Tag Archives: colonisation

Archaeology and landscape and seeing what you expect to see

16109225Time’s Anvil was brilliant in thinking about archaeology and landscape — human lives, activities and ideas and their inter-relations with their surroundings. Much of Richard Morris’ argument revolves around this:

Or as Einstein said to Werner Heisenberg in 1926: ‘Whether you can observe a thing or not depends on the theory which you use. It is the theory which describes what can be observed.’

What you see is often defined by what you expect, what questions you start with, what you choose to notice and what you think irrelevant. Thus we can track archaeology by its questions and assumptions, which as years pass have shifted time and time again as widely held ‘truths’ proved completely wrong. This is a lovely little history of some of these dismantlings, a bit rambling from personal experience to excavations to poetry to agriculture to planning and battles and more. Quite enjoyable, and much for thought here — as you can unpack this kind of history for any field of inquiry.

There is quite a bit on the rise of archaeology itself, and how that shaped what early archeologists were looking for, the questions they asked, and what they were able to see.

There is, of course, that crazy period where (almost all) men worked so hard categorising things to understand them — Luke Howard’s An Essay on the Modification of Clouds (1803), William Smith’s attempt to map for the first time the stratification of minerals in a geological map (1815), the first attempt to grapple with architecture — An Attempt to Discriminate the Styles of Architecture in England by Thomas Rickman (1817). Morris roots archeology here, and in the activities that emerged through it:

With these four step taken — classification, the ability to ascertain sequence, time-depth, and evolution by natural selection — modern archeology’s heart was set beating. (62)

He argues that Darwin returned man to nature, made humans –and their history and development — subject to scientific examination rather than sat above it.

Interesting that archaeology grew as a discipline alongside history and conservation — which means British/American archaeology shared much of the same understanding of land and nature. People like William Wordsworth and Ralph Waldo Emerson running around delineating land worked by humans and ‘pure’ and ‘pristine’ nature.

As the industrial revolution quickened so did the idea of delimiting areas if land to keep nature in a pristine state. (64)

Thoreau rode on this bandwagon, arguing for establishment of parks ‘not for idle sport or food, but for inspiration and our own recreation’ (65). Thoreau apparently often wrote re-creation — not just enjoyment but self renewal. That’s rather nice. But still, a very different way of seeing the world around us than was common for earlier generations:

Deeper than this, though, was a perception of the pre-industrial past as a place in time that paralleled wilderness in geographical space — a slower-paced realm of pure life-giving existence, as it was, before everything became sullied or began to fail. What was old was more ennobling than what was new, because it had its own organic, creatively true and coherent network — the result of deep-rooted tradition which set it beyond fashion or unthinking utilitarianism. (65)

But we couldn’t get beyond these binaries of civilized and wild (too much riding on that one, like all of Britain and America’s arguments for colonisation and genocide), and linear progression. This is so different from other conceptions of time, so much has been written on Mayan and other indigenous understandings of teh cyclical nature of time, but for medieval Europe it was the same. This is a quote from the medieval historian Bede, from his The Reckoning of Time:

a lunar year and a solar year, a separate year for [each of] the wandering stars, and one for all the planets, which is particularly called “the great year”. (10)

And more about the differences:

Advances in technology and art during the Middle Ages were apparently unaccompanied by a general theory of progress. Until the sixteenth century an ‘inventor’ was, as its Latin root invenio reminds us, a person ‘who found something which had been lost, not one who devised a new solution unknown to previous generations.’ (quoting Keith Thomas from Religion and the Decline of Magic) (18)

Stepping outside of accepted theory we see a little more. For example, I liked the use of ‘the Old Ones’ to describe the mix of our ancient ancestors, the ones from the muddy bits of our family tree, the ones who may or may not have been homo sapiens or part of that line.

I love this amazing graph, this feels rather new since I studied such things in my heady undergraduate days in the 1990s:

Stringer graph-model of the evolution of several species of genus Homo over the last 2 million years (vertical axis).
Stringer graph-model of the evolution of several species of genus Homo over the last 2 million years (vertical axis).

