Friday, 26 August 2016

How Geography Shaped the Politics and Economy of the Channel Islands

My post today is a selection from "The Channel Islands" by David Thomas Ansted and Robert Gordon Latham, published in 1865. Most travel guides look at the population, the sights to visit, something of the history, but this is an exception. It begins by looking at the geography of the Islands, and then considers how this has shaped their subsequent history, so it is a bit different from the general guidebook.

How Geography Shaped the Politics and Economy of the Channel Islands
by David Thomas Ansted and Robert Gordon Latham

That the Channel Islands possess great importance as military stations, and are capable of affording refuge to shipping in time of war, is a fact that has always been felt, and from time to time acted on by Great Britain. Large sums of public money have been expended in fortifying them and commencing harbours. The harbours, however, at present available, have been constructed entirely at the expense of the islanders.

Perfect freedom from customs'-duties, and all other taxation for the benefit of England, an absence of interference with local laws, and even a permission to use in the public courts, and for public occasions, the French language, and to employ French coins in circulation, has been granted without question.

That a people so governed should be loyal, and should do all in their power to retain the customs and privileges under which they have so long flourished, is not surprising. That islanders should be hardy boatmen, and but indifferent agriculturists, might also be expected; and that a people so greatly favoured by nature in climate and fertile soil, and by political circumstances in their local governments, should be free and independent, jealous of interference, and rather proud of what they have already done, than careful to adopt new systems of which they have had no experience, is neither to be wondered at nor blamed.

In visiting these possessions, therefore, or while reading an account of them, the traveller in the one case, and the reader in the other, will do well to bear in mind, that both place and subject are neutral ground. The islands can neither be regarded properly from an English nor from a continental point of view. The people have customs, venerable from age and historical association,—customs, superseded in Normandy and England, but not, perhaps, the less adapted to small communities.

They have a language which, in its peculiarities, must be regarded as unformed rather than deformed. They are, in Guernsey especially, and in some respects also elsewhere, singularly tenacious of their family ties, and apt to narrow, rather than extend, their social circle. They are, in a word, islanders rather than English.

It must also be borne in mind, that hardly any Celtic element is recognisable in these islanders. They are not like the Manx men, the Welsh, or the Bretons. They are Normans, but Normans of the old school. Norman freemen, before there were Norman barons and vassals of the crown, retaining the northern love of independence, and not at all the Gallic tendency to depend on the fostering hand of a central government.

They thus offer curious points of character; and, till lately, the mass of the population in some of the islands had undergone marvellously little change.

But the time of change has come. Roads, steam-boats, and public works, have already so far altered the peculiar features of the larger islands and the national peculiarities of their inhabitants, that we must now seek for many quaint and interesting characteristics that, only a few years ago, openly presented themselves in the streets and market places.

The cultivation of the land is improving; legitimate trade has assumed large proportions; excellent roads, and noble piers, quays and harbours, have been constructed at vast expense; and to provide funds for these, the inhabitants have been contented to tax themselves very heavily. Prices of all kinds of food, house-rent, and other necessary items of expenditure, have become gradually higher and higher,—have approximated, in fact, more and more to the prices of similar articles in the great centres of population; so that now, the islands have almost ceased to tempt the possessors of small incomes and large families to migrate thither. In the place of these, of whom, however, many remain, there is a rapid increase in the number of tourists, who flock over by hundreds, in search of health, amusement and relaxation; and who will find their time well spent in examining the numerous objects of interest that here abound. It is desirable to clear the way for their benefit, and state briefly and what is distinctly remarkable and best worthy of notice in every part of our little channel archipelago; and in the history, antiquities, science, natural history and literature belonging to its various members.

To give the reader some idea of the very great number of islands, islets, rocks and shoals, forming the Channel Islands, a list is subjoined of the various groups, as named in charts; and to this is appended the proximate area, in square miles, of the space each group may be considered to occupy.

It must be understood, that the area given is not that of the actual land. In some of the groups, the surface of rock exposed at high water is not more than a few square yards in area, for every square mile of dangerous surrounding sea; but, estimating the dimensions by the extent of dangerous water, a very fair idea will be formed of the relative importance of each group in navigation. It would, perhaps, have been interesting, had it been possible, to state the number of rocks beyond a certain size, visible at all times of tide; but no sufficient materials exist for this.

In this list, the names of all those islands that are regularly inhabited are indicated by a star (*). Several of the others are occasionally visited during summer, either for herbage or as fishing stations, and on them are huts or other buildings. The most important of them are the Burhou larger island, the 'Maitresse lie' of the Minquiers, some of the larger of the Ecrehou rocks, and some of the Chaussey islands. On the Ecrehou rocks are remains of buildings of great antiquity, said to be constructed of stone brought from the main land of France.

In addition to this long list of names, each of which represents a group, and often a very numerous group of rocks, there are many smaller groups, and a multitude, almost countless, of detached rocks, either visible at some time of tide, or dangerous to navigation from the sea breaking over them. Close to the French shore, both of Brittany and Normandy, but especially the former, the rocks and shoals are almost too numerous to be marked in any chart.

A very important chain of light-houses indicates, by a line of fire, the outlying points of the Channel Islands and the whole adjacent land.

From Cape la Hague, in Normandy, to Les Heaux, in Brittany, there are no less than thirteen lights, several of them of the first class, placed at intervals on the French coast. The Casquets light, and a light recently placed on the Hanois rocks, near Guernsey, mark the approach to the islands from the Channel; while various coast and harbour lights on all the principal islands assist in pointing out to the mariner the dangers that exist to navigation and the welcome refuge offered.

The subjoined cut represents the Chasse marie, a kind of French coasting vessel, characteristic of the Channel, and often seen in Guernsey seeking shelter from westerly gales. These craft are extremely picturesque, and were formerly common. Diminished smuggling and improved navigation have rendered their visits less frequent of late years.

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