January 23, 2021

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Human History and the Hunger for Land

9 min read

The final piece of terrain to be incorporated into the contiguous United States was an oddly shaped strip stretching from Las Cruces, New Mexico, to Yuma, Arizona. Known as the Gadsden Purchase, the area was obtained from Mexico in 1854 for ten million dollars, adding nearly thirty thousand square miles to a nation still drunk with Manifest Destiny expansionism. The motivations for acquiring the land were many—it contained huge deposits of ore and precious metals, held vast agricultural potential in the soils of its fertile river valleys, and, most important, had an arid climate that could allow a rail route to connect the coasts while remaining free from snowpack year-round.

Like much of the American West, the Gadsden region bears unmistakable scars of our nation’s drive for expansion and control. Today, it is dotted with ghost towns and gaping open-pit mines, its rivers are in various stages of death and diversion, and its land has been divided up according to innumerable private and public interests, forming a patchwork of national monuments and state parks, militarized borderlands and for-profit prisons, fiercely defended ranches and sovereign Indigenous nations. The stories that can be unearthed in places like Gadsden, where I have long made my home, are woven throughout Simon Winchester’s new book, “Land: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World” (Harper). Winchester, a British-American author who has frequented the nonfiction best-seller lists during the past two decades, examines our duelling impulses for appropriation and exploitation, on the one hand, and stewardship and restoration, on the other, tracing our relationship to land from the dawn of agriculture to the current age. Moving across varied histories and geographies, he offers us one case study after another of how the once seemingly inexhaustible surface of the Earth has devolved into a commodity, the ultimate object of contestation and control.

By way of an origin story, Winchester imagines two English farmers of the late Bronze Age. The men are neighbors, friends, and, he suggests, sometimes rivals. One farmer plows his flat fields in furrows; the other, cultivating an adjoining hillside, terraces his slopes with lynchet strips. Where one farmer’s furrows meet the other’s lynchets, an easily discernible division is created, giving rise to “the first-ever mutually acknowledged and accepted border between two pieces of land, pieces farmed or maintained or presided over—or owned—by two different people.” Small agricultural frontiers like these, Winchester’s thinking goes, constituted boundary lines in their humblest and simplest form, and soon evolved into boundaries between towns, cities, districts, and nations.

As borders proliferated, so did the need to demarcate them. Moving twenty-eight hundred years into the future with characteristic breeziness, Winchester considers nineteenth-century efforts to mark, measure, and map huge swaths of the planet. In 1816, the astronomer Friedrich Georg Wilhelm von Struve set out to calculate the length of the Earth’s meridians, employing an arsenal of theodolites, telescopes, brass measuring chains, and other hulking surveying tools to triangulate points across great distances and impossibly varied topography. Four decades later, Struve’s Geodetic Arc was completed, spanning ten countries and nearly two thousand miles, from the tip of Norway to the Black Sea coast of Ukraine. The line was a monumental achievement of engineering—it allowed Struve to determine the circumference of the Earth with astonishing accuracy, Winchester tells us, coming within sixteen hundred metres of the figure NASA settled upon more than a century later with the aid of satellite technology.

Winchester is a master at capturing the Old World wonder and romance of exploits like Struve’s—his past books have delved into such subjects as the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary (“The Professor and the Madman”) and the birth of modern geology (“The Map That Changed the World”). In “Land,” his prose frequently exudes the comfort and charm of a beloved encyclopedia come to life, centuries and continents abutting through the pages: there’s a micro-history of a hundred-acre tract he owns in eastern New York, an appreciation of Britain’s once ubiquitous Ordnance Survey maps, and the saga of the German cartographer Albrecht Penck, who sought to bring far-flung nations together in order to map the Earth’s entire surface at a one-to-one-million scale. These early chapters also read as a lament for bygone eras of exploration and mapmaking, with Winchester delighting in the cartographer’s nobility of spirit and the intellectual honesty of the craft, wrongly denigrated, he thinks, by “modern revisionism” and its anti-imperialist preoccupations.

But Winchester’s nostalgia leads him to skate over the involvement of cartographers, surveyors, and other diligent functionaries in the inner workings of conquest and empire. “Physical geographers back then,” he maintains, “took pride in remaining as politically neutral as the land was itself, caring little for which nation ruled what, only for the nature of the world’s fantastically varied surfaces.” In fact, American surveyors in charge of delineating the U.S. border with Mexico were decidedly less apolitical about their task than Winchester proposes. The various teams of “surveyor-dreamers,” as he calls them, seemed to take little interest in the nature of the Southwest. Despite traversing the world’s most biodiverse desert, they found the flora “more unpleasant to the sight than the barren earth itself”; the landscape, they reported, was “utterly worthless for any purpose other than to constitute a barrier.” William H. Emory, who headed the first post-Gadsden survey, complained in 1856 that the new boundary would limit the “inevitable expansive force” of America. When the Gadsden line was resurveyed, in 1892, the U.S. War Department dispatched a military escort of twenty enlisted cavalrymen and thirty infantrymen, “as a protection against Indians or other marauders.” In this sense, as the nineteenth century’s surveyors and mapmakers moved across the horizon, they served not only as beacons of scientific progress and civilizational promise but as grim harbingers of the encroaching technology and militarization that soon came to define ever-hardening lines across the globe.

