Friday, May 13, 2011

Sacrificial Zones

On Thursday, in a posting that I hope eventually comes back, as currently it is still a sacrifice to Google's attempts to get Blogger working again, I talked about canals and deserts and civilisations.

These are things that you can talk about as history, but also, as has been done, as a proxy for more properly private obsessions. I didn't quite get to Karl Wittfogel, but that's not for lack of trying. There's just too much crazy out there. Today, though, the news comes that the Premier of Manitoba is in trouble for putting off the breaching of the misengineered Assiniboine River dykes to Saturday. People with farms in the selected sacrificial zones are understandably angry that their homes will be flooded instead of others. It is not easy for a politician to opt to flood a hundred homes to save several hundred more. The way people think about these things, he is more likely to be punished at the polls than rewarded.

The flooding in the Red River country is small beers compared with the disaster that overook Queensland four months ago, or that is unfolding on the Mississippi right now. But they remind me, as they always remind me, of the absurdity of proclaiming that "hydraulic civilisations" exist only in the deserts of some vast Asian east, outside of history, before democracy, when water spills on the dry earth because god kings will it so. Because, dude: the Thames Embankment? The Corps of Engineers? There are dykes, and for that matter, irrigation ditches, in Europe, too.

Is that a revelation? Probably not, but back when I started my dissertation, so long ago,with this guy, and this book in mind, it took my mind in directions that I hope are a little more novel. The thesis, such as I had one, came out of this book. See, there were student riots in Paris in 1820, and lots of the rioting kids turned out to be brilliant, published authors and whatnot. So the riots were a particularly heroic moment! Was it in the air? In the "culture?" Spitzer argues that, no, it comes down to demographics. Could the argument be extended to the "end of the Scientific Revolution," (boring historiography/indefensible SSK alert)? The dissertation committee, in the fullness of time, said no. But long before that, I was wrestling with making sense of the War of the Spanish Succession. And that's when I came across this book.
Still available from the UCP

Obviously, the Sacramento River has nothing to do with Europe. It's just a big river draining the northern part of California's enormous Central Valley. Thanks to the climate and the ongoing orogeny on California's uplifting coast, the Sacramento runs a long course and picks up a great deal of water before forcing its way to the sea through the same gap that its southern twin, the San Joaquin has to use. It's a gap that opens up a vast agricultural country to the sea and to the hungry factory workers of Great Britain, and the money understandably encouraged pioneering farmers to deal with the spring flooding that eventually ensued. The result, after many trials and experiments and partial successes, was as over-controlling a "hydraulic state" as any, right in the middle of the last, best West.

Boring in itself, of course, but Kelly spends a great deal of time on the precursor to state control, when locals were left to deal with things themselves. At one point, as he describes parties stealthily landing on dykes in the middle of night and demolishing them so that they can't send the floodwaters into their farms. Kelly marvels at this story of little castles in the flood, raiding parties, and petty wars, that it sounds like the Middle Ages. My epiphany was that it didn't sound like the Middle Ages. It was the Middle Ages. The University of Toronto's Robarts Library has this great resource compiled by an early Eighteenth Century policy dork, Lamberty's Memoires pour servir a l'histoire du 18 Siecle, and it is full of local treaties and international agreements about dyke heights that are either just crazy stuff that Eighteenth Century people did, or, more likely attempts to control flooding, in particular on the course of the Escaut/Scheldt.

There's more, too. For much of the 18th Century, the Seven United Netherlands (no, I'm not calling it the "Dutch Republic," much less "Holland") claimed the right to garrison certain fortresses in what is now Belgium and Westphalia. Simultaneously, they were allowed to close the river Scheldt to ship traffic headed upstream to Antwerp. This last plays a large role in underlining the "bourgeois" nature of the northern provinces. They manipulated foreign policy to eliminate a commercial rival to Amsterdam!

Meanwhile, the barrier fortresses are usually treated in a straightforward way as a linear barrier defending the Netherlands from French invasions. But they're not. They're arranged in the valley of the Escaut/Scheldt. However, the Barrier Treaty also describes them as a "dyjke." And this they clearly are. Controlling forts means controlling the sluices built into their water defences; and by extension, the garrisons have the power to flood sacrificial zones in the vicinity of the forts, reduced the flood crest headed south towards Zealand. Meanwhile, restrictions on the height of dykes and dredging in the lower Scheldt, while incidentally choking off Antwerp's oceanic trade, also has the effect of reducing the height of the flood crest downstream by flooding more of Belgium.

But hold on; if certain early modern artillery fortresses can be understood as part of the hydraulic landscape in this specific case, how far can this argument be extended?

The source of the image ( appears to be defunct, but the image lives on? In Google? I love the way that Google Images cautions that it might be subject to copyright. Yeah. No.

Thesis: very far indeed. I have yet, in fact, to find a "Vauban"-style fortress that doesn't have those eighteenth-century style markings indicating wet lands around the walls. And that includes ones sitting in the middle of the Alps, because altitude does not prevent water meadows. How much of the vogue for the artillery fortification is about land reclamation rather than (military) strategy? A lot, and the eye-watering complexity of these works, and all of certain aspects of their construction, can be understood as means to dry out, and at other times, flood the lands around the fortress. It's obviously harder to besiege a fort when it is surrounded by a shallow lake, but I'll extend the claim one step further. It is also easier to use a fort in war if it is filled with fodder, and there's nothing like a well-watered meadow for producing fodder. And flax.

Enlightenment fortresses are tools of the well-managed hydraulic police state.

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