Between the English Civil Wars and the mid-Victorian period, the proud indigenous population of the Fens of eastern England fought to preserve their homeland against an expanding empire. After centuries of resistance, their culture and community were destroyed, along with their wetland home – England’s last lowland wilderness. But this was no simple triumph of technology over nature – it was the consequence of a newly centralised and militarised state, which enriched the few while impoverishing the many.
In this colourful and evocative history, James Boyce brings to life not only colonial masters such as Oliver Cromwell and the Dukes of Bedford but also the defiant ‘Fennish’ themselves and their dangerous and often bloody resistance to the enclosing landowners. We learn of the eels so plentiful they became a kind of medieval currency; the games of ‘Fen football’ that were often a cover for sabotage of the drainage works; and the destruction of a bountiful ecosystem that had sustained the Fennish for thousands of years and which meant that they did not have to submit in order to survive.
Masterfully argued and imbued with a keen sense of place, Imperial Mud reimagines not just the history of the Fens, but the history and identity of the English people.
James Boyce is a multi-award-winning Australian historian. His first book, Van Diemen’s Land, was described by Richard Flanagan as ‘the most significant colonial history since The Fatal Shore’. 1835: The Founding of Melbourne and the Conquest of Australia was The Age’s Book of the Year, while Born Bad: Original Sin and the Making of the Western World was hailed by The Washington Post as ‘an exhilarating work of popular scholarship’.
– Winner of the History and Tradition Category, East Anglian Book Awards 2020
– Longlisted for the RSL Ondaatje Prize 2021
"Like Patagonia, ‘the Fens’ has no precise border. This bountiful wetland on the English east coast is a region that most maps cover with a blank. In a masterful and painstaking act of retrieval, James Boyce reclaims the landscape of his fiercely independent forebears. The Fennish, like most indigenous people, left few written records – an absence that makes Imperial Mud even more valuable, as a celebration of their centuries-long resistance against drainage and enclosing landlords; and, above all, of their utterly passionate relationship with the ‘common’ marsh through which they defined their identity."
– Nicholas Shakespeare
"Boyce tells the tale with that rare but always winning combination of passion and scholarly vigour."
– Geographical Magazine (Book of the Month)
"A real page-turner [...] a warning about what happens when the rich and powerful dress up their avarice as “progress” – a lesson we could do with learning today."
– Dixe Wills, BBC Countryfile magazine
"Evocative and imaginatively argued"
– Sydney Morning Herald, 'Pick of the Week'
"A wonderful example of history writing embedded in the narratives of place, in this instance the Fenlands of England and its people, both dramatically altered in the name of dubious progress."
– Australian Book Review, Books of the Year 2020
"A lively, affectionate, colourful account of individuals from all walks of life living their lives and particularly standing up for themselves with passion, control and careful planning."
– Natalie Bennett, Resurgence & Ecologist