Land: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World By Simon Winchester

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'Land' by Simon Winchester is a terrific read! He has pulled together stories and facts about how people claimed possession of land all around the world from the beginning of human history up to the present.

The author bought land in 1999 for himself, and he wondered at the psychological impulse for ownership of land. The paperwork of deeds, titles, maps made and plot boundaries explicitly described by local governments, the financial and legal processes for owning land through loans/cash, inheritance - it all started where, and why? His purchase of acres of forested hills led to the author writing this book.

Winchester learned his new property had been owned or settled by:

-communities of Mohican Indians
-communities of Schaghticoke Indians
-three Dutch stadholders
-English monarchs
-the loyalist Philipse family
-unknown farmers, hunters and charcoal makers
-the Brasher family
-a Sicilian immigrant named Vacirca
-a German American named Doll
-a Sicilian American named Cesare Luria
-the author Simon Winchester

The book tells of astonishing acts of evil done by governments and ordinary people against nonliterate aboriginals. Often the act of claiming land was pure piracy made palatable by the cover of unjust laws and prejudices. When falsehoods or legal mechanisms didn't work, people grabbed land with the open force of superior arms, ships and numbers, using murder and starvation to convince the original inhabitants, along with destroying homes and livestock. Sometimes explorers simply told the local and clearly oblivious aboriginals, after rowing a dinghy to a beach, that the explorer and their sponsoring home governments now owned this island or that country.

Almost no developed-world countries are free of colonizing blood.

The Netherlands and England were remarkably rapacious and legally inventive in claiming aboriginals' lands, as well as in taking over entire countries already claimed and established by other people - which the author describes. The Dutch also became expert at creating land, making Netherland swamps into modern cities and productive farmland, another remarkable story. England itself changed hands a number of times, from prehistoric people to ancient Romans to Normans. Israel is still being bitterly fought over, which is a very interesting history. New Zealand aboriginals, however, have managed to wrest their lands back from a greedy England, mostly, another interesting chapter in the book.

Most aboriginal people believed no one owned land - it was communal property. How did we change from that accepted policy of most of the ancients to the accepted practice of individual or government ownership of property today? Some modern countries declare all of their land is owned by the national government alone, Israel being one of those, apparently, as well as China, North Korea and Russia.

Speaking for myself, I wonder if other readers will be as shocked as I was to read the statistics of how a few wealthy individuals actually own most of the land in a democracy like England and Scotland. Scotland has been working at changing this statistic - another fascinating chapter.

I was amazed to learn how it was that large areas of land began being professionally surveyed and mapped in order to draw boundaries - it was the early nineteenth century. How it was surveyed blew my mind! Of course, locals have worked out boundaries of property between themselves for millennia, sometimes not without a lot of disputation because of the reliance on verbal history and customary usage.

Why are some plots of land unloved? Hello, Chernobyl. But Winchester writes of an astonishing historical event I knew nothing about that was as terrible as Chernobyl. It happened near Denver, Colorado. The Rocky Flats plant processed plutonium for decades, and it did so with the result of long-term land and water pollution despite promises the owners made in how they would put in place safeguards for nearby Denver's land and population. Not. The people in their own nearby Colorado lands and property are still being threatened by possible radiation if they dig more than three feet down!

I recommend 'Land' to all readers. It's an important history and very interesting. I thought the book well written, and the author includes only a few in-depth events which illustrate the general milestones of history in owning land. There is a glossary of terms, a Bibliography and an Index. Simon Winchester I've long been a Winchester fan and was looking forward to this book, but its flaws are too gaping to overlook. While his writing about Indigenous people and issues is clearly meant to be sympathetic, it can most generously be described as condescending and colonial. The number of times Indigenous people are described as standing by, bewildered, as their land is stolen is ... bewildering, and there are far too many characterizations that all but say noble savage. I don't know how much of this language made it through the editing process, and there is almost no case where Winchester seems to have made attempts to consult Indigenous people themselves, or even their own historical accounts.

