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The Common Stream April 8th, 2018 by

A few months ago, Eric Boa (who writes this blog with Paul and I) sent me an extraordinary little book, The Common Stream, by Rowland Parker. It’s a singularly remarkable history of Foxton, a village in Cambridgeshire, England.

It may be the most complete history of any village anywhere, which is surprising given how ordinary the village appears today. Yet Parker, who lived there for most of his adult life, used Foxton to represent changes occurring to agricultural communities over the centuries across much of England, and to some extent elsewhere.

Parker picks up his story in ancient times, when a certain Roman living in his comfortable villa near what is now Foxton, forced the native Britons to move their huts onto straight streets. This theme of rich, powerful men knowing what was best for the peasants would continue for some time.

By the fifth century the Romans had left, and the Saxons began their slow, leisurely invasion. Over two or three generations, they rowed up the rivers, stopping where they wished, and settling on the best land, where they farmed and kept what they harvested. But it was too good to last. By the 900s land was being appropriated by lords and religious orders. By 1086, 90% of Foxton’s 200 inhabitants had almost no personal possessions. Most of the land belonged to a nun, the Abbess of Chatteris, whose word was the law. The common people had no money, but lots of work. They were old by the time they were 40. The diet was coarse bread, gruel, cheese, vegetables, pease (peas and other legumes), besides boiled mutton, and boiled bacon with the occasional chicken, egg or rabbit. And lots of ale.

By 1250 two-thirds of the peasants were still virtually enslaved, but some had been freed and self-government began to emerge. The villagers elected their own officials, such as constables and “ale tasters”, a popular position that obliged the office holder to visit the homes of people who made ale and take a sip (or more) to see that the brew met the standards for proper beer.

The Black Death killed half of the people of Foxton around 1348. By 1485, perhaps in response to the enduring loss of population, or a growing sense of social injustice, the lords of the manor and the abbeys began to set their slaves (bondsmen) free. But it was only a partial freedom. Peasant farmers had to pay a large entry fee to the manor to occupy land and a house. Still, the change meant that common people had a little money to spend and by the 1500s there was a weekly market in Foxton, selling meat and butter.

Relative prosperity improved through the 1550s, when villagers rebuilt Foxton, crafting fifty houses that were so well made that by the 1970s twenty of them were still standing, including one that Rowland Parker lived in.

But rural poverty was an enduring problem. Sometimes the poor were whipped, to stir them into productive action, but that did no good. Paupers could be paid a few coins from the “poor rate,” a local tax levied on farmers. Destitute women were also employed to collect stones (for road repair) by hand from the frozen ground in the winter, by the cartload.

In one strange episode in the 1860s “coprolites” were discovered just under the topsoil in the fields surrounding Foxton. These were nuggets of phosphorous that could be sold as fertilizer. Landowners hired gangs of men “as strong as horses” to peel the earth back like a carpet, remove the coprolites, and put the soil back. It was a short-lived boon to agricultural wage workers.

By the 1880s most villages in England had a railroad station. People left farming, if not the villages, commuting to industrial wage work. This was followed by an agricultural revolution led by machinery and fertilizer. In the 1880s twenty men would harvest a wheat field with scythes, walking together in a line. By the 1970s one worker in a combine harvester would bring in the grain. Parker notes ruefully that from 1885 to 1970 crop yields quadrupled as the workforce declined dramatically. One man replaced ten. “There is now more farming done in Foxton than there ever was before and hardly any people are doing it.” Poverty was finally eliminated after the Second World War by the introduction of universal social welfare. Parker observed that people were better fed, better dressed and that all the children were going to school. Modern farming has eased drudgery and improved harvests. Life is better now than it was in the Middle Ages

Rowland Parker was Eric Boa’s French teacher at The Grammar School for Boys in nearby Cambridge. It was only some years after leaving school that Eric learned that the austere Mr. Parker had spent many of his weekends interviewing elderly villagers and translating local manuscripts from Latin and Old English.

