Project Land -Introduction:

The Letter:

In the second half of October, I sent a few friends a version (slightly tailored according to circumstance) of the following letter.

From: Trevor Batten <>
Subject: Peasants and Freemen
Date: Tue, 29 Oct 2013 06:28:59 +0800


I am contacting a few friends regarding the thoughts encapsulated in Digital disconnect -and I  wondered about how such ideas might be relevant (or not) to your situation. Perhaps, for the first time, I have been able to formulate the question in relatively simple terms -it is something that intrigues me deeply.

Personal Freedom:

The experience of living here in Baclayon (both before and after the earthquake) is developing an interest in the role and living conditions of "rural peasants" and what were (I believe) once called "Freemen".

For me a "Freeman" is (perhaps the original middle class) who is neither serf nor lord -but (totally) economically independent of all. In economic terms, this presumably means either being a freehold subsistence farmer -or perhaps (at one stage) an independent city trader or craftsman. However this later is presumably (now) totally dependant on the city (and national) economy -and so disqualified, in my terms.

I admit, this subject is clouded by the economic shift (via the industrial revolution) where the concept of "Freeman" (as I defined it) became "downgraded" because of the new importance of the (industrialised) money economy.

Practical Comparasons:

For various reasons, it seems to me that it might be interesting to compare patterns of land distribution and land ownership after the independence of Ireland -and the "emancipation" of the slaves in the Southern US states.

From various (anecdotal) sources, I have the feeling that after independence the Republic of Ireland developed a rural subsistence economy that presumably lasted until the recent economic/IT boom. The collapse of that boom, for various reasons, may well increase interest in a rural subsistence economy: From a city perspective, it may seem like "poverty" (no car, computer, TV, etc..) but if one has a cow, a pig, some chickens or geese -plus some vegetables -then one will not starve. In that sense, I guess one could say the Irish revolution was successful.

In the US however, it seems that the slaves were never "emancipated" -because they were (eventually) forced into economic slavery -due to lack of land ownership.. Indeed, the father of our own household helper was "given" 5 hectares of land (from the family of the current Governor of Bohol) under Philippine (post-independence land distribution laws).

Dissapearing (economic) Independance:

Of course, a third "track" is the disappearance of the concept of "freeman" in England (and the US). I believe this is of great political significance -because I suspect that the basis for American "Jeffersonian" democracy is the concept of the "Freeman" -and that, with the disappearance of the "freeman" -political theory has become fundamentally derived from a concept which is no longer viable in its original context and meaning.

Best wishes,

The Reactions:

Dear Trevor,

 Your letter is a deep reflection on the state of 'freemen' and the larger sustainability of a subsistence economy.  This is such a vast field in the Indian context that I wouldn't quite know where to intervene.  I would concentrate perhaps on the primary issue of land.  In the Indian context, almost all land is owned by individual families.  Of course, there are the 'landless', and in some pockets of Bihar, one still continues to find the most oppressive forms of 'bonded labor.'  However, it was very instructive for me to compare notes with a community museum expert from Oaxaca, Mexico, where one can still encounter forms of 'primitive communism' in the sense that all land is owned collectively by the village.  In India, there are some kinds of 'common land', where animals are allowed to graze freely.  In Rajasthan, these forms of land are called 'oran' and 'aan'.  They are not 'sacred groves' but vast  stretches of land. 

In the Irish context, I imagine that it would be very useful to ask if the Traveller community was included among 'freemen.'  I would regard them as the 'dalits' or untouchables of Ireland.  They are wanderers who continue to be stigmatized.  The role of religion would also need to be explored.  In India, of course, the primary determinant of the peasantry would be 'caste', which is the dominant category for society at large. 

Wouldn't it make sense that you talk about these matters with local Boholanos?  What does peasantry mean in the context of Bohol?  It would be useful to know. 



Hi Trevor,

Its strange that you have asked me for this as about 4 months ago I went
looking for something similar. I saw a documentary on BBC (which is not
available on their iplayer or anywhere else for that matter - about a 'landed gentry' protestant family from
the the West of Ireland. It was a fascinating look at the family's history
right through from the time they came into the land (Cromwellian period)
through to Independence and up to the modern day. The content was more
about the families social history as opposed to their politician history
but being protestant and 'landed' it was impossible for the documentary
maker to ignore the reality of their position and the times. What got me
curious was a bitter reference that was made to a Government run Forced
Land Redistribution system that was brought in by Eamonn De Valera in the
1930s, 10 years after independence was won.

