Rising Up From History

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Issue 323
November/December 2020
Life in the Dark

Reviews

Rising Up From History
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Cover: Moon Moths © Becca Stadtlander, 2020. Exclusively licensed by thebrightagency.com

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Fenlanders of the past have a lot to teach us, writes Natalie Bennett. Imperial Mud: The Fight for the Fens by James Boyce. Icon Books, 2020. ISBN: 9781785786518

To step out around the North Lincolnshire village of Epworth in summer, through large fields of industrial monoculture, with soil pulverised and depleted to a summer state of concrete, the idea that this land might – only a couple of centuries ago – have been as biologically rich as the Amazon requires a truly vivid imagination.

To see it and the neighbouring village of Haxey with their neat but rather dull suburban homes as a hotbed of radicalism, the heart of a sometimes violent struggle against central authority, producing a stream of martyrs and heroines, requires a similar leap.

In neither town will you find much reference to this history. Epworth trades entirely on its place as the birthplace of John Wesley, and reading Haxey’s account of its own history on an information panel in front of the church you’ll find no reference to the long-famous 1359 charter from John de Mowbray that granted the people a giant commons, a 60,000-acre wetland below the Isle of Axholme, though the charter was held in an iron-wrapped chest in the church below a stained-glass window depicting the benefactor holding it.

Perhaps it is because James Boyce, author of Imperial Mud: The Fight for the Fens, was an outsider to this area, an Australian and primarily a historian of that continent, that he saw so clearly the importance and uniqueness of the fact that the Isle (really a slightly raised area of land above the fenland that also takes in Owston, Belton, Althorpe, Luddington and Crowle, and Wroot) was responsible for perhaps the only successful peasants’ revolt in British history.

That for more than a century, up until the late 1700s, the fenlanders here, united in their relatively equal landholdings, militant and determined, held off the destruction of the source of their relative wealth and independence, the rich natural resources of the fen, is truly remarkable against the forces of monarch and aristocrat-backed engineers. That historians have made so little of it is surely a reflection of the narrow, urban and often London-centric perspective that blights so much historical perspective.

But this isn’t just subaltern history, recovering the triumph and victories of the poor. There is also a global perspective, that as an award-winning historian of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), Boyce is well-equipped to capture.

For Imperial Mud, barring the temporary victory of the Isle of Axholme, is an account of outside conquest, of the destruction of thriving economic and social systems and cultures that has huge similarities with – and would provide models for – the ravages that the British Empire would roll out around the world. It’s a reminder, as I’ve recently been hearing in the Pax Britannica podcast reflecting on Irish plantations and Scottish repression, that most tactics rolled out with such cost in blood and suffering around the red-tinted parts of the globe had benefited from honing at home.

But this isn’t, mostly, big-picture ‘tides of history’ writing. It’s a lively, affectionate, colourful account of individuals from all walks of life living their lives and particularly standing up for themselves with passion, control and careful planning. So, imagine this:

“At 2pm on 13 August 1628 in a field south of Haxey, a group of women distracted drainage workers with verbal abuse while the men ambushed them from behind and started throwing volleys of stones. Some of Vermuyden’s men were thrown into the dyke and held under with long poles. According to the official report, threats were made to break limbs and burn the men who did not leave the Isle ... although the intent seems to have been only to frighten the conscripted workers since no one was maimed or killed. Once the work site had been captured, drainage works were destroyed, and wheelbarrows and other implements burned. It was estimated that between 300 and 500 people were involved in the action.”

And these were individuals who had a lot to defend. When I took a walk from Epworth (No. 11 in the Lincolnshire and the Wolds Ordnance Survey Pathfinder Guide) through the Turbery Nature reserve (turbery being the medieval right to collect peat, heather and gorse for fuel), the richness of this tiny preserved pocket reminded me of a statistic I once heard, that an African savannah in its natural state is 100 times more biologically productive than farmland. The figure for the fens is surely in the same ballpark.

Boyce writes: “Peat, eels, game, feathers, hay, and dairy products … found a ready market. The demand for reed (it was much longer-lasting than straw as a roofing material) grew fast during the population growth of the 18th century. In the deepest fen grew the particularly valuable giant saw-sedge Cladium mariscus, highly sought after as a capping ridge as it could keep out rain for generations. Various other wild plants were harvested and sold for bedding, baskets and clogs. Pollarded willows were cut and sold for poles, baskets, wood and firewood...”

Boyce notes that Robert Carter, a disaffected landowner who wrote an anti-drainage pamphlet in 1772, saw clearly that the outcome of drainage works was not increased productivity, but rather the redirection of the results into the pockets of large landowners.

There is growing interest in the fens and the possibility of wetland restoration as Britain reconsiders, with ‘public money for public goods’, its land use, carbon storage in our climate emergency, and state as one of the world’s most Nature-depleted nations. We can learn from Boyce’s work.

And if you want help with the imagination part, Michelle Paver’s typically intensively researched and beautifully told Wakenhyrst, a gothic horror tale set in the fens, is a good place to go.

Natalie Bennett is a member of the House of Lords and a member of the Green Party.

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