Floating on Water, Stuck in Mud

Deltas and Wetlands in World History

Royce Novak

History/Geography/Environmental Studies 300

Course Description

In deltas and wetlands, water mingles with earth, producing a landscape simultaneously marine and terrestrial. Such landscapes are not only rich sites to study ecosystems and wildlife, but human societies, as well. Through this course, we will examine how various societies and peoples have experienced and interacted with these environments. We will use deltas and wetlands as a window into the lives of indigenous people who have made them their home, slaves and the dispossessed who have found refuge there, pirates and smugglers, bandits and outlaws, guerrillas and revolutionaries, and scientists and engineers who have tried to transform and control the landscape. By considering the lives and experiences of various historical actors in deltas and wetlands, we can also understand numerous historical processes unfolding, such as commerce, agriculture, state-building, and revolution. The simultaneous presence of land and water has made deltas and wetlands habitable for humans, yet resistant to integration by larger state societies, allowing us to understand people who have generally been relegated to the margins of grand historical narratives that privilege political and economic elites.  Awesome.

As there are numerous deltas and wetlands throughout the world, covering each one would prove an insurmountable task. Rather, we will focus on a number of key sites illustrative of important ideas and concepts with a balance of historical and geographic depth and breadth in mind. For instance, we will spend only a week in Venice to look at commerce and urban development but will return often to the Mekong Delta and the Everglades to look at everything from archaeology and agriculture to piracy and warfare.

Organization of the Course

This course is segmented into five sections: (I) a general introduction, (II) a section on economies that looks at the resources and products of deltas and wetlands, (III) a section that illustrates attempts by states to integrate and colonize these spaces primarily through engineering projects, (IV) another focusing on how deltas and wetlands have been central to resistance and warfare, and, finally, (V) a conclusion considering how wetland destruction and preservation figure into present concerns over global warming and climate justice.

Course Objectives

By the end of this course students should be able to:

    • Understand the significance of deltas and wetlands in global ecological, economic, political, and cultural systems and exchanges
    • Be able to apply an understanding these systems and exchanges within particular historical and geographic contexts

Students should be able to build upon:

  • Skills for the interpretation and analysis of secondary and primary historical images and texts
  • Written communication skills, especially in conveying and crafting arguments based on historical research
  • Their historical and geographic “imagination,” i.e. the ability to establish patterns and connections across time and space as well as to envision the perspectives of actors in a various temporal and spatial contexts


Attendance and Participation: 20%

Students are expected to regularly attend class and complete readings before class. Students should be prepared with a copy of the readings for each class and actively participate in class discussions and activities.

Exams and Quizzes: 20%

Map Quiz: 5%

Given at the end of the first unit, the map quiz aims to familiarize students with important wetland environments throughout the world and their key ecological characteristics.

Midterm Exam (Take-home): 15%

The take-home midterm exam covers the first four units and will comprise identifications and essay questions. Students will have one week to complete the exam. Citations from readings are required.

Writing Assignments: 60%

Minor Writing Assignments (Two papers, 10% each): 20%

The two minor writing assignments are 4-5 pages each and require an interrogation of short primary readings in relation to the ideas and concepts presented in a particular week’s readings. Each assignment will be due before the first class of the week that corresponds to the primary source readings. A list of primary sources by week will be provided during the first week of class.

Final Project: 40%

The final project will take the form of a 10-page paper based on a close reading of a memoir or work of fiction set in a delta or wetland environment. Students should relate concepts and ideas from lecture and readings to the experiences of character(s) in the selected memoir/fictional work. Students may choose from a list of appropriate works appended to this syllabus or read a work of their own choosing pending instructor approval. Students are encouraged to begin reading early. The assignment will be due at the end of final exam week in lieu of a final exam.

A note on grading: Written assignments (including the take-home midterm) will be graded primarily for content, argument, and use of evidence. All good papers will have a thesis supported by evidence and analysis. Minor grammar and spelling errors happen and will not be held against you unless they render the content difficult to understand or it is clear that no effort has been made to proofread. Late assignments will be reduced half a letter grade per day. Extensions will be granted in exceptional circumstances and must be requested ahead of the due date and approved by the instructor. All writing assignments must use double-spaced Times New Roman font and 1-inch margins.

Important texts for the Course

Biggs, David, Quagmire: Nation-Building and Nature in the Mekong Delta, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014.

Ogden, Laura, Swamplife: People, Gators and Mangroves Entangled in the Everglades, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011.

Course Schedule and Required Readings

Part I: The Setting: Ecologies, Geographies, Environments, and Peoples

Week 1: The Geography and Ecology and Landscape of Wetlands and Deltas

“Understanding Wetlands” and “Hydrology of Wetlands” in Balliet, James Fargo, Wetlands: Environmental Issues, Global Perspectives, Armonk, NY: ME Sharpe, 2010. 

