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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 29

Agriculture, Past and Present

page 147

Agriculture, Past and Present.

The following paper was read before the members of the Agricultural and Pastoral Association by Mr. Murphy, on the evening of the 28th June:—

My aim in writing the following articles is to put, as shortly as possible, before the readers of the New Zealand Country Journal a picture of Agriculture, past and present, feeling as I do that with all the advantages which the farmers of to-day have over those of history, many useful hints on farming can be obtained from men who had many disadvantages to cope with, and who had lived long anterior to the birth of science. The broadness of the subject compels me to arrange my work under three divisions. In the first, I shall glance at the people antecedent to the Romans, and finish the first paper at the fall of the Empire. My second paper will comprise the struggles and revival of Agriculture until the beginning of the present century; and my closing paper, the formation of Agricultural Societies, and the present aspect of Agriculture, and suggestions thereon.

Agricultural and pastoral pursuits must have engaged the thoughts of mankind from the earliest times, as they would have for their object the supply of his first physical wants, and yet very little is known of the modes and theories in practice during those remote ages. History is comparatively silent on the subject, preferring to dwell on the more exciting narratives of the quarrels of the human family, than on those peaceful avocations which do not require spasmodic attempts for their advancement. When the nations of the earth were at peace, there was little which the historian cared to record; it is, therefore, little wonder that we are in darkness on the simplest topics of the useful and domestic arts of the Greeks and Romans, while we are made familiar with the manœuvring of the Greek phalanx and the Roman legion. The shield and the sword, emblems of attack and defence, have descended to us in full detail; but the form of the plough and the harrow may almost be looked for in vain. It is a singular fact, and one worthy of remark, that, whilst we have some of the brightest writers in the language spending all their efforts on the telling events of the past history of mankind, hardly one writer of note has made it his object to trace the growth of industrial pursuits, especially those referring to agriculture. Agriculture has been pursued from the earliest age, and yet there is not, probably, in the whole list of human occupations, one which has remained so long untouched by the finger of science. In endeavouring to trace its history previous to the Roman period, we must be content to gather our information from a wide and varied field, and then only from incidental remarks which had fallen from writers who had little thought of affording information to after ages on a pursuit too common to be worthy of any particular comment. It has, therefore, been the page 148 task of those who have attempted to give a connected record to collect these scattered links into a chain as well as the scarcity of materials will allow. The earliest record of husbandry is in the Mosaic writings, where we find the sons of Adam described—one as a shepherd, the other as a tiller of the ground. Here we have the two classes of husbandry as distinctly marked as they are at the present day; necessarily so from the nature of the soil, and its general suitability for either branch. Isaac is said to have cultivated corn during his residence in Palestine, and that he reaped an hundred-fold. We also gather from the book of Genesis, that irrigation was extensively practised; we read that the plain of Jordan was watered everywhere, even as the garden of the Lord, i.e., the land of Egypt. Egypt, one of the earliest of the civilised nations, was the early home of the patriarchs, and the Israelites no doubt gathered much practical knowledge which prepared them for the agricultural life which awaited them on their return to Canaan—the land described as a land of corn, where every Israelite sat under the shade of his own vine and fig tree. Thus, we learn from the sacred records that agriculture, in most of its branches, was practised from time immemorial. Many traditions were believed in as to its origin. The Egyptians ascribed it to "Osiris," a great deity, who delighted in teaching his people agriculture; the Greeks, to "Ceres," the Goddess of corn; the Latins, to "Janus;" and the Chinese, to "Chin-hong." The Chaldeans, Heredotus informs us, were expert farmers—they brought the waters of Euphrates, by means of sluices and flood-gates, over their low-lying lands—the silt deposited from the waters retained the soil in a high state of fertility, yielding sometimes two and even three hundred-fold. It is an historical fact, that these people, long after their annexation to the Persian Empire, furnished a large portion of the corn required to feed the vast armies of that nation.

Passing on, we come to the Assyrians, who seem to have understood the value of irrigation to the arable soils of their hot country; they raised water from the rivers for this purpose by machinery of the simplest kind—their early prosperity in agriculture laid the foundation of their future greatness.

Next in order we find the Persians, who paid all honour to agriculture, even after they became such proficients in weaving and fancy work. Their kings are said to have laid aside their dignity once a month and dined in the company of husbandmen. The Magi, or priests, taught its principles as part of their religion.

The Phœnicians, better known to some as the Philistines, possessed the famous plain of Sharon; and, we are told, tilled it with great care, receiving in return bountiful harvests; they sold their surplus to surrounding nations, and in time became the earliest great commercial community in the world. When they became impoverished by the Hebrew conquests, they sent out explorers along the shores of the page 149 northern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, and colonised new countries, thus introducing Asiatic agriculture into Southern Europe, which stood in the same relation to Europe at that time as the improved agriculture of Scotland does to the East in the present day.

