunder of the commons and the injustices of the enclosures. It is a story of the often violent resistance to the destruction of a rich and diverse wetland habitat that supported an indigenous population through its rich and varied resources.
Boyce disputes the productivity of the agricultural land, which became ever more difficult to maintain as the peat shrank below the level of the rivers and ended up as much as nine feet below sea level. The lost, often common, resources of the wetlands that sustained the Fennish were replaced by private, enclosed agriculture that made its new owners rich. The drainers stole the livelihood and often too the homes of the poorer inhabitants of the common land. Comparison is made with the colonial ruin of indigenous peoples in North and South America, Africa and Australia on the pretext of improving the productivity of the land, albeit in service of the demands of the invading nations.
It is a moving book describing in very human terms a warranted part of the power struggle that accompanied the emergence of the modern nation state; a struggle in which the poor constantly lost out to the greed and power of the rich. It is also a testament to the environmental havoc that resulted from over simplistic plans to ‘improve’ the land. This book, interestingly written by a distinguished Australian historian, challenges the conventional view of ‘progress’, describing instead a deteriorating society and a vivid example of the emergence of the flawed link up between technology and agriculture that has delivered the current ecological crisis.