Aside from that, it leaves a great deal of scholarship on land ownership by the wayside, seeming to favor instead detailed descriptions of things like surveying to discovering the size of Earth. There is nothing wrong with surveying stories -- and it's something Winchester excels at -- but this was meant to be a book about land ownership, not about land measurement. While I enjoyed some of his writing and stories, Andro Linklater's Owning the Earth remains a far better and more thoughtful book on this subject, not to mention Henry George's 1879 Progress & Poverty, which delves deeply into the injustices of land ownership; and I wish Winchester would have actually spoken with Indigenous people instead of trying to write their histories through a sympathetic but entirely colonial lens. Simon Winchester

This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself. - from Chief Sealth’s letter to President Pierce on a treaty giving much of what is now Washington state over for white settlement
What are the three most important things in real estate? All together now, “Location, location, location.” Simon Winchester, in his usual way, has offered us a grand tour of land, and thus real estate on our planet. Note the subtitle, How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World). This is not the broker’s walk-through in which the good elements are highlighted while the less appealing aspects are minimized or ignored. It may be that location is the most important property of land, but there are other features that are worth knowing too. Things like How much land is there? How do we know? How was it measured, by whom, and why? Is the amount of land fixed? Can it increase or decrease? Can land be made unusable? Where is everything? Who can make use of it? Is land inherently public, for (reasonable) use by all? Was it ever? How did it come to be private? How do different cultures think about land? Why is land divided up the way it is, into public and private, into parcels of particular size? Who gets to own land, and who is relegated to merely renting it? Winchester has answers.

Land is the defining characteristic of every nation. Our (the USA’s) national anthem, for example, goes O'er the land of the free not o’er the pond, lake, river or fjord of the free, (and no, Norway's anthem makes no specific mention of fjords), not the sweet air of the free, not the great views of the free (although “spacious skies” and purple mountain majesties from our other national anthem, America the Beautiful, comes close), but the land. Check your nation of choice for common ground re this. (Click for a list of anthems) The word land figures prominently Although I suggest you check out the Algerian lyrics. Dude, switch to decaf. The war is over.

Land is seminal in human culture as well as national history. For many of us in the West, our very origin story begins with a landlord-tenant dispute. “If we owned the garden instead of renting it, Adam, I could have eaten the goddam apple and it would have been nobody’s business but my own. And we wouldn’t have to put up with the creepy landlord spying on us all the time, or his freaky feathered bouncer. The guy should get a hobby, make some friends or something.”

Simon Winchester at home in his study in the Berkshires – image from The Berkshire Eagle - Photo: Andrew Blechman

This is the eighth Winchester I have read, of his fifteen non-fiction books (so, plenty left to get to) and they have all been engaging, informative, and charming. He read Geology at Oxford, so, has a particular soft spot for explaining how physical things on our planet came to be where they are, how they changed over time, and why they exist in the forms they have taken on. You might be interested in the Atlantic Ocean, maybe the Pacific? Winchester has written a book on each. How about looking at the creation of the world’s first geological map, or maybe why Krakatoa blew its top. He is also interested in tracing back how we know what we know, (or, um, history) as a crucial element of understanding things as they are now, and how they came to be. The Perfectionists looks at how industrial standardization developed, and how machine tolerances improved to the point where they are beyond the control of flesh and blood humans. In The Professor and the Madman he looks at how the Oxford English Dictionary was made. The third element in Winchester’s trifecta of interest is people, often odd personalities who played pivotal roles in the development of technical and intellectual advances, thus expanding and deepening human understanding of the world.
I think what I’ve done is to get obscure figures from history and tell the stories like I’ve told you about Mister Penck and his maps, Mister Struve and his survey, Mister Radcliffe and his line, and turn them into what they truly are, which is heroic, forgotten figures from history….I just become fascinated by these characters. - from the Kinukinaya interview
There are plenty of interesting sorts in Land. Maybe none of the folks noted here are quite so interesting as the institutionalized murderer in The Professor and the Madman, but they are still a colorful crew, and it is clear Winchester had fun writing about them. They include Cornelius Lely, who built the 20-mile-long Barrier Dam in The Netherlands, which turned the Zuider Zee into vast tracts of arable land, Gina Rinehart, the world’s largest private landholder, not someone who has contributed nearly so much to the store of human knowledge as she has to conservative politicians, and Friedrich Wilhelm Georg von Struve, who spent forty years measuring a meridian for the tsar of Russia. There are many more, of both the benign and dark variety.
When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said 'Let us pray.' We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land. -- Desmond Tutu
There are surprising connections made, such as the relationship between the invention of barbed wire and America’s appetite for beef. Or the link between the growth of commercial aviation and the development of World Aeronautical Charts, well maybe not so surprising, that. But that such things did not exist prior to people flying the friendly skies reminds us just how recent so much of the foundation of today’s world truly is. I suppose it also might not count as surprising, but John Maynard Keynes had an interesting solution to the problem of landed gentry, euthanasia.