In 2014, Tim Martin reviewed The Common Stream for The Telegraph, in a series on the A to Z of forgotten books. Martin called Parker’s book a “miniature classic of social history.” Indeed it is, and it is well worth reading.

Further reading

Parker, Rowland 1976 The Common Stream. Frogmore, St. Albans, UK: Paladin.

Related blog

Mending fences, making friends

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Robbing land from the sea March 25th, 2018 by

The low-lying Netherlands is famous for its polders, the land behind the dikes, reclaimed from the sea. Beginning about 1000 AD, people made dikes, or earthen dams, to protect communities from flooding. At first the water was simply drained through canals, but with time the land in the polders subsided, and by the 1400s water was being pumped out with windmills. Thanks to hard work, investment and some clever engineering, people still live in and farm the polders.

Much of Bangladesh is also right at sea level and densely populated. So why doesn’t Bangladesh have polders too? I wondered out-loud during a recent visit last October.

“But we do! Bangladesh has many polders,” my colleague Salahuddin retorted. He explained that there was a string of some 123 polders over much of southern Bangladesh, an area where several large rivers cut the delta into finger-like strips of lowland.

The polders were built between the 1960s and the 1980s, first by the provincial government of East Pakistan, and later by the Government of Bangladesh, after independence from Pakistan in 1971.

Each polder is ringed by a low earthen embankment (basically a dike), sometimes just two meters high and made by hand. The roughly oval-shaped polders are dozens of kilometers in circumference.

The Bangladeshi polders are drained by an ingenious network of canals, radiating like veins from the center of the polder to the edge, where the flow of water is controlled by a sluice gate in the embankment.The sluice gate is a concrete structure with metal doors that can be raised by a hand-crank to let the water out during the rainy season, and lowered during the dry season to keep out the saltwater.

Originally the wetlands of the delta region had been sparsely populated by fisher-farmers who grew low yielding rice varieties that tolerated brackish water. The polders soon became attractive places to live and settlers trickled in. The people who were born in the polders tended to stay there and so populations increased.

Some of the polders have benefited from some sort of project, and have been reasonably well managed. By 2018 the better polders are like gardens, with comfortable farm houses surrounded by shimmering green rice fields.

The polders have had their share of troubles. Sometimes one of the rivers changes course, depositing a bank of silt next to the sluice gate, so the water inside the polder cannot drain out.  Other problems are man-made. Loggers float timber down the canals, and when the logs reach the sluice gates, the workers take the easy route to the river. Instead of hoisting the logs around the sluice gate, the loggers force the timber through the delicate metal gates, twisting and denting them so they no longer open and close. Wealthy, powerful people sometimes block the drainage canals to raise fish in them. Or they string nets over the canal to catch fish. But this slows down the flow of water, allowing silt to settle and eventually block the canal. The canals are as wide as a highway, and can be just as difficult to maintain. So once the drainage canal stops working, villagers are unable to open them up again without help from outsiders.

The polders are essentially a government mega-project, which sounds at first like a recipe for disaster. But as one drives along the top of a polder embankment, the muddy river on one side and the tidy green fields and villages on the other, it is hard to ignore the fact that the government got something right.

Ironically, country that is flooded during the rainy season may be completely dry a few months later. Various initiatives are now promoting dry-season irrigation for high value crops besides rice, and the farmers in the polders are avidly buying motorized pumps. In many places the rich, black earth inside the polders is now producing two or three crops a year of rice, mung beans, mustard, watermelon and vegetables.

Such changes in the farming system are creating more wealth for the farmers in those polders that are well run. But it will take collaboration, for local government to protect the canals and embankments, for the private sector to provide farm supplies and buy the produce and especially for innovative farmers, to continue re-inventing the agriculture of this marvelous, human-made environment.

Further reading

In characteristic modesty it was some time before my friend Salahuddin told me that he had written his masters’ thesis on the polders of Bangladesh.

