Not all #borderwalls are made of barbed wire. Colonial fencing comes in all shapes and sizes. Once a thing/person/geographic terrain is conquered, it is divided. In our capitalist economy, the act of partitioning is synonymous with the act of ownership. Want to make “America great again?” You must own America, your personal brand, commodity. But to own, to claim a track of land, you must exclude. You have to fence. These border walls fence in our reality and, whether conscious or not, we are profiting from their protection.
The walls that are fueling the viral newspeak are being built to protect the illusion of economic sameness inherent in a post capitalist economy. The larger walls (border checkpoints) that are protecting “us from them,” mimic the internal divisions that geographically divide portions of the American population. These invisible walls are dividing (some say protecting) your reality. For the first world (aka. High Class Communities) to continue existing, other parts of the world (or your community) must continue living in poverty. Am I exaggerating? Well think of it: for your luxury to remain intact, you need to be protected, divided from the other by artificial (at times militarized) fencing. Look around you? What is missing from your reality? Can you see the fences?
As discussed in the previous blogs, in the case of greater Boston’s gentrification, these border walls are monetary, driven by a neoliberal economy. To truly dissect these unseen borders, one most delve deep into their (almost) forgotten history. In the case of Boston, and the entire New England region, the roots of Global Capitalism are linked to the manufactured division of colonialism. In this next stage of the Dissecting Boston Weaving the Streets project, I will explore how the arrival of the first European settlers (aka genocidal killers) reshaped New England’s landscape and ecological topography.
The New England was partitioned, fractured by the Puritan conception of private property. These divisions are the bedrock of American Capitalism and the current Neoliberal Economy. To focus my research, I will explore the history of one of Boston’s vacationlands: Plum Island. The large sandbar known as Plum Island will serve as a case study of the Puritan division of natural resources and how these divisions developed into physical and invisible border walls. In correlation with my research, I will conduct and perform artistic acts of resistance on Plum Island, artistically revealing the lines that divide (and/or protect) “paradise.”
The conception of property is ingrained in the primary schemata of many inhabitants of the United States of America. The economical division of possession was one of the first ideologies to be imported by the European Colonizers. It is through this lens that they viewed the “Natives of New England” and imposed their economic reality of their new ecology (Cronon 55). The colonist, Francis Higginson, stated that “the Indians are not able to make use of one fourth of their Land, neither have they any settled places, as Townes to dwell in, nor any ground as they challenge for their own possession, but change their habitation from place to place” (qtd. in Cronon 55). The mythologies that mask the Native Americans to this day are enthroned in the same Puritan ideology. While I will investigate the construction of these mythologies in a future blog post, it is worth noting the concrete ramification of this ideology. The ecological historian William Cronon noted that the “English fixity sought to replace the Indian mobility” and “there was the central conflict in the ways Indians and colonist interacted with their environment” (53). These two opposing realities and conceptions of land use, ramified in the conquest of New England and the justification of privatizing other’s land.
The Puritan conception of property was structured by the European mythology of use. They appropriated this mythology to vindicate their theft of land. In the “Lawfulness of Removing Out of England into part of America,” the Pilgrim Robert Cushman stated that the Native Americans of New England were “not industrious, neither have art, science, skill, or faculty to use either the land or the commodities of it; but all spoils, rots, and is marred for lack of manuring, gathering, ordering, ect” (qtd. in Cronon 56). According to Cushman the Native Americans “do but run over the grass, as so also foxes and wild beasts, and thus their land is “spacious and void,” free for English taking (qtd. in Cronon 56). The colonial theorist John Winthrop argued that since “the Natives in New England (…) enclose noe Land, neither have any settled habitation, nor any cattle to improve the land by,” and thus “the country lay open to any that could improve it” (qtd. in Cronon 56). To improve the land, the English colonizers sought to turn their land into useful commodities. One of the earliest meanings of the words commodity “referred simply to articles which were ‘commodious’ and hence useful for people (…)” (Cronon 56). Already by the seventeenth century, this definition was becoming archaic, but still helps to clarify the Puritan conception of “useful land.”
In the onslaught of the colonization of New England, the term commodity had become transformed into an object of commerce, “one by definition owned for the sole purpose of being traded for profit” (76). The colonizers were thus “moved to transform the soil by a property system that taught them to treat the land as capital” (77). This definition of private property radically shifted the New World’s ecology, dividing land that had previously been owned communally, or “by a symbolic possession of a whole people” (60). To define private property is to “represent boundaries between people” and to “articulate at least one set of conscious ecological boundaries between people and things” (58). This ownership was individual, dividable, and eternal for:
“To have and to houlde, possesse, and enjoy and singular the aforesaid continent (…) with all and manner their commodities (…) and profits that should henseforth arise from thensce, with all and singuler their appurtenance, and every parte and parcel theoreof, unto the saide Councell and their successors and assignes for ever” (Royal Charter of the Massachusetts Bay Company, 1628).