I also like imagining them as different, rather than as inferior versions of ourselves.

Despite abundant evidence that earlier humans were adapted to their environments, the legend which paints them as inferior versions of us lives on…the archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley demanded evidence of progress, as if its absence was a defect…E.H. Carr argues that ‘only those people which have succeeded in organising their society in some degree cease to be primitive savages and enter into history’. On this view, it is history that defines our genes rather than the other way round. (141)

An example —

Hitherto it had been generally assumed that early people had lived in holes in the ground. Bersu showed that in fact they lived in generously proportioned timber-built round houses. (71)

How people relate to their environment is also up for rethinking. I read some of Childe doing my masters — those beloved archeology classes I took as part of the Latin American Studies degree I never finished, this makes me want to go back to him.

Child argued that human beings do not adapt to their surroundings as they really are but rather as they imagine them. ‘Each individual carries about in her or his mind a “cultural map” incorporating knowledge acquired through learning and experience, from which the individual selects the data required to adapt to the social and natural environment. (76) [Childe – Prehistoric communities of the British Isles, Trigger — Childe’s relevance]

This is a good metaphor for archaeology itself, Morris argues it arose in years of colonial expansion and nation states, ‘It is not surprising, then, that archaeology should have been harnessed to the imperialist cause’ (77)  — nor that pre-history should be understood as succession of conquests bringing new ideas and better ways of doing things. Thus rather than look at landscape or the continuity of developments over time, they cut deep shafts into sites:

‘in Britain down to the 1950s placed reliance on vertical control whereby events in the life of a place, each chapter with its own layers, each layer a stage in a story, were read off serially from sections as if from a railway timetable. (77)

Very different from countries such as Denmark, always more focused on settlement and environment. A focus on shafts in a very tightly delimited space also limited what could be seen:

At best, ‘site’ was an artificial construct, an area delineated for present convenience rather than denoting any past reality. ‘Site’ was also deceiving, for it invited you to look inwards rather than out to the surrounding area and horizons that gave it meaning. [O. G. S.] Crawford said that alongside frameworks of period and typology archaeology also needed a grammar of space and time. (122)

There is a wonderful chapter on the rise of aerial photography — a whole new view of landscape and identification of sites and how they fit into their surroundings. Trasnformational, For example, until then archeologists and historians believed settlement concentrated in a belt across England, and that places like the fenlands lay all but deserted. Aerial photography showed marks of old fields, proved this completely wrong. I love too that they found that different crops show archeological features very well or not all through changes in lushness of growth, that frost dissipates differently, that mushrooms can grow differently — Gilbert White had noted this in his journals. A nice tie-in.

As these challenges arose, new ways of excavating worked to answer them. Christopher Taylor doing an area study, challenged

four time-honoured suppositions: that places had generally come into existence in ‘waves of colonisation’ or grown outwards from stable centres; that the earliest recorded reference to a place was likely to approximate to the time when the place was first settled; that a place ommitted from Domesday Book did not exist in 1086; and that continuity of habitation presupposed continuity of site, or indeed the reverse. The new reading visualized extensive earlier settlement, and fluidity as well as fixity of habitation within an older framework of fields, estates and lanes. (162)

The fluidity is particularly important:

There is a contemporary tendency to see the past in terms of static functions, what a place was ‘for’, as distinct from processes, the perpetuity of what went on. (170)

Aerial photos and excavations revealed so much that we didn’t know — like causewayed enclosures or cursus that we still don’t understand the meaning of, like Knap Hill in Wiltshire.

