‘Imperial Mud: The Fight for the Fens’ by James Boyce

2020, 195p.

“That’s strange…” I thought. The James Boyce the Historian that I am familiar with is a Tasmanian historian, who has written two excellent histories of Van Diemens Land and the 1835 settlement of Victoria, as well as books about the gambling industry in Tasmania and the concept of original sin. But writing about the Fens in England? What’s he doing over there?

Before reading the book, I decided to read the Acknowledgments first because I needed to know why he had jumped from Tasmanian to British history. Forewords, Postscripts and Acknowledgments are an interesting addition to the text. I often don’t read the foreword, even though the writer (or their publisher) has consciously placed it before the text, because I frequently find that it’s more interesting and useful to read it after I have read the book. I’m often perplexed as to why a foreword or introduction or a foreshadowing of the arguments is at the front, when it would be more meaningful at the end of the book. However, even though I have often criticized the insertion of the historian as an actor into his/her text, I do like to know where the historian is coming from. It seems to me that this is the information that is best placed in an introduction, rather than at the end of the text.

And so, flipping to the back of the book, I find that Boyce explains that

A more direct source for this book was my research on the Australian frontier…When I began to read histories of the Fens, I was struck by some largely unacknowledged similarities with the colonial frontier. Here too was a multi-faceted defence of country, a transformation of the land, the introduction of foreign settlers and a confrontation between two worlds. While researching Australian history, I began to wonder, did the fact that the Fens was part of England justify such a radically different approach to writing its past?

p.198

So this is the approach that he takes: that even though the Fens are physically located in England, they were colonized just as lands across the globe had been. The Fens, he explains, are not a precise location, given that the creeks and waterways that constitute them have always been an ever-changing phenomenon. His maps at the start of the book show locations in Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk and the Isle of Axholme in Yorkshire. (I must confess that these names mean little to me, as other than a trip to Cambridge, I have never been there). More interestingly, he adopts his own name for the people who live there by creating the term “Fennish”. He points out that even though they may not have seen themselves as a discrete people, their sense of unity was strengthened once the process of dispossession began.

Resisting imperialism helped create a shared identity for diverse groups of Native Americans and Aboriginal Australians as it did for the people of the Fens.

p. xviii

He also identifies them a ‘indigenous’ people: a term we generally associate with over-the-seas colonialism. They were people intimately knowledgeable about the liminal relationship between water and land.

All cultures undergo times of upheaval as well as long periods of evolution. What characterises an indigenous culture is neither its uniformity nor immutability, but that it remains rooted in country as it experiences continuity and change.

p. xix

So he traces the unique, watery, changeable geography of the marshes of the Fens from 4000 years ago. The Romans were experienced drainers, and they constructed canals and dams which became integrated into a local creation myth about a race of giants. After the Roman withdrawal, the Fens were portrayed by the Church as an inhospitable and unpopulated land. It was this reputation for unhealthiness and a combination of direct resistance, accommodation, adaptation and deal-making that meant that the Fennish survived Roman, Saxon and Viking conquests. (p. 15) Most of the Fens remained common land after the Norman conquest, although many new religious houses were established, extending their presence through priories, hermitages and shrines. This monastic expansion provided economic opportunities through an abundance of fish, waterfowl shellfish, eels and most importantly, grass. There was a high proportion of small farmers, and the size and abundance of the commons ensured that the Fennish could make a communal living.

‘The Commons’ were fundamental to Fennish life, but they were always under threat, first from monasteries, then from the social and religious flux associated with the Reformation. Under the Stuarts there were grand plans for draining the marshes, particularly drawing on Dutch expertise. Oliver Cromwell at first championed the rights of the Fennish, only to himself become a champion of enclosure and drainage once he became Protector. The passing of the Enclosure Bill in 1767 led to the clearing out of ‘squatters’ backed by the power of the state, as with the Highland Clearances in Scotland, facilitated by the legal ‘fix’ described in E.P, Thompson’s Whigs and Hunters.

What seemed to spell the end for the Fens was not political power alone, but also technological change. The Industrial Revolution spawned new technologies, but the relative isolation of the Fens ensured that Fennish culture survived through ongoing resistance, deployment of the courts, and fightback. Drainage and enclosure of the Fens took hundreds of years because of the success of this resistance. It was World War II and its food shortages and the devastating floods in 1947 and 1953 that accelerated government-funded projects to drain the fens. Big, capital-intensive engineering schemes were prompted by heavily subsidized farm prices after Britain’s entry into the European Economic Community. Indeed, “The landscape was as comprehensively transformed between 1950 and 2000 as at any corresponding period in history” (p.180)

That might seem to be the end of the story, except that the land has had its own silent, inexorable regeneration. Climate change and subsidence means that the land is again being inundated, and restoration projects are under way.

In his postscript Boyce points out that just because the Fennish were English did not shield them from a process of colonization on British soil, as distinct from American or Australian soil.

The Fennish story is an integral part of the troubled history of the imperial age. As elsewhere in the empire, an indigenous people fought the land grab through every means available to them, including force, until the subversive power of the modern state and the technological power of the Industrial Revolution achieved what seemed to be a final victory

p.190

It is this bi-focal approach to colonization, seeing it as a process wielded in Britain and well as by Britain that is the real strength of this book, prompted by Boyce’s deep engagement with Indigenous history here in Australia. I must confess as an Australian reader, I found myself wishing that I knew more British history and geography. In his acknowledgments Boyce refers to Graham Swift’s Waterland, and for me, this fictional book helped me to fill in the imaginative gaps. Boyce is an incisive and economical writer, carefully attuned to landscape and ecology, continuity and change. His book is only small, but it makes an argument about colonization and resistance with its feet planted in two different, widely separated continents.

4 responses to “‘Imperial Mud: The Fight for the Fens’ by James Boyce

  1. I enjoyed Boyce’s book – and got a lot out of his interview with Phillip Adams on Late Night Live, which les me to order it from the library in the first place. But I wanted him to mention Charles Kingsley’s Hereward the Wake, set in Ely, the capital of the Fens. Kingsley specifically compares the doomed resistance of Hereward against Norman invaders, and the resistance of the Maori in contemporary (1860s) New Zealand.

    • Isn’t that interesting- that Kingsley made that connection at the time. I really felt that my English history was too sketchy to be able to judge what he had omitted or included.

  2. I read about this book – perhaps it was shortlisted for the PM’s Literary Awards in History? I remember because I wondered about its subject matter too. It intrigued me, but of course I haven’t got to it, and probably won’t, much as I’d like to. Though, at 195pp. it shouldn’t be impossible to fit in!

    PS I usually read the Foreword after too. I much prefer Afterwords!

    • I’m pleased to read that someone else reads the foreword later. It always seems to make much more sense once you’ve read the book!

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