Thursday, 9 February 2017

1788 - The biggest enclosure of them all?

The biggest enclosure of them all


Land was the first community asset to be ‘privatised’, taken over for private use and benefit. Way back in the mists of time, long before King Alfred burnt his cakes, long before the British Isles were so named, all the land was common land; none was ‘owned’ by anyone but parts used by small family groups for their subsistence. It would have been the same in Terra Australia. Over centuries in those northern isles, larger, more belligerent groups established areas of exclusive use – and chieftains, war-lords and Lords of the Manor declared such areas as ‘my land’. Thus the concept of private property as opposed to common, or community, land took hold.

As populations increased and society became more sophisticated these concepts of land access were codified by Acts of Parliament – copyhold, tenancies, freehold title, Crown Land – but commons with their age-old rights providing large parts of the population with shelter and sustenance remained. It should be noted that the commons recognised a form of collective ownership of rights; specified persons only had ‘rights of common’.  It was not a free-for-all.

Contrary to the myth of ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ – as enunciated by W Lloyd in 1833 and promulgated by G Hardin in 1968 - generally commons were well managed by local committees and various courts of manorial jurisdiction to provide the ongoing needs of the community; these elemental communities ‘lived’ sustainability and were not just a band of neo-liberal, economic rationalists each seeking maximum personal benefit as Lloyd and Hardin would have us believe.

Enclosure – social upheaval - 1788
The real ‘tragedy of the commons’ was the vast social upheaval and degradation (Q7) generated by their enclosure. Innumerable Acts of Enclosure passed by the Parliament at Westminster usurped huge areas. These Acts  - enacted with skulduggery((Q3&5) of every description - made it legal for large landowners to privatise what had previously been common land used by many of the lower echelons of society in a variety of ways for their subsistence. This is well documented by the Hammonds in their classic study, ‘The Village Labourer 1760 – 1832’; they report that enclosure meant, ‘the peasant with rights and status (Q6), with a share in the fortunes and government of his village….. makes way for the labourer with no corporate rights to defend, no corporate power to invoke, no property to cherish, no ambition to pursue…….’ (‘corporate’ has different connotations today! CC)



Between  1700-1760, 152 Acts allowed the enclosure of 240,000 acres of common fields and waste, between 1761-1801, 1500 acts, 2,400,000 acres – in 40 years, 10 times more than in the previous period of 60 years - and between 1802 and 1844, 1,100 acts enclosed 1,600,000 acres (quoted by the Hammonds, see adjoining table, figures rounded). Notice that when white Australia was founded in late 18th century, enclosure activity was at a peak. The founding of white Australia and Acts of Enclosure were very closely connected not just in time but also in the prevailing attitudes.

The UK elite, effecting and benefitting from the enclosures, really only took any notice of those who could make themselves heard; persons of some substance or influence. The illiterate cottager who simply enjoyed the various rights of common that his father enjoyed stood no chance (Q4) against an Act of Enclosure; dissenters were required to provide written chapter and verse of their rights and argue them in front of Commissioners. Indeed such lowly citizens were barely considered in the deliberations in Westminster. The attitude of the ruling classes according to the Hammonds was, ‘….the wider the sphere brought into the absolute possession of the enlightened class, the greater would be the public gain (Q1).’ An early ‘trickle down’ proposition! So it is not surprising that when Westminster’s expedition arrived here in 1788, the concept of Enclosure came with them; the idea of commons and persons using the land just for living were of no consequence (Q2).

Settlement  mind-set
Thus at the beginning of white settlement of Australia the ‘Establishment mind-set’ was one of ‘enclosure’ – the concept of ‘commons’, where land is not owned by any but used by many, was in their view outdated, bad, inefficient, if indeed they thought about it at all. From my understanding, Australia then was like a vast, continent-wide, agglomeration of Aboriginal Commons – the land not ‘owned’ at all but used, shared, nurtured and venerated by the numerous tribes of the indigenous population according to their needs and culture. White man did not see this at all, it was  ‘terra nullius’ and the commoners were ‘brushed aside’, much as in England. Henry Reynolds has written of this in his ‘Frontier’ (Allen & Unwin 1996); Dr Reynolds examines the close parallels between the conflicts in Europe and the British settlement of Australia; ‘the Aboriginal experience can be profitably compared to those of the squatters on the shrinking commons, the foresters and men of the fens who struggled to maintain a traditional economy in opposition to the ever growing commitment to absolute property rights.’

Tasmania was different
Van Diemen’s Land would seem to be the one place where the concept of ‘the commons’ did flourish for a few years. ‘Van Diemen’s Land was aught but a vast common’ quotes James Boyce, p70, Ref32, in his very well researched history, Van Diemen's Land (Black Inc. 2008), Ironically, many had been sentenced to transportation because they had been caught using the commons of England in traditional ways – trapping and snaring game, ways that had been made illegal under the Game Laws and Acts of Enclosure. Boyce’s Introduction contains many references to the convicts’ acceptance of sharing resources with Aboriginals and each other – land, water, game – and their adaptability to go bush, to obtain ‘the essentials of life from the new land’. The early chapters contain many specific references to Van Diemen’s Land as a common and its effect on the early settlers, how the free access to the natural resources led to much entrepreneurial activity and even ideas of independence and democracy; anathema to the authorities, birth-right concepts for the ‘Village Labourer’ if the Hammonds, were correct (Q6). Such moves were stamped out – almost but not entirely - by Governor Arthur to produce a servile population to meet the needs of the increasing number of free settlers on their large land grants.

Aboriginal philosophy
A deeper connection between the idea of commons versus enclosures was brought to mind a year ago at a Fedtalk by Aboriginal academic and activist, Dr Mary Graham, QUT. She spoke about Aboriginal philosophy in comparison to ‘western’ modes of thought saying that Aboriginals had no difficulty in holding to different concepts simultaneously. In contrast, western views were ‘either or’, ‘this or that’, ‘alive or dead’. This is an exact parallel as between enclosures (this is mine, not anybody else’s) and common land that has many users and uses. This is also shown in the western, legalistic ‘Native Title’ when ‘Aboriginal Common’ would have been more representative of traditional status. Dr Graham’s talk may be viewed here.
Much is to be learnt from Aboriginal philosophy and traditional respect and reverence for the land.

Conclusion
In short, Australia was founded with the concept of enclosure foremost and this preeminence continues to this day; the concept of commons – owned by none, used by many in various ways – is not part of modern Australia’s DNA. Laudable ambitions to ‘reclaim the commons’ here need to recognize the challenges this presents. 

Was 1788 the biggest act of enclosure of them all?  
When the date becomes ‘free’, should we commemorate Enclosure Day on 26th January?


Colin Cook
Commoner of Ashdown Forest, (1964 – 1981)
Sussex, UK




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