Salahuddin, Ahmad 1995 Operation and Maintenance of Small Scale Flood Control Projects: Case of Bangladesh Water Development Board. Master’s Thesis: Institute ofSocial Studies, The Hague.

See also Paul’s blog from last week on coastal Bangladesh: Floating vegetable gardens.


I am indebted to Md. Harun-ar-Rashid, Guy Jones and many others for enlightening me about polders on a recent trip to Bangladesh, supported by the Blue Gold Program, with funding from the Embassy of the Netherlands. Thanks to Harun-ar-Rashid, Ahmad Salauddin, Paul Van Mele and Eric Boa for reading and remarking on previous versions.

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The early state and the bad old days March 4th, 2018 by

In his new book Against the Grain, Yale University’s James C. Scott argues that early states, like the ones in Mesopotamia and the Fertile Crescent, were not most people think they were like. The popular notion of the march of civilization goes rather like this: agriculture was an invention that allowed for more food, more leisure and freedom from wandering. Early farmers were able to settle down in villages and towns and this quickly spared some craftspeople from the toil of farming. Civilization, literacy and statehood soon arose.

The model is deeply flawed, Scott explains. First, in certain environments, such as the alluvium of Mesopotamia, people actually settled down before they became cultivators, because the abundance of wild food meant that people could hunt, gather and fish year round from a single place.

People may have started farming because of climate change or population growth. No one knows for sure why. But whatever the reason, early farming was more work than hunting and gathering.

But farming appeared 4000 years before states arose. During this long period of sustainable agriculture, people lived in farms, villages and small towns where they were able to keep everything they produced.

(I recall seeing just a few small cases in the National Museum in Cairo devoted to the settled villagers who lived well-fed for centuries before the Pharaohs arose.  Museums and their visitors much rather like to see the statues and monuments of kings than the farmers’ sickles).

The first states all arose in grain-producing areas, where farmers could be taxed in wheat, barley or rice, which could be stored and then distributed as rations. There were no early states based on cassava or bananas.

Early states relied on forcing grain farmers to work harder and then taxing them: expropriating labor and food beyond what farmers needed for their own comfort. Early states were based on crushing taxes and bondage. All states took slaves until the nineteenth century. Wars by early states were usually more important for taking captives than for conquering land.

Early states were also fragile. The crowding of ancient cities meant that infectious disease were common for the first time in human history. Early states often collapsed because of pests, crop disease, drought, and war. Scott argues that after an early state collapsed, the people left behind were better off for being left alone.

For a very long time, states saw people as a resource to be tapped, rather than as citizens to be served. Until as recently as the 1800s, three fourths of humankind was living in some form of slavery, serfdom or other form of bondage.

Most of Scott’s ideas are well-known to archaeologists, but he brings them together in an engaging narrative that tells the story in a fresh and compelling way.

Although Scott doesn’t say so, it is only since the mid twentieth century that most farmers have been allowed to keep more of their harvest, and to spend the profit instead of giving it to the tax collector.

I’m writing this week’s blog from Bangladesh, a country I have had the pleasure of visiting for the past 15 years. Things are definitely improving here. I asked one group of farm women how many had cell phones. They laughed at the question. “We all have one,” they said. Just in the last year or two, men who carry the bricks, timber and other heavy loads on cargo bicycles have acquired little electric motors to power their bikes and ease their drudgery. The village shops are stocked better than ever before, with sweets and seeds, with clothes and jewelry.

Life is definitely getting better on this part of the Gangetic Delta, which was also the site of early states. In a world of so much bad news, it is good to remind ourselves that for many rural people, the standard of living is improving, and that part of the reason is democracy, trade and technology.

Further reading

Scott, James C. 2017 Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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The blacksmiths of Ironcollo October 8th, 2017 by

Andean farmers have used iron tools since colonial times, including plows, harrows, picks, shovels and hoes. A favorite Bolivian tool is a long, triangular hoe, known as the qallu (Quechua for “tongue”). The qallu is ideal for working the steep rocky potato fields. Many farmers never leave home without their qallu.