That portion of the earth which afforded the earliest indication of a regular system of cultivation was the result of, or was brought about by, natural causes still at work, and which are to be found in the annual overflow of the Nile, the Euphrates, and other rivers in the East. The river Nile is especially noted in history as the river which supplied the moisture which made Egypt so renowned in the earlier days. So much had the fame of Egyptian agriculture spread, that we find Pliny making the following simple, and yet descriptive, remarks on Egyptian husbandry :—"How easy is the husbandry of Egypt; for there is the river Nile serving the turn of a good ploughman; he begins to swell, and overflow at the first new moon after the summer solstice; he begins fair and gently, and so increases gradually; as long as the sun is in the sign Leo he rises on to his full height, and entering into the sign Virgo his fury slackens, and then slowly decreases until he regains his wonted channel. It is always observed, that if he rise not above twelve cubits high, the people that year are sure to have a scarcity, and they make their accounts for the same if he exceed the gauge of sixteen cubits, for the higher he rises the longer he is before he falls again to his level. By which the seed time is past, and men cannot sow the ground in due season. It is generally understood to be the practice that, upon the subsidence of the deluge, they cast the seed upon the floated lands, and immediately after turn in their swine to trample it into the soil while moist. The seed is sometimes covered in with a light furrow."

Here we find the natural phenomenon of the overflow of a river was the first parent not only of a regular system of irrigation, but of husbandry as well, and that in the remotest age of man's history. The Chinese may also be cited as a people who have from time immemorial displayed a disposition for cultivation as distinctive as do the tribes of Arabs and Tartars who wander over the hot and desert plains of Africa and Tartary, that of a purely nomadic, or at best, of a pastoral life. History informs us Egypt colonised Greece and Carthage, and other places along the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, and we may suppose the Greeks received their knowledge of agriculture from the Egyptians. It is the opinion of some writers that the Greeks paid little attention to the art, at least that it held with them a secondary place—the conquered people were compelled to till the soil, hence agriculture was treated with contempt by the higher classes. But when we read of whole waste tracts being covered with transported soil; of lakes and swamps being drained and brought under cultivation; of an ancient king being found manuring his farm with his own hands; and of excellent herds of domestic cattle forming the chief possessions of the people, we cannot but think that agriculture was better understood, and held a higher page 150 place than has been accorded it. One of the many designs on Achilles' shield is described by Homer in the following lines, which we quote, being a picture of a Grecian harvest scene :—

"Another field rose high with waving grain;
With bended sickle stand the reaper train.
Here, stretched in ranks, the levell'd swarths are found,
Sheaves heap'd on sheaves, here thicken up the ground.
With sweeping stroke the mowers strew the lands;
The gatherers follow, and collect in bands;
And last, the children, in whose arms are borne
(Too short to gripe them) the brown sheaves of corn.
The rustic monarch of the field descries,
With silent glee, the heaps around him rise.
A ready banquet, on the turf is laid,
Beneath an ample oak's expanded shade.
The victim ox the sturdy youth prepare;
The reaper's due repast—the women's care."

Amongst the Grecian writers we find such men as Hesiod devoting much of his time to the development of agriculture; his little agricultural poem, entitled "Works and Days," is supposed to have been the model which Virgil had in view when he composed the Georgics. But it is to the Romans that the honour belongs of elevating agriculture to the first and highest place in the State; and all other pursuits, such as trade and commerce, occupied an inferior position, except, perhaps, that of war. They always introduced it with their conquests—many of their greatest men spent much time in tilling their own farms, and writing works on the subject; amongst the most remarkable we may mention Columella, Virgil, Pliny, Varo, and Cato; but unfortunately few of their works have reached us; yet those that have are full of interest to the agricultural student of the present day.