These divisions have persisted, structuring the hierarchy of American wealth, and highlighting those who were excluded from such systems. The Native Americans were systematically excluded, forbidden to pass the fences that continue to fracture society to this day.
While at first illusory, the European settlers quickly moved to make their border walls physical. This process occurred for many reasons, the most practical being the need to corral their newly imported livestock within fixed parcels of land. One of the first references to Plum Island, our direct case study, is a decree by the town of Ipswich, Massachussets. This town decree was the first assumption of title (direct from of commodification/privatization of Plum Island). The decree states that:
“On the second day of this month, 1639. Agreed with Robert Wallis and Thomas Manning the day and year above sayed that they shall keep forescore hogs upon Plum Island from the 10th day of April next until harvest be got in and that one of them shall be constantly there night and day at all the tyme and that they are to carry them and bring them home provided that those that own them shall send each of them a man to catch them (…)” (qtd. in Waters 2).
Plum Island had ready-made barriers to enclosed the “hogs”: the Pacific Ocean, the Merrimac River and miles of floodable salt marshes. These hogs were commodities, bred for the sole process of making profit. The towns of Ipswich, Newbury and Rowley (and later Newburyport and the United States government) have since fought over the Island and partitioned it into commodified partials (5). Robert and Thomas’ hogs were also divided into exact proportions. As payment for taking care of the hogs, who were privately owned by Ipswich residents, Robert and Thomas “are to have twelve pence a hogg at the entrance 2s at midsummer” and 2 shillings when they delivered them to their owners (2). If the two hog herders lost any of their products through “negligence they are to make them good and in case any die they are at liberty to take in to make up their number” (2). These stipulations underline an important distinction between the domesticated animals and their new world counterparts. The Plum Island hogs, the first Old World inhabitant of Plum Island, were owned.
It was imported livestock that prompted the English colonist and Indigenous inhabitant of New England, to build literal barriers around their private land. Fences were built to mark the private ownership of land, and these “enclose land” practices were also adopted by Native Americans. For practical purposes, the fences prevented roving livestock, private property of the Colonist from invading their cornfields (132). In 1642, the Massachusetts Court left the legal responsibility on the land owner to build adequate barriers around his land, for “Every man must secure his corner and medow against great catell” (qtd. in Cronon 132). Land property and ownership only received conditional protection by law, overridden by the animal commodity. Thus, it was left to the town or private owner to make abstract borders concrete and redraw New England topography.
Borders hence became practical divisions that protected the commodities of mostly European colonizers (though Native Americans soon saw the advantage of protecting their maize from ravaging herds of cattle). The miles and miles of fences were another contributing factor to the deforestation that decimated New England’s forest. Wooden fences were easier to erect then stone borders, but costlier to maintain. At first the forest appeared to be endless, so the cost and waste of wood was ignored. While “the key function of boundary in an English settlement was one of pasture and non-pasture,” these fences soon became a laborious industry, mean for destruction, onto themselves (Cronon 138). Forest were cut down to hem in the commodities that were breeding out of control, and pillaging the natural resources of that same forest.
One of these commodities was almost impossible to corral. The swine rapidly became a plague, threatening the natural environment, other livestock and even children. The Massachusetts Court in 1658 declared that “many children are exposed to great daingers of losse of life of limbe through ravenous swine (…)” (qtd. in Cronon 136). These swine (or hogs) also found themselves in direct competition with the Native American for food, and became the “agents and emblems for European Colonialism that was systematically reorganizing Indian ecological relationships” (Cronon 137). It was precisely these hogs, swine colonizers, that were the first settlers of Plum Island, segregated within a controlled environment that they could destroy at their leisure.
Action to come
In the next blog post I will describe my act of fencing, which I performed on Plum Island. The barrier island, once home to European hogs, now hosts a myriad of fences of its own. It had been partitioned, privatized, cut into little squares. The process through which Plum Island was developed has transformed from a body of sand into a luxurious paradise. With economic investment, comes enhanced division. I will further explore the history of Plum Islands fences, and eventually build my own fences on land that will soon be washed away by the tides of human induced climate change.
Cronon, William. Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonist, and the Ecology of New England. Hill and Wang, 1983.
Currier, John. “Ould Newbury”: Historical and Biographical Sketches. Damrell and Upham, 1896.
Water, Thomas Franklin. “Plum Island: Ipswich, Mass.” Ipswich Historical Society, vol. 22, 1918.