In the valley of Cochabamba, the village of Ironcollo is home to the blacksmiths who make qallus and other tools. Ironcollo is strategically sited near the small market city of Quillacollo on the valley bottom. Farmers coming from the high Andes to shop in town can stop in Ironcollo on the way and have tools repaired or buy a new one.

Ironcollo is an old place. It is built over an archaeological mound, a large, artificial hill created gradually over the centuries as each generation of pre-Colombian people built their houses on the ruins of the people before them. Today the villagers are unsure exactly how long their ancestors have been working iron in Ironcollo, though they told me they were well established before the War for Independence from Spain, and that they made weapons for fighters in the Battle of Falsuri (1823). I have no reason to doubt them.

The narrow main street of Ironcollo is lined with shops, many of them owned by blacksmiths. I saw a large, industrial-made wood and leather bellows lying in the dust by one front gate. The label, pressed into the hardwood, says that the bellows is a model No. 102, made by Alldays and Onions of Birmingham, England. A museum in Marlsborough, New Zealand displays another copy of the same model, imported from Britain before 1888. Not only have the blacksmiths of Ironcollo been connected to global trade for some time, but their nineteenth century ancestors were making enough money to buy themselves decent equipment.

But times are tough now in Ironcollo. Where there were once 70 blacksmiths shops, there are now 30. Cheaper steel tools from Brazil and China are eating into their market. Not that the blacksmiths are going down without a fight. In 2011 they started holding an annual fair, inviting the public to stroll through the village and see how iron tools are heated in a charcoal forge until they are red hot, and then skillfully pounded into shape on an anvil.

We saw many tools on display in Ironcollo, but none of the larger ones were fitted with handles. No one was even selling handles at the fair. The smiths’ customers were still largely hardworking smallholders who know how to whittle a tree branch into a hoe handle.

Some blacksmiths have responded to changing market demands, making coat-racks and decorations for city people.My wife Ana and I met a woman blacksmith, doña Aidé, who took over her husband’s forge when he died, so she could support her children. The kids are grown up now, but she continues to make heavy-duty rakes that she designed herself. She also invented a new recipe, which she calls “the blacksmith’s dish” (el plato del herrero): steak cooked right on the hot coals of the forge, which she sells to visitors at the annual blacksmith’s fair.

An older blacksmith, don Aurelio, designed a new style of blacksmith forge, with a built-in electric fan. This saves labor, since the blacksmith doesn’t need an assistant to pump the bellows to fan the flames of the forge. Don Aurelio’s family makes and sells the electric forges to other smiths in the community, and beyond.

In 2013 the blacksmiths of Ironcollo formed an association. Community leader Benigno Vargas explained that they hope that this will be a way of getting support from the government, which is much more likely to fund a community group than unorganized family firms. But with or without official support, for now local farmers are still keeping the blacksmiths in business.

These blacksmiths have technical innovations, like the electric bellows and the coatracks and other metal products, but they have also innovated socially, with the annual fair, a professional association, and even a new way to prepare steak.

Near the end of the short main street, an elderly farmer stops us to admire the heavy, green rake we bought from doña Aidé. The farmer is from a remote village, and speaks little Spanish. She asks us in Quechua how much we paid for the rake before she marches off, wondering if she should invest 40 pesos in such a fine tool. Innovative farmers need imaginative tool makers who are tied into the local tradition of farming.

Further viewing

Family farmers make many of their own tools. Access Agriculture has videos for example on making a rabbit house, making a quail house and other devices. Many of the videos show how farmers use different tools. When farmers watch the videos, they are often interested in the tools they see in the videos.

Farmers around the world also rely on mechanics and other artisans to make and repair some tools, like the conservation agricultural tillage equipment for tractors and tools drawn by animals.