Wink, Andre, “From the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean: Medieval History in Geographic Perspective,” Comparative Studies in Society and History: 44:3, 2016, pp. 416-445.

[The first week introduces delta and wetland environments and ecologies, emphasizing their location on the margin of water and land, their combination of elements of both environments, and the propensity for delta and wetland landscapes to change drastically and rapidly.]

Week 2: Human Interactions with the Environment – Contemporary Issues and Archaeology

*Map Quiz at the beginning of this week

“Humans and Wetlands” in Balliet, Wetlands: Environmental Issues, Global Perspectives.

“Sacred Geography: The Prehistoric Settlement System,” in Digging Miami, Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2012, pp. 92-120.

“Introduction,” in Biggs, David, Quagmire: Nation-Building and Nature in the Mekong Delta, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014, pp. 3-22.

[This week adds the element of human interaction with wetlands and deltas, but at a general level. Ancient historical cases are also introduced through archaeological studies of wetland societies, focusing on material culture and built environment.]

Week 3: Peoples of Wetlands: An Anthropological Perspective

“Introduction,” in Ogden, Laura, Swamplife: People, Gators and Mangroves Entangled in the Everglades, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011, pp. 1-19.

Chapters 1-2, Ochsenschlager, Edward L., Iraq’s Marsh Arabs in the Garden of Eden, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004, pp. 1-33.

[This week, an anthropological perspective is presented by considering contemporary peoples who live in delta and wetland environments with an emphasis on cultural practices in a wetland context.]

Week 4: Societies of Refuge and Escape

“Chapter 6: State Evasion, State Prevention: the Culture and Agriculture of Escape,” in Scott, James, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009, pp. 178-219.

“Chapter 6: The Maroons of Bas de Fleuve Louisiana: from Borderlands to Hinterlands,” and “Chapter 8: The Great Dismal Swamp,” in Dioufe, Sylviane A., Slavery’s Exiles: The Story of American Maroons, New York: New York University Press, pp. 157-186; pp. 209-229.

[This week looks at how deltas and wetlands have often historically been sites for people to escape state societies to form new and separate ones. Building off of concepts from James Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed, North American maroon communities in particular are examined as “societies of refuge and escape.”]

Part II: Economies of Deltas and Wetlands

Week 5: Wetlands in the Global Economy

Adas, Michael, “Continuity and Transformation: colonial rice frontiers and their environmental impact on the great river deltas of mainland Southeast Asia,” in Edmund Burke and Kenneth Pommeranz, eds., The Environment and World History, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.

Morris, Christopher, “Wetland Colonies: Louisiana, Guangzhou, Pondicherry, and Senegal,” in Ax, Christina, Niels Brinmes, and Niklas Thode Jensen, eds., Cultivating the Colonies: Colonial States and their Environmental Legacies, Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2011, pp. 135-163.

Li Tana, “The late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century Mekong Delta in the regional trade system,” in Li Tana and Cooke, Nola, eds., Water frontier : commerce and the Chinese in the Lower Mekong Region, 1750-1880, Singapore: Singapore University Press, 2004.

[This week is the first in a unit looking at the economies of deltas and wetlands, particularly their role within global and regional economies. This week in particular focuses on the significance of deltas in agricultural production, also looking into cities founded in wetlands and how the environment impacts urban form. Wetland urbanisms will be covered mainly through lecture, considering Venice, Jakarta, Amsterdam, and New Orleans as places whose histories and physical development have been particularly influenced by a wetland environment.]

Week 6: Products of the Forest, Sea, and Earth

Ogden, Laura, Swamplife: People, Gators and Mangroves Entangled in the Everglades, pp. 43-65.

Fentiman, Alicia, “The Anthropology of Oil: the Impact of the Oil Industry on a Fishing Community in the Niger Delta,” Social Justice, 23:4, pp. 87-99.

Murray, Martin J., “’White Gold’ or ‘White Blood’?: the Rubber Plantations of Colonial Indochina, 1910-1940,” in Valentine, Daniel E., Henry Bernstein, and Tom Brass, eds., Plantations, Proletarians, and Peasants in Colonial Asia, Portland, OR: F. Cass, 1992.

[This week will be geared towards the concept of commodity histories, focusing on a number of cases of different kinds of commodities that deltas and wetlands have been significant for. While the readings will specifically cover alligators (i.e. forest products), oil, and rubber, the lecture will cover these and others.]

Week 7: Illicit Economies: Pirates, Bandits, Smugglers, and Outlaws

*midterm assessment distributed at the end of the first class of the week

“The Maroon Bandits,” in Dioufe, Sylviane A., Slavery’s Exiles: the Story of American Maroons, New York: New York Unviversity Press, pp. 230-255.

Ogden, Laura, Swamplife, pp. 21-24; pp. 36-41; pp. 67-71; pp. 91-93; pp. 120-123, pp. 153-158.

