From England to Doggerland
Nowhere between the northern tip of Ponui Island and Onepoto bay in the Coromandel does the depth of water in the Firth of Thames exceed 35 metres. Given the very poor environmental state of the water in the Firth I have always been of the view that a land reclaimation along the lines of the Zuiderzee Works would produce an outstanding economic outcome, creating many tens of thousands of hectares of valuable new farmland, mining opportunities and urban development.
THAT is the sort of public works project that would be good for the working people of this country!!!
Sanctuary's suggestion is not quite as surreal as it might at first seem. Ten thousand or so years ago, during the last major Ice Age, the Firth of Thames was a swampy plain, and much of the adjacent Hauraki Gulf also sat above the sea line. After the sea advanced, creating the Firth and making the Motutapu and Waiheke Hills into islands, a huge swamp remained beyond the southern fringes of the new shoreline. The Tainui peoples - Ngati Maru, Ngati Tamatera, Ngati Paoa - who settled this region built islands in the midst of the swamp by dumping shells and gravel stones moved by canoe from the beaches on the eastern side of the Hunua Ranges.
In the early twentieth century, after the alienation of Maori land and the felling of the kahikatea which grew in the swamp, the ancient reclamation project was resumed on a massive scale. Using dredges, drains, canals, and pumps, the government of William Massey turned the marshes into a new region they named the Hauraki Plains. In 1915 alone fifteen thousand acres of swamp were turned into dry land and sold to farmers. The public works scheme Sanctuary suggests might seem implausibly vast but, when we take into consideration improvements in technology, it is not qualitatively different to the scheme which Massey launched a century ago.
The National government is anxious to avoid anything resembling a Keynesian stimulus programme, and has deemed even the national cycle trail John Key mooted before the last election too extravagant a project to pursue seriously. Even if National had decided to respond to the global recession with a sort of New Zealand New Deal, it's not clear what the point of large-scale land reclamation would be. Land is hardly scarce in New Zealand, and rural regions like Eastland and the King Country have for decades suffered from ebbing populations.
Land reclamation may be an unsaleable idea in this country, but it seems to be attracting an increasing number of enthusiasts in England. At about the time that the Firth of Thames was formed, the North Sea consumed Doggerland, a region of swampy plains and low hills which had connected eastern England to continental Europe for tens of thousands of years. The Mesolithic peoples who had lived in Doggerland were scattered, but the axes and adzes they used to hunt and cut up tigers and mammoths still turn up regularly in the nets of North Sea fishermen. The fate of Doggerland is hardly unique. Many peoples have legends of catastrophic floods, and marine archaeology is a prospering academic discipline. Despite its relatively short human history, New Zealand has lost settlements to the sea. Oral histories suggest that the Kaipara Harbour island of Taporapora, which was famous as the final resting place of the Manuhuhu waka and the site of an important school of learning, was destroyed by a huge wave hundreds of years ago. A low-lying region of kumara gardens and villages called Paorae used to extend into the Tasman from the southern head of the Manukau Harbour, but it was gradually reclaimed by the sea, and had disappeared completely by the middle of the nineteenth century.
The inundation of Doggerland might not be unparalleled, but the amount of land which was lost is exceptional. The region covered an area larger than the present-day Netherlands, Belgium, and Denmark combined, and contained hundreds of settlements.
The name Doggerland was only coined in the 1990s, when serious archaeological study of the region was beginning, but it is already widely recognised. Europe's Lost World, a study of the region and its disappearance by a trio of archaeologists, became a bestseller last year, and the popular television series Time Team devoted an episode to Doggerland. The fantasy writer Stephen Baxter has written a series of novels set in Doggerland at the time when the North Sea began its advance, and New Age websites have begun to refer to the region as 'Britain's Atlantis', and to credit its ancient inhabitants with all sorts of mystical insights and supernatural powers.
Some people are more interested in the future of Doggerland than in the place's past. A number of websites have been set up to advocate 'recreating' Doggerland, by draining the waters which cover the region. The most extensive site belongs to 'The Doggerland Project', an outfit which proclaims Doggerland's 'right to nationhood', and even has designs on bits and pieces of Britain and the Low Countries:
If Doggerland does have a right to exist, where would it be? Of course under the North Sea, for the most part. On the coasts around the sea, however, centuries of land reclamation have taken place. Great swathes of Holland, East Anglia, Frisia, Flanders and Jutland have been created through digging dykes and dredging the seabed. As is evident in Happisburgh in Norfolk or on the island of Sylt, the sea is all too willing to get these places back. Nation states have to build coastal defences to keep hold of these lands. If they didn’t, they would presumably be subsumed back into the sea.
So surely you could argue that these places should, by right, belong to the North Sea – and, if so, to Doggerland – and not, therefore, to the Netherlands, to the United Kingdom, to Belgium, to Germany or to Denmark.
The massive network of dykes and pump-stations and polders which would be required to reclaim Doggerland from the North Sea could only be funded by a national government, or by a supra-national body like the European Union. The would-be Doggerlanders apparently expect European governments to pay for the 'recreation' of 'their' nation, and then to give up all claims to the new entity.
Would it be going too far to suggest that both the romanticising of ancient Doggerland and the brave visions of a recreated Doggerland can be related to the peculiar malaise in which contemporary England finds itself? The twentieth century saw the decline of Britain as a world power, and the rolling up of the British Empire. The Blair era seemed for a while to represent the revival of the old expansionist Britain, but Blair's adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq now seem, like the failed invasion of Egypt in 1956, to symbolise the inability of modern Britain to project power successfully abroad.
The decline of British imperialism has been complemented by the fracturing of the British nation, as Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and even Cornwall assert their sense of difference from England. As the very idea of Britishness loses credibility, the English are increasingly having to ponder their own history and identity, and to contemplate the possibility of a future apart from Scotland and Wales.
Perhaps Doggerland appeals to some English minds because it offers a romantic escape from an unglamorous and uncertain present. With its vague, almost mythical quality and tragic fate, ancient Doggerland is reminiscent of the idealised pasts sometimes promulgated by Celtic nationalists. It offers an alternative, or a pseudo-alternative, to narratives which present the English as an oppressor of other peoples. With its promise of winning new territory without wars, The Doggerland Project appeals to citizens of a small and crowded nation who are aware of the impossibility of reviving their old martial empire.
Even as scholars labour to reconstruct its contours and culture, Doggerland is becoming a site for fantasies.
[Posted by Maps]