It also allowed us to better trace changes in agriculture, from small fields to open-field agriculture:

Blocks of strips with the same trend had been gathered into furlongs, and a group of furlongs formed a larger land which was cropped in rotation with one or two others. Lacking permanent subdivision, tenurially subdivided, communally organized, there were the remains of open-field agriculture. (184)

And similar changes in villages — going back to Christopher Taylor:

…the settlements we see today will not usually be the result of outward growth from ancient nuclei, but the result of a succession of reconfigurations. Such transformation can occur in many ways — by relocation, slow drift, coalescence, fission, fusion — and at differing tempos in which beats of different measure may run in counterpoint. (194)

And this:

Taylor showed how widespread planning had been. By examination in the field he showed that places which looked amorphous were in fact often made up of planned elements which had, so to speak, gone out of shape as time passed — for instance through piecemeal addition or the loss, subdivision or amalgamation of buildings. (194)

Ah, planning.

Land and people differ from those once pictured: the land more intricate, locally, varied, longer settled and more efficiently managed; the people better housed, more socially and economically diverse, bearing more responsibility for events and change. (202)

Part of this is the long occupation of sites over time, and things like the widespread Anglo-Saxon cemeteries associated with earlier mounds and monuments like Wigber Low or New House Farm.

On to Dominic Powlesland, who found this incredible ‘filament of farms, a linear agricultural commune one building wide and tens of miles long’ (212) in the Vale of Pickering.

Amazing. This was a moment where I felt everything change — nucleated village settlements aren’t some kind of innate, natural form we create.

He uncovered this working systematically over nine seasons across a broad area in a way no one had before — it is now thirty years work has been happening now, and the wonderful site of the Landscape Research Centre has much more on this. Look at these images generated through geophysics:

Fluxgate gradiometer survey of Ladder Settlement. (Area 6.87 hectares)
Fluxgate gradiometer survey of Ladder Settlement. (Area 6.87 hectares)


3D view showing the ribbon of Iron Age and Roman settlement on the southern side of the Vale of Pickering near West Heslerton


These long strips could run for up to ten miles, a line of buildings facing each other across a road. They remind me immensely of Paolo Soleri’s Arterial Arcology, which is sitting in a box now for the most part unread.

This study also challenged ‘the foundation myth of a people finding its destiny in an unclaimed land’ — the Anglo Saxons moving into a mostly unpopulated wilderness parallel to rhetoric around colonisation.  I wasn’t even aware of such a myth, but it parallels closely the myths utilised n the US and elsewhere to justify expansion so I am not surprised. I (and others) find the period after the end of the Roman Empire particularly interesting, and particularly cloudy, with little evidence and much speculation of collapse and darkness. But excavations in the Vale of Pickering showing little contraction in the economy or depopulation, but stable communities

A key aspect of these settlements is the way they embraced a cross-section of rural resources between the Vale floor and the Wold top: river frontage, marshland, arable, water, upland grazing’ (223)

His surveys and excavations also showed residence, craft and industry in different zones — ah, zoning. My urban planner heart goes pitter pat.

The village of Heslerton remained occupied until the ninth century in this long filament pattern. It was then dismantled (how? why?) and a new community a short distance to the west emerged. The old area converted to ridge and furrow and communally worked fields — and this happened up and down the valley. Thus

the ‘early Saxon’ settlement did not originate in contrast to the thousand-year-old ladder, but rather was condensed out of it. (227)

The Vale of Pickering shows:

the birth of early medieval England occurs not in the aftermath of a post-Roman collapse, but as an evolution from late prehistoric society that Rome had ruled and exploited but not significantly altered. (227)

York is another example of continuity followed by change — as medieval York evolved above the still-visible ruins of Roman York:

the evolving topography of the Anglo-Saxon city had been influenced by axis of the Roman fortress. The Norman cathedral builders, on the other hand, had pointedly ignored it. (257)

Interesting. But archaeologists found Anglo Saxon graves in the old Roman basilica, and they also used Roman building blocks and Roman slabs for gravestones within remains of Roman buildings. They painted them as well! I don’t know what that last detail is so interesting, but so it is.

