Monday, October 03, 2011

From England to Doggerland

In a comment under my post about Derek March's photographs of the Hauraki Plains, the left-wing blogger Sanctuary suggested a way to stimulate New Zealand's torpid economy:

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]


Blogger Sanctuary said...

As the old saying goes, "God made the world but the Dutch made Holland!"

"...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..."

This is a good point, but I would counter by saying that we might have plenty of land, but it isn't necessarily the right kind of land. A drained and fertile firth of Thames would have the rainfall, the topography and the proximity to the infrastructure of Waikato and Auckland to be near perfect for cows and the milk industry - which will be the most valuable type of farming in the medium to long term for this country. But to be honest, I can't imagine that in atomised, defeatist neo-liberal New Zealand we could find the national will and determination to embark on a fifty to seventy year land reclaimation project, complete with carefully re-constructed wetlands for our feathered friends, drainage and pumping stations, and all the organisation that would be required by the state to make it happen.

7:50 am  
Anonymous Scott said...

I actually thought you had your tongue in your cheek when you suggested reclaiming the Firth of Thames, Sanctuary! But I do think that the way the Dutch have turned water into land is amazing.

I've never been to Holland but I've travelled across some of the Cambridge Fens, which were of course reclaimed by Dutch engineers centuries ago, and seen the networks of canals and pumphouses, as well as areas of remnant marsh. People from southern Cambridgeshire joke - or are they joking? - that the Fenfolk have webbed fingers and toes. In Nga Uruora, the magnificent book that inspired Derek March's photos and paintings of the Hauraki Plains, Geoff Park observes that the Hauraki peoples were the only group of Maori to give the figures in their carvings webbed fingers...

I think you're quite right about the timidity of the current government when it comes to public works - and I think the previous government showed the shame timidity. There's a lack of confidence in the ability of government to undertake major projects, and a reluctance to celebrate, or even acknowledge, this country's engineering and industrial heritage. I think these tendencies are related to the decline of capitalism in New Zealand.

9:49 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

cornish nationalism...what a joke...

9:51 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It appeals to the neo-Nazis, apparently...

10:34 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

lol comment from a neo-Nazi at Stormfront:

What the? Why on Earth hasn't there been an underwater excavation/search for a lost civilization on this sunken land? If there has, have they found anything? If there hasn't, after we secure our White only nation we should make it a racial priority to scavenge this place for lost advanced technology. This potentially precious piece of history/technology must not be ignored, especially for our race.

10:41 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What would Europe be like if Doggerland had not drowned?

11:07 am  
Blogger Sanctuary said...

Scott - I actually don't have the faintest idea if such a scheme is economically feasible. I suspect technologically it would be easy enough to achieve and (modestly enough) I am pleased with the exciting ambition of my idea. But really my point is the one you've picked up on - the loss of confidence by our leadership cliques in our ability to achieve things as a country, symbolised by the adoption of a... bicycle way as the centre piece of Keynesian public works schemes to save us from the recession. Instead of using borrowed foreign money for an underground rail loop, or high speed rail to Hamilton, or upgrading the main trunck line, or even - maybe - draining the Thames Firth it was simply squandered on middle class tax cuts.

You know, Whenever I am in those rural cafes with their walls covered in over-priced and mediocre acrylics of uninspiring and cliched re-hashes of chococlate box New Zealand I am struck by the emptiness of the landscapes. They very seldom feature people, as if these days we either are no longer important rnough to paint or we no longer live here, we are merely visiting. I would to fancy that I could in some way link those tax cuts and that mediocre art with its lack of people to the desperately unambitious cycleway with it's implied transcience to neatly illustrates the evolution of what seems to be the modern Pakeha idea of New Zealand. We are no longer British settlers taming nature and bending it to our will to build a better British race, or even a new people in and of this place working together to build a new nation.

Instead, our middle class seem to have abandoned those two ideas, which at least had the virtue of a certain nobility, in preference to becoming a suburban outpost of a globalised Anglosphere consumerist uber-class. Middle class New Zealanders now seem to see themselves as tourists in some sort of de-industrialised Tolkienesque vision of the past, sticking to the marked cycleway as they observe the beauty of the fairy tale land around them. I am reminded of how the English aristocracy sought to de-populate and reshape the Highlands to make it more "natural" and to suit their newly-minted convenient myths, only we are doing it to ourselves.

1:17 pm  
Anonymous Doggerland nationalist said...

Scott and Sanctuary and others:


3:26 pm  
Anonymous toreer said...

Sanctuary's blog looks moribund.

3:32 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Running large fiscal deficits is a Keynesian stimulus programme. National has been running one for three years and is pledged to do so for another couple. The deficit this year is projected to be $18bn.

7:28 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Dogone it! Doggyland is drowned!

9:04 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fiscal deficits aloe are not Keynesian. You have to do something to stimulate the economy - to increase consumer demand and therefore, in theory, production. GW Bush ran huge deficits - he was no Keynesian.

10:52 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

'Dogone it! Doggyland is drowned!'


10:52 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dog days indeed...

10:53 pm  
Anonymous Doggerland said...

Thank you for mentioning the Doggerland project in your post. I just want to correct a few things you are saying about it.

As far as I am aware, there are no websites that are genuinely advocating the recreation of Doggerland, but please send me the links if I a wrong.

You are misrepresenting the Doggerland project by saying that it aims to drain the North Sea. I think this is clear even from the quote you have used from the site.

Around the North Sea, there are extensive areas of reclaimed land, as well as land that is very vulnerable to the sea - and likely soon to disappear under it. The project is simply research into these places and is asking: what if you were to argue that these places actually belonged to the sea (or rather to Doggerland), how would that affect national borders and change the map of Europe.

The project is not advocating reclaiming more land, recreating anything, expecting European governments to pay for anything, or claiming any sort of independence.

More than anything, the project is a cultural study into coastal erosion and the changing coastline. In that sense, it is appropriate to bring up the sense of nationhood, as what would that mean if a nation were to slip under the sea?

Just a footnote to your talk of Englishness: On the site, I have quoted RG Stapledon (the pioneering environmentalist who is reputed to have had nationalist sympathies) writing in the 1930s that England should follow the ideas of Mussolini's "battle for the land" and reclaim The Wash to mark George V's silver jubilee.

"What could be so fitting as to create a little more England for such a king and his heirs to reign over?"

Here is the link: A little more England.

For your information, the Doggerland project is based in Berlin, Germany and not in England.

I look forward to reading more of your posts.

11:38 pm  
Anonymous Provisional government of Doggerland said...

That last commenter does not necessarily represent the Doggerland movement!

How do we know he even has a site??

9:32 pm  
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3:46 am  

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