Winchester details many of the outrages that have been inflicted, in the name of seizing land, on indigenous people across the planet, Australia, New Zealand, and the USA figuring large in these. But there are also plenty of other people who have been expelled from their homes, livelihoods, and history by the forces of greed across the planet. These include immigrants to the USA whose land was stolen while they were illegally incarcerated, and farmers who were dispossessed by land-owners seeking to maximize the profitability of their holdings, via the Enclosure and Clearance laws passed in England and Scotland. Then there are the perennial turf battles, like those in Ireland and the Middle East.

Gripes are, per usual with any Winchester book, minimal. He writes about the role, historical, current, and potential, that trusts have, had, and might have for the preservation of land from destructive exploitation. Yet, in doing so, there was no mention of The Nature Conservancy. Their motto could be (it isn’t) We save land the old-fashioned way. We buy it. It has over a million members (yes, I am) and has protected about 120 million acres of land. It definitely merited a shoutout here. Another part of the book tells of the annihilation of bison from the American west. The critters are referred to as multi-ton. Like the mythical eight hundred pound gorilla which grows only to about 400 pounds at most, bison max out at roughly 2,000 pounds, or a single ton, which still leaves them as the largest land mammal in North America.

Like any good geologist, or writer, Simon Winchester enjoys digging. And we are all the lucky recipients of the informational nuggets he unearths. He is a master story-teller, and if you are ever fortunate enough to find yourself at a party with him, or find a chance to see him speak publicly, just pull up a seat and listen. You won’t be sorry.

So, I can tell from the looks on your faces that this one would be a perfect fit for you, particularly if you are planning to start a library soon. Do you think you’d like to make an offer on the book? There are other potential buyers stopping by this afternoon, and I would hate for you to miss out. It won’t stay on the shelves very long. Take my card and give me a ring when you make up your mind, ok. But I can assure you that, whether your preferences for land are LaLa, Never, Sugar, Holy, Promised, Wonder, Native, or Rover, when you check out Simon Winchester’s latest book, you will be a Land lover.
We abuse land because we see it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect. - Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac (1948)

Review first posted – February 5, 2021

Publication dates
----------January 19, 2021 - hardcover
----------January 18, 2022- trade paperback

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

A nice overview of Winchester’s professional life can be found here

-----Kinokuniya USA - Interview with Simon Winchester on 'Land' - video - 30:03 – by Raphael - This is wonderful. The interview is a lot like SW’s books, one fascinating story follows another follows another.
-----RNZ - Simon Winchester: how land ownership shaped the modern world by Kim Hill – text extract plus audio interview - 48:24
-----The Book Club - Simon Winchester: Land - audio - 42:46

-----Woody Guthrie - This Land is Your Land
-----The Lion King - This Land
----- LaLa Land - soundtrack

Reviews of other Simon Winchester books we have read:
-----2018 - The Perfectionists
-----2015 - Pacific
-----2010 - Atlantic
-----2008 - The Man Who Loved China
-----2005 - Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded
-----2001 - The Map That Changed the World
-----1998 - The Professor and the Madman

Items of Interest – by Winchester
-----From 2013 - Simon Winchester at TEDxEast re his book The Men Who United the States – There is an interesting morsel here about 11 minutes in on an important Jeffersonian decision having to do with land ownership
-----American Scholar - Experience Everything

Items of Interest
----- Citizen Simon: Author, journalist, OBE, sage of Sandisfield by Andrew D. Blechman - Posted on September 9, 2018
-----International Map of the World
-----The Nature Conservancy

An extra bit. I had intended to incorporate the following into the body of the review, but just felt off about that. Nevertheless I do hold with the notion expressed, so here it is, tucked away at the bottom:

I was taken with a particular instance of the horrors that accompanied land grabs in the expanding USA, as having resonance with today, with Donald Trump as the embodiment of that carnage. Whereas the racist yahoos of the 19th century westward expansion delighted in slaughtering bison from a moving train, in order to deny the native residents a living and to make it easier to clear them from desired land, so Trump has spent his time in the limelight, and in power, blasting away at the things that are central to our culture, to our values, so that he could deny us our cultural and legal core, as he seized all he could grab for himself and those like him. Simon Winchester Maybe a 3.5 stars. Not really sure I can give it four stars. Surprisingly, the book's thesis about the significance of land - the dispossession of indigenous land and the ownership of settler peoples - and the resulting divisions/conflicts around the world had flaws. There is an uneven quality to the chapters - some hits and misses. The layers of complexity of this topic can't be easily made simple. At times certain chapters have to be questioned about their too simplistic examination of the issue. There is just too much he has tried to do in this one book. Simon Winchester If you've read any Simon Winchester, you know what to expect in this terrific book: a natural storyteller's ease, a thousand great anecdotes, some very interesting, challenging insights, and maybe a corresponding lack of narrative through-line. Winchester is in great form here, scintillating and funny and wide-ranging in his examination of the million ways humans have obsessed over land in the last thousand years (and as an added bonus, the US hardcover from Harper is quite nice). My full review is here: Simon Winchester

The author of The Professor and the Madman and The Perfectionists explores the notion of property—our proprietary relationship with the land—through human history, how it has shaped us and what it will mean for our future.