A final challenge to some linear developments by conquest of small insular villages — the mining industry and how it connected all of Europe over the centuries. The 1140s chronicler (Henry of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum) writes:

although little silver was mined in England, much was brought from Germany by the Rhine on account of England’s wonderful fertility in fish and meat, in most precious wool, and in cattle without number. As a result, a larger supply of silver is found in England than in Germany. (198)

The more I read or watch documentaries on the past, the more I realise just how much trade and travel did occur across our history – a look at mining and minerals seems to be a good way to understand the long-existing connectedness of Europe:

Trade seems to have intensified from the late tenth century, and its stimulant lay some six hundred miles to the east of England’s midlands, in the Harz mountains of Germany, where late in the 960s a large new source of silver was discovered, augmenting an earlier silver supply from central Europe which had been fuelling the expansion of coinage since the early eighth century. (197)

Morris described a confluence of mining and farming in Cornwall, exploited in places like Alderley Edge, where some of the tunnels and mine working mining out minerals — copper, silver, tin, malachite, galena, vanadium, cobalt, nickel, zinc, molybedenum — date from the early bronze age. These same minerals contributed to the rise of the Industrial Revolution. Cornish tin in pewter, solder and tin plate used for canning industry, Tin alloyed with copper — bronze for machine bearings and marine propellers. Copper in boilers, vats, piping for dying and processing of sugar. in brass, parts for steam engines, and gun cartridges. Arsenic for dyes and pigments, early insecticide. But going back, a look at mining challenges some very fundamental understanding’s of the stages of human development:

The Iron Age, for long viewed as a step along the road of linear technological progress, has recently been argued to have begun because from around 1100 BC the supply of accessible continental copper began to dwindle, thus stepping up the search for other kinds of ores closer to hand. If copper was a metal of journeys and mysteries, then, iron eventually became a metal of localities. Its stories differ from those of copper and gold. (382)

For all this is true, there is a definite change with the rise of imperialism and colonisation.

From the sixteenth century, it becomes less and less possible to study the past ‘as if it happened only in one place’. (350)

This is almost a throw away line, but reiterated again and again by writers like Walter Rodney, Stuart Hall, Cedric Robinson and others — hardly a coincidence that they all write critically from the spaces conquered through Empire.

I am not an archaeologist, so unable to comment how this book fits in with work happening in the field under discussion, but there is so much here for geographers. The points above were what I found most useful in understanding more of what the study of archaeology and landscape can teach us about how humans grow and change with their environment — both in challenging paradigms of thought and methodology, as well as many of my own assumptions gleaned from reading about the past. There is a lot more that could be said about how race, class, gender and etc impact our vision and structure our theory, I missed more of that here, but it does do quite a lot.

For more on archaeology…















Black Poor and White Philanthropists: Sierra Leone

2800738What a title, eh?

It is a worthy and detailed look at the first attempt to set up a colony of free Blacks in Sierra Leone in 1786. It asks the simple question, did Black folks have agency in this process? The answer is of course they did, so there are a lot of deeper complexities that this book doesn’t address theoretically. But there is a basic history (which will make you rage), and some fun facts along the way, because a few of the principles involved were, to put it simply, batshit crazy.

There’s this nugget about Granville Sharp:

It may also seem incongruous to present-day readers that Sharp should take time off from his campaign against the evils of slavery and the slave trade to call in at Covent Garden theatre, in order to protest in person against the stage practice of dressing women in men’s clothes (15).

He must have been a very busy man with so much iniquity in the world. Described here as one of the driving forces behind the Sierra Leone settlement, he accomplished much through pithy interventions by pamphlet like this one:

Memorandum on a late Proposal for a New Settlement to be made on the Coast of AFRICA; recommending to the Author of that Proposal, several Alterations in his Plan, and more especially the Adoption of the ancient Mode of Government by Tithings (or Decenaries) and Hundreds, as being the most useful and effectual Mode of Government for all Nations and Countries.

Establish an Anglo-Saxon government in Sierra Leone? Why not. Even Swedenborg (founder of the Swedenborgian mystical… tendency? religion? cult?) got into the act with his pamphlet titled ‘An Essay on Colonization, particularly applied to the Western Coast of Africa’. I’m looking that shit up, but later.