De Valera came to power in the promise of dismantling the parts of the
treaty that he and his compatriot's did not like and he set about achieving
this. This System of  Forced Land Redistribution however was something that
I had never heard mentioned before so I began to look into it. What
surprised me was that I could not find any evidence of a formally
orchestrated redistribution of land from the massive estates owned by the
gentry at all. This is not to say that is did not happen to some extent but
the impression I was left with was that it was not large scale and probably
was derailed by more pressing concerns such as what became know in Ireland
as the 'Economic War' with Britain.

What certainly did happen post independence was that the value of
land plummeted and in certain regions a lot of the Anglo-Irish landowners
sold up (mainly to other Anglo-Irish families as they were the only ones
with sufficient wealth to do so) and left the country fearing, in some
instances and regions quite rightly, for their safety. From recollection
the Protestant population of the 26 countries dropped from somewhere close
to 10% to 2% within 20 years. On top of this there was massive large scale
emigration from the Catholic population many of whom had landowning of 5  -
20 acres with that land being of the poorest quality available. These
emigrant's often just left the land to join family members in American and
never came back with the result that other family members and squatters
took over what they left behind without any formal deeds being signed.

The reason that a considerable number of native Irish owned land before
independence was won was because of a series of Land Acts introduced mainly
by the Liberal party (Gladstone) from the 1870s onwards as a result of
Parliamentary pressure from C S Parnell and agrarian agitation from a man I
particularly admire called Michael Davitt - This is the period that you
really need to look at at this is where the formal redistribution of land
in Ireland actually happened. What important to understand is that although
land changed hands to some extent it was certainly not redistributed for
free. Instead the Westminster government loaned money to the tenants of
largely absentee landlords so they could buy the land they had farmed for
generations from their landlords. The primary reason for the aforementioned
'Economic War' was that De Valera put an end to these payments which would
have continued up until the 1970s if he had not done so and Britain
retaliated with restrictions on all Irish imports etc up until 1938 or
thereabouts when of course the realisation that war was imminent forced
compromise. Of course despite a significant change in land ownership for
all the reasons mentioned above the Anglo Irish land owning classes remain
a major economic force in Ireland up until today. Of course large native
Irish landowners have also thrived over the past 100 years but to many one
of the failures of the revolution was that the socialist ideals of some of
the leaders and philosophers such as James Connolly and James Larkin were
never realised.

Unfortunately right now to hand I cannot provide you with any good Internet
sources but if you google for the Land Acts, Michael Davitt, Gladstone and
Charles Stewart Parnell you will be heading in the right direction. Diarmuid
Ferriter is also a a historian whose research you might want to use a good
reference point as its thorough and not in my opinion overtly biased. In
fact he seems to piss just about everyone off which can be construed as a
good thing.

I would like to add is that for comparisons between post colonial land
distribution Zimbabwe is an interesting model to consider and perhaps South
Africa to a lesser extent. Mugabe has used the Irish example of what should
not happen when a country claims its freedom (he was educated by Irish
missionaries) and he has gone to the other extreme. Perhaps the slow lazy
Irish approach does pay off in the end as things eventually change .. or
perhaps in 100 years the world will look at Zimbabwe as an example of a
country where the land went back to its people .. or at least the cronies
who the people themselves had the misfortune to have as their new ruling
elite as the case seems to be.

Finally.. post Celtic Tiger Ireland... people are so far in debt to the
worlds financial hierarchies, and farm land is so prohibitively expensive
that I really don't think there will be a major shift back to rural
subsistence economy in the very near future. It is however something that
could take effect in a decade or so and I for one would welcome it. The
lack of revolutionary alternative thinking in Ireland right now is actual

take care now, we will be in touch soon,


 PS - The farms that both my parents came were in their families before any
of the land acts. The land my mothers family owned, and still own to this
day, has been in the family since well  before the famine from what i
understand and is also quite well documented. One of the fields was
actually discovered to be the best field of land in Ireland in a survey
carried out in the 1940s. How they ended up with this land is not known and
how they held onto it is also quite baffling. There is no reason to believe
that they had 'taken the Queens Schilling" but it is a point of curiosity.
One theory that was offered to me a while back by a friend of mine who is
also a local historian is that my ancestors were not from the noble
family that we always believed them to be but were actually English
instead! He has produced proof of English owning farm land in the
area. God forbid the thought and don't ever mention to anyone from my home

The Other Irish Travellers
Not currently available on BBC iPlayer

Duration: 59 minutes

Storyville: documentary which takes a personal look at the history of Ireland's vanished Anglo-Irish classes through the quirky family of filmmaker Fiona Murphy. The director follows her father and his four siblings back to the estate in County Mayo where they grew up in the newly-independent Ireland of the 1930s, to trace lives rich in contradiction.

