Tuesday, September 22, 2020


One thing peculiar about land is that we are predisposed to encounter it as if it was always there, seemingly naturalized from the outset without a beginning. Because histories are built upon land, its own history is obscured by later infrastructure, quickly escalating the complexity of the territory. My current book project tentatively titled Overflow - History of Land Reclamation in the British Empire focuses on the history of seaward land reclamation which entails the formation of artificial land surfaces that extend outwards over the sea using advanced geo-engineering techniques. I was motivated by the avid land reclamation that occurred in Singapore which increased in land size by 23% from 587 square kilometers in 1974 to 725 square kilometers today (slightly larger than DC metropolitan area). 

Intensive land reclamation transformed coastal areas from the late nineteenth century. Colonial governments were initially drawn to the supposed lack of ambiguity concerning the status of reclaimed land - there was little possibility of indigenous inhabitants or prior landowners of reclaimed territory so authorities were theoretically free to plan without any resistance. A territorial blank slate was the ultimate goal of colonial officials after all. But the prohibitive costs of land reclamation projects make it a last resort in expanding territory. While local colonial governments eagerly embarked on such projects, higher authorities within the imperial hierarchy based in London often asked “Is this really necessary? and “could something else be done instead?” to ensure that cheaper options were explored first. Land reclamation efforts were extremely expensive, and often completely debt-financed and thus formed risky undertakings involving huge volumes of sand, specialized equipment and vehicles, costly research into the suitability of soil and sand with its particular characteristics, labour, logistical coordination, and resettlement of people who lived in areas adjacent to reclamation sites. In Hong Kong, private enterprise was historically powerful and initiated reclamation projects. Armenian businessman Catchick Paul Chater founded property developer company Hong Kong Land which reclaimed 59 acres of land in the colony between 1889 and 1903 for example. The interests of long-established dock companies such as Butterfield and Swire, and Jardine and Matheson were aligned with that of the colonial government in the late nineteenth century although they drifted apart in the first half of the twentieth century. While businesses entrenched themselves in the area of the port, successive government administrations sometimes differed greatly from their predecessors to the extent of breaking ranks with previous policies. In addition, while the cost of reclamation was relatively low during the early years since landfill was made up of rock and soil found in abundance near sites, it became progressively expensive because fills are not easily available anymore and the sea to be reclaimed was deeper. The Admiralty too weighed in, anxious about encroachment to existing dockyard facilities. 

As land reclamation became popular throughout Empire, the coastal feature known as the foreshore which is neither wet nor always dry due to the ebb and flow of the incoming tide gained prominence. As a buffer zone, the foreshore was valuable because it provided entry to the sea. From 1830s onwards, the British government granted ownership rights to foreshores in parts of the British Isles opening them up further to construction and development but these rights were suspended in Empire. Historically, denizens of undeveloped waterfronts had survived and thrived on it because they occupied cheap land. Increasingly from the late nineteenth century onwards, the foreshore became more prized throughout Empire as a gateway to land reclamation which brought a new enemy on the horizon for residents in coastal regions - coastal development. Even when they were compensated by government authorities, rising land prices post-reclamation meant that they were unable to buy their own property back in order to live there again. Something about control over watery spaces, a relatively new form of domination, resists risk assessment necessary for compensation requests. This “hydroborder,” to borrow Isabel Hofmeyr’s term, “where the ‘normal’ anxieties of the boundary were exacerbated by ecological uncertainty” serves as the fulcrum for change.

Hofmeyr, Isabel. “Provisional Notes on Hydrocolonialism.” English Language Notes. 57, 1 (April 2019): 11-20.

--Nurfadzilah Yahaya