Antony, Robert J., “Pirate Yang: Pirate, Rebel, and Hero on the Sino-Vietnamese Water Frontier, 1644-1684,” in Cross-Currents, 3:2, 2014, pp. 319-348.

Siu, Helen F., “Lineage, Market, Pirate, and Dan: Ethnicity in the Pearl River Delta of South China,” in Siu, Helen S. and Sutton, Donald S., eds., Empire at the Margins: Culture, Ethnicity, and Frontier in Early Modern China, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

[This week looks particularly at illicit and informal economies which tend to especially prominent in wetland environments because of the opportunities they offer for those familiar with the landscape (for instance, a smuggler) and the difficulties they pose for those unfamiliar (for instance, authorities). Furthermore, the societies that inhabit wetlands can often provide a market for illicit industries.]

Part III: Controlling Deltas and Wetlands: The Perspective of the State

Week 8: Conceptualizing and Contextualizing the Production of Scientific Knowledge

*midterm assessment submitted at beginning of the first class

Scott, James, Seeing Like a State, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998, pp. 11-24.

“Map, Census, and Museum” in Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities, revised edition, New York: Verso, 2007, pp. 167-190.

Thongchai Winichakul, Siam Mapped: The History of the Geobody of a Nation, Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1994, pp. 37-56.

[This week introduces concepts that will be critical for the rest of the course. Together, James Scott’s concept of legibility, Thongchai Winichakul’s insights on mapping, knowledge, and the imagination of the nation, and Benedict Anderson’s similar evaluation of maps along with censuses and museums will be presented as important ways to understand the way states attempt to understand, control, and at times transform deltas and wetlands.]

Week 9: Wetlands and public health

Monaco, C.S., “Shadows and Pestilence: Health and Medicine During the Second Seminole War,” Journal of Social History, 48:3, pp. 565-588.

“Chapter 6: the Pontine Marshes,” in Sallares, Robert, Malaria and Rome: a History of Malaria in Ancient Italy, Oxford University Press, 2002, pp. 168-191.

“Chapter 6: Fascism, Racism, and Littoria,” and “Chapter 7: Creating Disaster: Nazism and Bioterror in the Pontine Marshes,” in Snowden, Frank M. The Conquest of Malaria Italy, 1900-1960, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006, pp. 142-197.

[Wetlands and deltas, especially in tropical and subtropical regions, have been plagued with mosquito-borne illnesses such as malaria and yellow fever. This week focuses particularly on the history of malaria in Italy in connection to the Pontine Marshes outside of Rome. This is a particularly rich case for the study of wetlands and public health since malaria has been documented since antiquity and much of the pioneering research into the pathology and epidemiology of malaria occurred there at the turn of the 19th century. Conversely, this knowledge was reverse-engineered during WWII by occupying Nazi forces to slow the allied advance. The relationship between deltas and wetlands in other cases, such as yellow fever in the construction of the Panama Canal and tropical disease in warfare, will be discussed in lecture in relation to Italy.] 

Week 10: Canals and State Power, Interpreting Primary Sources

“Chapter 1: Water’s Edge,” and “Chapter 2: Water Grid,” in Biggs, David, Quagmire: Nation-Building and Nature in the Mekong Delta, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014, pp. 23-90.

[This week focuses on the French colonial project in the Mekong Delta through the lens of canal-building projects. In the first class, discussion in lecture will focus on David Biggs’ Quagmire in reference to concepts presented in week 8 in order to reinforce them. Quagmire also uses historical images as sources quite effectively. The second class of the week will start with a discussion of the use of images in Quagmire as a means to lead into an active learning activity in interpreting colonial postcards relating to infrastructure projects in French Indochina.]   

Week 11: Changing lifestyles

Biggs, David, Quagmire, pp. 153-196.

Ogden, Laura, Swamplife, People, Gators and Mangroves Entangled in the Everglades, pp. 125-151.

Taylor, Phillip, Cham Muslims in the Mekong Delta: Place and Mobility in the Cosmopolitan Periphery, Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2007, pp. 264-279.

[This week considers how state efforts to control and transform delta and wetland environments has influenced the livelihoods and societies of the people who live in them. This week’s material concludes the section on state power and control while also tying in themes from the first unit.] 

Part IV: Deltas and Wetlands as Sites of Resistance and Warfare

Week 12: Slave Rebellions

“Chapter 10: The Second Seminole War,” in Rivers, Larry Eugene, Rebels and Runaways: Slave Resistance in Nineteenth-Century Florida, Urbana-Champagne: University of Illinois Press, 2012, pp. 131-145.

“Introduction,” in Brana-Shute, Gary, ed., Resistance and Rebellion in Suriname, Old and New, Williamsburg, VA: Dept. of Anthropology, College of William and Mary, 1990.