While the siblings wrestled with their Anglo-Irish identity, their father carved out a successful career as a diplomat at the height of the British Empire. Tracking the family's fortunes from Cromwell's times, through first-hand accounts of the Civil War and mass exodus of the Anglo-Irish under Eamon de Valera, the film explores how this individualistic family tried to hold on, despite the odds.


My Response


Dear R,

Thank you for your contribution, which I believe, once again demonstrates the need to think carefully about definitions before starting work. You remind us that there are very many types of land ownership -as well as land use.

Indeed, the situation of nomads must not be pushed aside -either on sea or on land -simply because they have no fixed abode. Subsistence "farming" can have many forms -both static and mobile.

You also raise the issue of the complexity of the subject: This is a real problem for me -indeed, I was so pleased with myself for reducing the complexity of an earlier statement (see Digital Disconnect in "Appendix" below) -to the simple historical comparison between rural Ireland and Post Civil War America mentioned above.

In this context, I don't see my aim as creating a comprehensive study of land distribution and use systems, either locally or globally. What I do see as important (as I restate in my reply to D.) is the importance of changing social attitudes and awareness towards money based systems -and, thus, by implication, developing a new respect for subsistence systems generally.

You are therefore right, perhaps the only approach that makes sense is to work with specific case studies and oral histories involving local people (in various locations). A practical study of the problems they encounter. However, this is not as easy as it seems. many local people do not speak Tagalog, an official language of the Philippines -but only speak the local "Bisayan" language.


Dear D,

For me, your reply very clearly shows the irrelevance of many government organized systems. As far as I can understand, it was the failure and not the success of the system that created the conditions which mainly allowed squatters to take possession of the land in Ireland -in order to survive outside the conventional economic system.

The link with Mugabe does sound fascinating -but, if we are to deal with specific case histories, would require direct personal contact with people involved. However, the Irish/Zimbabwe link certainly seems to demonstrate how "personal" many of the great "abstract" issues may eventually turn out to be. One hears the "political" arguments -but less often does one hear  about the direct human experiences that may lie behind the "great narratives". I suspect the 'abstractions" are often inventions -designed to disguise the personal motivations that may be more powerful than the intellectual smokescreens they hide behind.

In that context, I should point out, that a "return to the land" is not exactly what I'm personally interested in. Indeed, it would probably force up land prices -as well as introducing various  levels of unwanted government and commercial interference and exploitation.

All I am trying to suggest is that where various forms of non-commercial (subsistence) farming exists (in whatever form whatsoever) -it should be encouraged as a viable and  acceptable socio-economic alternative to the current money based system which seems to be unsustainable. People should then be free to choose, which of the two systems (or which level of mix) they find personally satisfying -or suitable for their circumstances. At present, we have a socio-economic system which seems unable to exist -unless people are forced to consume items which are largely outside their direct needs. I see this as a form of economic bondage which should be unacceptable in a civilized and humane society. It seems to me that many forms of violence are used against people to force them into economic slavery.

Regarding the development (or even continued existence) of an alternative -there are probably three main problems:

1. Gaining access to sufficient land to provide subsistence.

Presumably, increasing access is difficult -due to existing patterns of (commercialized) ownership. However, most important is preserving (and perhaps improving) current access. Indigenous and local cultures should be encouraged to continue traditional patterns of land exploitation that are sustainable. Rural ecologies should be supported -and not destroyed by encouraging the sale of land for non-agrarian purposes.

2. Preservation and development of rural survival skills.

The modern socio-economic system apparently has no interest in anything that cannot be commercially exploited. Globalized commercial culture has a disastrous effect on the preservation of traditional skills  which are not commercially exploitable. Education systems encourage participation in the very system that undervalues and undermines traditional ways of life. When traditional (subsistence) skills are lost then the youth have no alternative but to turn to the system that has destroyed their parent's way of life.

3. The aggressive dominance of an urban, money based, cultural system -which actively undermines all forms of alternative subsistence.

This is the really pernicious one. The unquestioning acceptance of "the economic development model" as being the only possible solution for human existence. The unquestioned acceptance of the UN Millennium goals -based on universal propagation of economic development. The loss of natural habitat and the destruction of local culture -all in the name of "progress".

In this context, I am curious: Why, if your family has land -are you slaving away in a job in a city -when, surely, more attractive alternatives are available to you?


Appendix: Digital disconnect:


Land Index
Project homeFarm
Garden Diary

Trevor Batten
 <trevor at tebatt dot net>
 Baclayon 2013