Political economy of barbed wire
lnp3 at panix.com
Fri May 9 06:27:44 MDT 2003
Chronicle of Higher Education, May 9, 2003
Fencing With the Devil
A scholar in Australia untangles the history of barbed wire
By PETER MONAGHAN
A few years ago, while watching a television documentary about war, Alan
Krell was struck by the ubiquity of barbed wire.
That took him back to his childhood in the 1950s in what was then
Southern Rhodesia, "jumping over the wire and getting my legs caught in
it." Then to the time he spent in South Africa, where barbed wire was a
vicious tool of apartheid. And to the 3,500 miles of "dog fence" or
"border fence" in Australia's arid interior.
The lecturer in art history and theory at the University of New South
Wales, in Sydney, Australia, decided to find out more. His new book, The
Devil's Rope: A Cultural History of Barbed Wire (Reaktion Books, May)
reveals that, while the fencing has most often been used to control farm
animals, it has long, and increasingly, been used as a tool of
territorial expansion, warfare, and social control. And, he says,
artists and other cultural commentators, intent on "taming the devil in
the wire," as he puts it, have often used barbed wire to lament, and
sometimes subvert, those purposes. "Barbed wire," Mr. Krell notes, "has
had a protean, Janus-like, mercurial quality."
Twisted-steel fences date to the late 19th century. As cattle ranchers,
among other settlers, pushed the American frontier westward, they sought
to control and contain livestock first with "live fences" of thorny
hedges. Those, however, proved too difficult to manage. Enter companies
like Washburn & Moen Manufacturing, of Worcester, Mass., which in 1880
declared that barbed wire would provide the rancher "greater enjoyment
of his own lands, and the sense of better security." Linking its product
to the mission of nation-building, the ad continued that "in no part of
the world, where the people have risen above the condition of the
wandering savage, does the benefit of fencing fail to be understood and
Among hundreds of early patents for barbed wire was the 1874 design by
Joseph Glidden, a farmer from DeKalb, Ill. His Glidden Fence -- with its
simple design and novel method of tightening the wire with a twisting
key -- became the most successful, but only after two decades of legal
wrangling with competitors. Barbed wire had been developed independently
in France, where an 1867 patent was issued for a fence of "artificial
thorns," emphasizing its imitation of nature.
Not everyone was enamored of the technological attempt to "tame" the
land. During the Texas "fence-cutting wars" of 1883-84, many cattlemen,
with bitter nostalgia, recalled a time before barbed wire. The drought
of 1883 alerted them that barbed wire had blocked access to countless
streams and water holes. Nocturnal fence-cutting raids by secretive
groups -- the Owls, the Blue Devils, the Land League -- became so common
that in 1884 the state criminalized the practice.
Injuries to animals also provoked opposition. As Mr. Krell notes,
"Barbed wire's success as a tool of control was always based on its
ability to effect pain." As a trade in liniments and antiseptics arose
in response, inventors developed wire that was more visible to livestock
and had "less pernicious barbs."
Human suffering is also tied up with the early history of barbed wire.
Cowboys commonly called it the "devil's hatband" or "the devil's rope,"
an expression coined by American Indians who lamented the way it closed
off traditional hunting grounds and prevented tribal groups from moving
It did not take long for barbed wire to be converted from a rural tool
to a weapon of war. The device made its military debut during the
Spanish-American War, but was first widely used a few years later in
southern Africa, during the Boer War of 1901-3. The British General
Horatio Kitchener deployed hundreds of miles of barbed fencing to combat
the Boer cavalry and to trap guerrillas. He also set up what critics at
home called "concentration camps" -- it was the first use of the term --
to contain Boer civilians and cut off support to their fighters.
During the Russo-Japanese War, in 1904-5, barbed wire was combined with
the trenches and land mines that became all too familiar in the vast,
brutal fighting of World War I. In 1943, Japanese troops fighting in
Malaya threw themselves onto barbed-wire fences, flattening them so that
comrades could pass over. Australian troops emulated the method. An
Australian army publication assured: "Once you overcome a natural fear
of wire, there's nothing much to it. It's rather like grasping a nettle."
Commanders of Nazi concentration camps reinforced barbed-wire fences
with electrification. The fences became an avenue of suicide for some
prisoners at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where the practice was called
"embracing the wire."
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