Talhami, Ghada Hashem, “The Zanj Rebellion Reconsidered,” The International Journal of African Historical Studies, 10:3, 1977, pp. 443-461.

[As deltas and wetlands have often served as sites of refuge and escape, they have also often been sites of rebellion. This week’s materials look particularly at slave rebellions throughout history that have originated in deltas and wetlands.]   

Week 13: Swamp Warfare

Largent, Floyd B., Jr., “The Florida Quagmire,” American History, 34:4, pp. 40-46.

Biggs, David, Quagmire, pp. 197-226.

“Chapter 8: War in the Delta: 1941-1960,” in Brocheaux, Pierre, The Mekong Delta: Ecology, Economy, and Revolution, Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Southeast Asia Studies, 1995, pp. 187-207.

Martini, Edwin A., Agent Orange: History, Science, and the Politics of Uncertainty, Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012, pp. 17-52.

[This week looks at deltas and wetlands as site of warfare, particularly in reference to American empire-building projects. Lecture will especially focus on American intervention in Vietnam. Wetland environments tend to be places where small-scale guerrilla tactics thrives and large-scale conventional armies become “stuck in the mud.” In discussion of the American Vietnam War, we will watch a clip from Forrest Gump where Forrest describes fighting in the Mekong Delta and listen to Pete Seeger’s “Waist-Deep in the Big Muddy.”] 

Part V: Conclusion

Week 14: Destruction of wetlands

Seminara, Giovanni, Stefano Lanzoni, and Giovanni Cecconi, “Coastal Wetlands at Risk: Learning from Venice and New Orleans,” Ecohydrology and Hydrobiology, 11:3, 2011, pp. 183-202.

Richardson, Curtis J. and Najah A. Hussein, “Restoring the Garden of Eden: an Ecological Assessment of the Marshes of Iraq,” BioScience, 56:6, 2006, pp. 477-489.

Malini, B. Hema and K. Nageswara Rao, “Coastal Erosion and Habitat Loss along the Godavari Delta Front – a Fallout of Dam Construction(?),” Current Science, 87:9, 2004, pp. 1232-1236.

Emoyan, O.O., Akpoborie I.A., and Akporhonor E.E., “The Oil and Gas Industry and the Niger Delta: Implications for the Environment,” Journal of Applied Science and Environmental Management, 12:3, 2008, pp. 29-37.

[This final unit pivots towards contemporary environmental challenges facing deltas and their inhabitants. This week incorporates a number of more scientific literature that highlights multiple forms of human-induced environmental threats.]

Week 15: Protecting Wetlands

Dussias, Allison M., “The Seminole Tribe of Florida and the Everglades Ecosystem: Refuge and Resource,” FIU Law Review, 9, pp. 227-254.

Nakamura, Keigo, Klement Tockner, and Kunihiko Amano, “River and Wetland Restoration: Lessons from Japan,” BioScience, 56:5, 2006, pp. 419-429.

Whigham, Dennis F., “Ecological Issues Related to Wetland Preservation, Restoration, Creation and Assessment,” The Science of the Total Environment, 240, 1999, pp. 31-40.

[The final week ends on a positive note, considering possibilities for saving wetlands in the future. The readings also highlight current scientific and legal debates regarding the best ways to preserve wetland environments. Students will be encouraged to position themselves within these debates and, in the final class, will be encouraged to reflect on what they have learned throughout the class through an active learning exercise.]

*The major writing assignment is due at the end of finals week

List of possible books for major writing assignment:

The Memoirs of Lafitte, or, the Barritarian Pirate: A Narrative Founded on Fact, Providence, RI: 1826.

Conrad, Joseph, Lord Jim, London: Blackwoods Magazine, 1900.

Fulanain, The Marsh Arab: Haji Rikkan, Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1928.

Giddings, Joshua R., The exiles of Florida, or, the crimes committed by our government against the Maroons: who fled from South Carolina and other slave states, seeking protection under Spanish law, Columbus, OH: Follett, Foster and Co., 1858.

Ingraham, J.H., Lafitte: The Pirate of the Gulf, New York: Harper, 1836.

Ma Ma Lay, Margaret Aung-Thwin, tr., William H. Frederick, ed., Not out of Hate, Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1991.

Nguyễn Thị Đinh, Mai V. Elliot, tr., No Other Road to Take, Ithaca: Cornell University Southeast Asia Program, 1976.

Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Willem Samuels, tr., The Mute’s Soliloquy, New York: Hyperion, 1999.

Shi Nai’an, Sidney Shapiro, tr., Outlaws of the Marsh, Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1980.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher, Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp, London: Sampson, Low, Son, & Co., 1856.

Tu Binh Tranh, John Spragens, Jr., tr., David Marr, ed., The Red Earth: A Vietnamese Memoir of Life on a Colonial Rubber Plantation, Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1985.


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