Land—whether meadow or mountainside, desert or peat bog, parkland or pasture, suburb or city—is central to our existence. It quite literally underlies and underpins everything. Employing the keen intellect, insatiable curiosity, and narrative verve that are the foundations of his previous bestselling works, Simon Winchester examines what we human beings are doing—and have done—with the billions of acres that together make up the solid surface of our planet.

Land:  How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World examines in depth how we acquire land, how we steward it, how and why we fight over it, and finally, how we can, and on occasion do, come to share it. Ultimately, Winchester confronts the essential question: who actually owns the world’s land—and why does it matter?  Land: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World


This is a fascinating look at our obsession with owning land, and how that obsession has shaped the modern world. In Winchester's classic fashion, he digs deep for examples across time and geography while laying out a thought-provoking study of what we humans have done, and are doing, with the billions of acres of land on the earth's surface.

One of the fascinating yet troubling themes that run through Land is the repeated actions by first owners of land in societies across the globe to take that land from those who originally inhabited it. Whether Scotland or Namibia or the Middle East or most of North, Central and South America, it was - and still is -- indigenous peoples who are pushed out of lands they occupied, often for centuries. Ironically, many of those first peoples did not believe in ownership of lands by individuals.

Winchester rightly points out the hypocrisies in taking land from indigenous peoples to create National Parks (Yosemite) or European settlers coming to North America after being pushed out of lands by wealthy owners (Scotland, Ireland...) only to do the same to indigenous peoples.

In the end, Winchester asks three fundamental questions: who actually owns the world's land, how much of it do we really need, and why does it matter?

This is a highly-recommended read for those interested in politics, geography and conservation. Simon Winchester While I expected the book to be written on a popular level rather than an academic level, I expected the author would tackle land in a more traditional historical manner rather than by jumping from one incident to another in various parts of the world. On page 122 of 660 in the Kindle version, the author states, No American, so far as I am aware, ever professed a deep and unsullied affection for the USGS topographical sheets that it is possible to order from government agencies. They are fine enough maps, and they cover the entirety of the nation. But seldom are they bought for the sheer pleasure of ownership, of the ability to pore over them and imagine, or remember, to draw contented admiration at their elegant appearance and scrupulous accuracy. My immediate thought was that he had never met a land-platting genealogist! Many purchased these maps for every location in which their ancestors lived or in which they were working for a client. Nowadays the maps are available online and most use software to plat the deeds so fewer maps are being purchased, but there are still many who prefer to own these maps. I realize the author was making a point about the availablility of Ordnance Survey maps in many places in the UK whereas they needed to be ordered from a single location in the United States, but he overstated his case. Unfortunately he exaggerated points in many places in the book. While I initially planned to purchase a copy of this pre-publication, but I'm glad I decided to read a library copy before purchasing. I do not need another dust catcher, and that's exactly what this book would do on my shelves. Its usefulness is minimal. Simon Winchester As a geographer, I was looking forward to Winchester's popular book on land. I'm disappointed. His treatment of the theft of land from Indigenous peoples is maddening. An enormous missed opportunity, particularly in the connect of the current global moment. Regardless of the moment, Winchester is condescending on the topic of Indigenous lands. So, that's my main critical point.

In general I find his style of rattling off tales, trivia, and fun facts to be frustrating. I can't discern who is his intended audience for this book. His style and tone are enjoyable, but apart from a few tidbits, I didn't really learn much.

Perhaps my expectation is colored by a comparison to academic literature, but this book didn't do it for me. Simon Winchester Important read!

Enjoyed it, and learned a lot about land ownership and the unnecessary draw people have to own land.

Started out strong, but got a little long-winded.

2.9/5 Simon Winchester This is a large topic to tackle, but Simon Winchester managed it well. I appreciate his details and how much history I learned. This expanded my horizons in all the senses of that metaphor. Simon Winchester