Putting the craziness to one side for a moment (and just a moment) there are some great details on this early and mostly lost period of Black lives in London pulled from a review of parish registers from 1783-1787. Braidwood found 168 people noted as black, spread across 9 parishes, 144 of them in 6 East End parishes —  partiularly St-George’s-in-the-East (71), and St Dunstan’s, Stepney (Mile End Old Town and Ratcliffe). 83 names given place of origin, 6 born in Britain, 3 definitely born in Africa, 26 (31%) from West Indies (9 from Jamaica, 5 from Barbados). 13 from from Charleston, South Carolina. A global community. The 960 people who would ultimately receive relief, however, reflect a much larger community than that described through this source.

Braidwood also found clusters of names reflecting the histories of slavery and freedom. ‘Classical’ names like John Jupiter, James Neptune, William Cato, John Scipio. Others biblical: Aaron and Darius Brooks, Moses Handley, James Titus, Sampson Morgan and Hezekiah Nukins. Other names from where they had been born: Robert Carolina, James Stepney, Black London (!). Others on characteristics held or desired: Michael Handy, George Comfortable.

But mostly this book details the effort to establish a colony in Sierra Leone, and the principal mechanism for it through the formation of the Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor in 1786. The motivations are tangled in charity and racism, a desire to export the poor and to some limited extent a desire to help them. Formed in Mr Faulder’s book shop in Bond St, but subsequent meetings took place in Batson’s Coffee House, opposite the Royal Exchange. Its best known chairman was Jonas Hanway (his batshit reminiscent of Granville Sharp’s):

Hanway is today chiefly remembered for two campaigns which received strikingly different measures of success: his introduction to London of the umbrella, and his opposition to the ‘pernicious custom’ of drinking tea (65).

There is some really interesting primary evidence of English views on the presence of Blacks (particularly around their role in the American war of independence). Letter to The Public Advertiser (I think 19 January, 1786):

the Lascars…demand our pity only; but…the African negroes have an actual claim on our justice:- They, or the greater part of them, have served Britain, have fought under her colours, and after having quitted the service of their American masters, depending on the promise of protection held out to them by British Governors and Commanders, are now left to perish by famine and cold, in the sight of that people for whom they have hazarded their lives, and even (many of them) spilt their blood. (68)

We learn more about the geographies of Black residence in London: Relief was originally handed out at ‘the shop of Mr Brown, a baker, in Wigmore Street’, with an increase in donations rooms in two public houses were hired, the White Raven in Mile End, and the Yorkshire Stingo (!) on Lisson Green in Marylebone. On the 24th of January they were giving broth, a piece of meat and a twopenny loaf to 140 people a day, by February it was 210.

My own experiences and researches lead me to agree with those who put racism at the top of the tangle of ‘philanthropic’ motivations. John Pugh, Hanway’s biographer, wrote in 1787 in The Remarkable Occurences in the Life of Jonas Hanway that success for the committee:

must tend to relieve the misery of these poor people, and prevent the unnatural connections between black persons and white; the disagreeable consequences of which make their appearance but too frequently in our streets.

In an attempt to enlist the help of the Committee of West India Planters and Merchants, Benjamin Johnson wrote:

Commiserating the calamitous Situation of these People the object of the Committee has thus far been confined to a temporary relief, but being assured, that nothing short of their removal will effectually assist them, they are using their best endeavors to fix on some means of affording them a permanent subsistence. They have it in view also to procure a Act of Parliament, to prevent any Foreign Blacks being brought to this Country to remain, as it must ever be attended with many Inconveniences; To obtain these ends, the Committee would be very happy to have the honor of your Advice and Assistance (74-75, quoting ICS West India Committee minute books, 3/1, 32).