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Miners’ stories September 17th, 2017 by

Robert Gerstmann was a German engineer and professional photographer who spent much of his time from 1925 to 1929, and later on, taking pictures of the tin mines of Bolivia. There were only three tin mining companies in Bolivia then, and two were owned by foreigners. Gerstmann worked mainly for Mauricio (Moritz) Hochschild, who was also from Germany. The mine owners were eager to show off their work. Tin had replaced silver as the target mineral in Bolivia around 1885, and during the First World War the need for metal for arms had revolutionized Andean mining.

By 1925 Bolivian mines were largely state of the art, with massive diesel motors to power the mills and long cable winches to lower miners down the deep shafts. The mines were modernized with foreign investment and management, and fantastic profits from the tin went into just a few hands.

Taking photographs in the early 20th century was a clumsy business. The cameras were heavy and could only take one photograph at a time, using delicate glass plates. Gertsmann had to use a tripod and estimate exposure by trial and error. He had to develop the plates himself and make prints in his own darkroom. He was also an innovator, and in the early days of electricity he had found a way to run a cable into the mine galleries to flood them with light.

Despite the technical challenges, a skilled photographer such as Gertsmann was able to capture rich and detailed pictures. The owners gave Gerstmann the run of the mines, where the 30-year old’s curiosity took him from the head offices, to the tidy storerooms, the engine rooms with their monster machinery, and into the deep mines.

Gertsmann spent most of the rest of his life in South America, until his death in Chile in 1964. Recently, a group of Bolivian and foreign social scientists discovered Gertsmann’s photographs, including over 5000 prints, some original plates and 30 minutes worth of movies. Anthropologist Pascale Absi and sociologist-historian Jorge Pavez were intrigued by the scenes Gerstmann had captured and have published a selection of them as a book.

Absi and Pavez went one step further. They showed the selected pictures to retired mine workers, who told the story behind Gerstmann’s photographs. He wrote little himself, mostly noting the names of managers and engineers who appeared in his pictures. Laborers were labelled by their job description, e.g. mine cart operator.

Explanations by the retired Bolivian workers brought the photos to life. Two men are shown selling canned sardines and other goods in the company store (pulpería), created to entice workers to stay on the job as labor became more valuable. An engineer with a theodolite is measuring the length of the mine gallery, to tell how far the mine has advanced.  One photo conveys action and hard work, as a mine worker is shown drilling at the rock face. Yet a crucial feature is missing. The retirees explained that the worker had to pose, otherwise the drill would have made so much dust that one would have been unable to see the worker, even under Gerstmann’s bright light.

In another picture, a worker is drenched with water. A colleague has doused him with a hose to cool him off. It was often unbearably hot inside the mine.  In a moon-like landscape of dust and rock, women huddle in the cold to sort ore from barren rock. The retired miners can tell where the women are from by their distinctive clothing. For example, a woman in a white hat with a distinctive black ribbon is from Cochabamba. She has come over 100 km to take this job as a palliri (the Quechua word for the women who select the ore).

Photographs are a powerful communication tool which not only tell a story, but help to unlock people’s memories. Although the Gerstmann photos were taken to pad the egos of the mine owners, the pictures also reveal the lives of ordinary people from a bygone world of dangerous work and low pay, when shifts could be as long as 48 hours, and when injured workers were simply dismissed with no compensation. Photographers don’t always write very much, and by themselves the pictures don’t tell the whole story. But Gerstmann’s innovative pictures, when narrated today by people who lived through the times he recorded, have given us a rich and lasting record of Bolivia’s mining past.

Technical note

The digital photographs you take today may tell your story later. When I bought my first digital camera in 2001, Eric Boa taught me to label the pictures. I have labeled them ever since. The more text you include with your photos, the easier it will be for you and others to later read the story behind the picture.

Further reading

Absi, Pascale & Jorge Pavez (eds.) 2016 Imágenes de la Revolución Industrial: Robert Gerstmann en las Minas de Bolivia (1925-1936). La Paz: Plural Editores.

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