As Winchester enters the twentieth century, he begins to grapple more directly with the enduring violence wrought by casual imperial boundary-making. His case in point is Britain’s postwar partition of India, completed in a mere handful of weeks during the summer of 1947 by Sir Cyril Radcliffe—a London lawyer who had never before been to India—from a dining-room table in Simla, British India’s “summer capital,” nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas. Radcliffe’s “bloody line” precipitated widespread exodus and carnage among Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims and left a bewildering jumble of enclaves and exclaves on either side, islands within islands, where tens of thousands found themselves marooned in nations not their own. This, Winchester writes, is “land demarcation made insane,” the inevitable consequence of borders concocted by foreign minds and laid out “in no sense as a reflection of any settled order of local history or geography.”

The narrative of American dispossession—the replacement of Native peoples with white settlers—serves as a sort of centerpiece for Winchester’s book. Beginning with a primer on the underpinnings of colonial ownership, he describes how the first conquistadores were emboldened by the fifteenth-century Doctrine of Discovery, in which the Pope affirmed their right to take possession of foreign lands inhabited by non-Christians. Similarly, the early British colonists in Massachusetts and Virginia found justification for expanding their dominion in the legal and philosophical writings of figures such as Hugo Grotius and John Locke, who argued that unclaimed lands were free for the taking, and that it was a Christian duty to own and improve them. Early settlers readily concocted laws to authorize the extermination, enslavement, and forcible relocation of one tribe after another. So potent was the colonists’ perceived right to usurp territory that when the British imposed their Proclamation Line of 1763, banning settlement west of the Appalachians, it stoked early calls for revolution against the Crown, imprinting a violent appetite for land upon our nascent national psyche.

Winchester’s wide-angle view mostly gets the big-picture history right—the narrative arc of expulsion and exploitation—but when he zooms in he is often unable to resist the register of grand adventure. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his depiction of the Oklahoma land run—the iconic scene of mounted pilgrims stampeding across an open prairie, staking flags to claim their own hundred-and-sixty-acre parcels, freshly prepared for the taking by the U.S. Land Office. The moment is eminently cinematic, and has been portrayed in monuments, novels, and films, including Ron Howard’s 1992 epic, “Far and Away,” in which Tom Cruise holds a black claim flag up to the sky and cries out, “This land is mine! Mine by destiny!,” before being crushed by a falling horse and dying in the arms of Nicole Kidman. Despite Winchester’s earlier acknowledgment of “the apocalypse, indeed, the holocaust” of Native peoples, he turns again and again to the accounts of white settlers, soldiers, and journalists, and only once cites a Native scholar across more than thirty pages. This shortcoming is characteristic of mainstream popular history, where corrective scholarship has only just begun to complicate the timeworn tradition of aggrandizing colonial narratives.

Even as Winchester dutifully recognizes the “shameful” and “repellent” treatment of America’s Indigenous population, he tosses up odd quips and cheeky asides, declaring, for example, that Spanish conquistadores were a “dishonorable exception” among the European colonizers. He goes on to offer a rosy depiction of the friendships that settlers like Henry Hudson and Francis Drake cultivated with local Natives, overselling brief and oft-mythologized preludes to what became long campaigns of subjugation and extermination. Winchester’s account is further undermined by a failure to capture the ongoing nature of many of his chosen histories. Of the dispossessed tribes in Oklahoma, for example, he contends that “such anger as they might justly feel has long ago ebbed, and it just simmers in the far background.” This will come as news to those who converged at Standing Rock to oppose the Dakota Access Pipeline—a mass protest that, as chronicled in Nick Estes’s “Our History Is the Future,” was informed by an unbroken legacy of resistance and has grown to become the largest Indigenous movement of the twenty-first century. It even reaches into the Sonoran Desert, where O’odham water and land defenders have climbed into the buckets of bulldozers to block the expansion of Trump’s border wall across their ancestral lands, cleaved ever since the Gadsden Purchase sketched a frontier across their dryland farms and sacred springs.

Cartoon by Sarah Akinterinwa

Expulsion and dispossession is, to be sure, a perennial tactic in the accumulation of land. Centuries before Britain began building its empire, powerful private and state interests set about appropriating land long held in common by English villagers, through a variety of legal and parliamentary maneuvers, in a process known as enclosure. These appropriations were bolstered by a burgeoning top-down philosophy of individualism, consolidation, and, ultimately, privatization. Many villagers, after being forcibly evicted from land they had coöperatively tilled and managed since time immemorial, joined resistance movements, such as the Levellers and the Diggers, while others moved to growing towns and cities, swept into a state-engineered demographic shift that would help produce the urbanized labor force required to run the newfangled machines and factories of the emerging Industrial Revolution.

“Land” vividly depicts the brutal enclosures that took place in Scotland at the beginning of the nineteenth century. During these Highland Clearances, as they came to be known, thousands of crofters were violently forced from their homes in order to convert entire farms and villages into pastureland for sheep. These clearances have often been associated with a single villainous couple, the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland, but Winchester relates that they were in fact carried out by a number of regional élites—a “punctilious” lawyer, a diligent agricultural specialist, and a team of enforcers willing to set fire to houses and churches. In the following chapter, he turns his attention to today’s biggest landowners, such as the Australian mining heiress Gina Rinehart, the American media magnates Ted Turner and John Malone, and the fracking billionaires Dan and Farris Wilks, all of whom possess country-size properties.

Francisco Cantú


2021-01-11 06:00:00


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