Novia Scotia was the original idea for the site of the settlement, but a certain Henry Smeathem had his heart set on Sierra Leone, writing Plan of a Settlement to be made near Sierra Leona in 1786 (a reworking of an older plan). He claimed it was a beautiful and healthy place, when in fact the death toll among Europeans was extremely high. He won over the committee and then the government, now involved in the plan. Black folks themselves, however, were not quite so happy about the idea. Relief became conditional on their agreement to colonise Sierra Leone by June of 1786, about 30 refused to take it, others wished to go to the US or the West Indies. There were rumours flying around that this was deportation to a penal colony — either Botany Bay or in Africa, and why not?

There was some resistence to the plan, and newspapers make clear that some Blacks did appeal to Lord George Gordon (of riot fame), but unclear if he intervened in any way or penned any of the anonymous attacks on it that were printed. Apparently, however, many were won round to the idea of returning to Africa, and there are some interesting details on how those on relief were organised around key leaders who would be responsible for bringing their people to the ships.

By late 1786 the number of those who had accepted allowances was 700 (a later figure is 960), the number Granville Sharp assumed was sailing. Payments were stopped to those who did not agree to embark, a plan to arrest all Blacks for vagrancy who did not embark was mooted. Only about 350 people had boarded the ships waiting for them by February 1787 — of which there were originally three planned, and there were huge delays in trying to get more to embark. The total in the lists drawn up by Gustavas Vassa (also known as Olaudah Equiano, famed for his autobiography and leading role in advocacy for abolition as a former slave, so I’m fascinated by his role in this affair, though it was short lived and not well explained) were 459 – 117 women (70 of these white wives) and 25 children.

By March all three had left London and reached Plymouth. There had been outbreaks of fever. A public letter was printed detailing complaints of Olaudah Equiano, who left the expedition here after his dismissal for disrespect and accusations of fomenting mutiny. Meanwhile the whites were fighting over the land to be granted them.

The fleet finally set sail on 9 April, 1787 — five months later than planned, practically ensuring the failure of the settlement as it had been timed to arrive before the rainy season when mortality was already known to be at its highest, but instead arrived on the 10th of May.

In total the Treasury had paid out £14,747 13s 9d.

They called the settlement ‘Province of Freedom’. By mid-September, 122 had died. By March of the following year only 130 people were left alive. The settlement itself only lasted 2 and half years. The blame, states Braidwood, has usually been placed on the settlers, especially their failure to set up a stable government.

White people decided to start again. In 1788 an abolitionist named Falconbridge was sent to Sierra Leone to try and refound a settlement. He found 56 survivors who had moved to a nearby town, 36 men and 20 women. Thornton and Wilberforce worked to get the Sierra Leone Settlement Bill through parliament, to support the settlement of the area by the Sierra Leone Company. A whole new effort was to commence, supposedly on a for profit basis as any other chartered company of trade and colonization.

I read this book to try and find out more after finding a reference to this extraordinary and terrible history in a biography of Henry Thornton. It’s worth requoting that in length:

The one attempt in pure colonial philanthropy, which Granville Sharp had made five years before, had proved a dismal failure.

Sharp had himself explored the land along the mouth of the Sierra Leone River in 1787. The Royal African Company had lost its monopoly there in 1698, and the territory was full of slavers from France and from England. Sharp returned to London determined to see at least one colony of freemen on the western coast of Africa, He formed a Committee for Black Poor which raised money to send a group of 340 indigent Negroes to Sierra Leone. They sailed under the protection of nine white officials and in the company of 62 white prostitutes. Sharp had elaborate plans for his settlement, but by September 1788, four months after landing, just 66 Negroes remained alive. Disease felled half the tough white women. Those neither dead nor sick were burdened with the care of 30 black and mulatto babies. The five harassed officials still at work could only try in vain to interest them in re-establishing the Anglo-Saxon frank-pledge system Sharp had felt best suited to their needs (102-103).

Everything infuriates me, from the callousness with which Black lives are treated, to calling the white wives prostitutes. Everything about this venture breaks my heart, doomed to failure as it was, and ugly as the behavior of abolitionists and philanthropists and fortune-seekers proved to be.

And still so much to find out.