The most remarkable feature of the Roman agriculture was—the great perfection they attained in the management of their lands, comparing most favourably with that in practice in the present day in many parts of Europe, and also in the British Isles till within the last half century. And, as showing the high estimation in which the art was held, it may be mentioned that many of the great patrician families were experts at tilling the soil, and even took their names from their efficiency in some particular branch of husbandry, such, for instance, as "Serranus," who was a great sower. The Fabian family derived their name from beans; and even the great "Cicero," if we give a literal interpretation in English, signifies a vetch; and here we may mention the significant fact that the Greeks borrowed their names from their gods and heroes. Does not history record, that when Rome sent her heralds to summon Cincinnatus to the Dictatorship they found him toiling on his small farm, which was worked by his own hands. Pliny tells us "that when a man was meant to be highly spoken of, he was called an agriculturist or a good husbandman; and whoever was thus praised was thought highly favoured." Large farms were page 151 unknown, as an agrarian law was in force almost from the very foundation of the city, which granted to every citizen a certain portion of land, which could not be extended under penalty of a heavy fine. Pliny records an oration of "Marcus Curius," in which he is stated to have said—"that he could not be counted a good citizen, but rather a dangerous man to the State, who could not content himself with seven acres of land." This, it would seem, was the maximum quantity allotted to each. During the latter and more degenerate days of Rome, the old agrarian law was relaxed, and every man bought and sold as he pleased. Columella informs us that an hundred-fold was no unusual yield of corn. The farms being so small, must necessarily have been worked by the spade; deep culture, together with abundant manuring, would go far towards accounting for such yields. The same author considered it a great mistake to have too much land in one farm, as it was found more profitable "to hold a little and till it well," a maxim we venture to submit as applicable to the farmers on the plains of Canterbury as it was to the Romans eighteen hundred years ago. Our extended definition of the above maxim is not merely deep tilling and early sowing, but a regular system of mixed husbandry and rotation of crops. Rut we shall have occasion to speak on this subject farther on in the course of our remarks on modern agriculture. So anxious were the Romans to increase their knowledge of agriculture, that, at the fall of Carthage, they ordered the works of Mago (28 vols.), a Carthagenian General, but more famous as a farmer, to be carefully collected, and translated into their own language. Unhappily, these have also been lost. These, and other instances which might be quoted, give abundant proof that the Romans at least had an agricultural literature of their own. To obtain a better insight into the details of their farm management, we have only to turn to "Virgil's Georgics," particularly the first book, where we find the great poet giving directions on paring and burning the soil, fallowing, and alternation of green and grain crops. We, in the nineteenth century, are too apt to credit ourselves with the invention of rotation of crops, irrigation, &c.; whereas the reader of history is Forced to the conclusion that it is only history repeating itself in agriculture as it is found to do in other matters. The Roman farmer had another maxim which we would do well to imitate, with reference to the proper time of cutting wheat, it was—"Better two days too soon than as many too late." We would say better four or five days before ripe. Many thousands of bushels might annually be saved to this country if our farmers would more generally follow this golden rule.

The invention of agricultural implements is attributed to the Egyptians; and antiquaries suppose the first primeval tool of husbandry to represent a hoe with a prolonged point, with which the soil was turned over; and from this implement we can trace, step by step, first the rudimentary plough, its gradual improvement, until we find it what it now is, an implement of mathematical precision. These remarks apply also to the reaping and other machines now in use. It is a page 152 curious fact that to the present day there is in general use, by the peasantry of the South ana South-west of Ireland, a tool exactly the same as that used by the ancient Phœnicians, and introduced by them into Spain and Portugal, and doubtless from thence into Ireland.

Pliny mentions the use of a wheel plough, and attributes its invention to Cisalpine Gaul. Virgil also refers to them in his Georgics. But the exact shape of this implement, as well as that of many others, is matter of mere conjecture. Curiously enough, he describes a reaping machine which was in use in Gaul. It was a box, mounted on wheels, having shafts; the end opposite was furnished with teeth, projecting outwards, and so arranged as to gather the heads, which fell into the box as it was pushed along by an ox; resembling, it is supposed, such a machine as is in use at the present time in parts of England for gathering the heads of clover wanted for seed. Great care was bestowed by the Romans on the management of their lands. Fallowing was in general practice, the object being, as one of their writers observes, "to let the earth feel the cold of winter and the sun of summer, to invert the soil, and render it free, light, and clean of weeds, so that it can most easily afford nourishment." The glorious science of chemistry, as applied to agriculture, was unknown; but they were close observers of Nature; and, if they did not know the why, they at least were familiar with the effect of this mode of treating the soil. Where manure could be obtained, it was freely used. So highly, indeed, did they prize manure, that they granted immortality to the inventor of its use—"Stereutius." Like the Chinese, they allowed nothing to go to waste; all refuse substances, vegetable, animal, and mineral, were collected carefully in heaps, and allowed to remain twelve months to decompose. Pigeon dung ranked first in value, and was used as a top-dressing for sickly crops, much in the same way as guano has been used by the Peruvians for many centuries, down to the present day, in small but frequent applications. It was considered bad management to spread more manure than could be ploughed in the same day; it was also deemed more profitable to manure their fields often, rather than overmuch at one time, a theory quite in accordance with the most approved principles of modern husbandry. Directions were given for the formation of dunghills, which were to be hollowed out, so that no liquid might be lost. Here, again, we might with advantage take a lesson. Green crops, particularly lupins, were frequently sown; and, before they reached maturity, were ploughed in and allowed to rot, thereby drawing nourishment from the atmosphere and the subsoil, and depositing on the surface fit food for the ensuing crop. Wood ashes were in great favour, one good dressing being considered sufficient for five years. The manurial value of marl and lime was also known. Pliny, speaking of marl, describes it as a "certain richness of earth, like the kernels in animal bodies that are increased by fatness." Much attention was paid to the growing crops, all weeds being carefully pulled, Boeing the corn was practised by the best farmers; Cato page 153 said—"take care to have your corn weeded twice with the hoe, and also by hand." Pliny tells a curious tale as to the origin of horse hoeing, brought about by the injuries of war. The Sallasi, when they ravaged the lands lying under the Alps, tried likewise to destroy the panic and millet that had just come above ground. Finding that the situation of the crops prevented them from destroying it in the ordinary way, they ploughed the fields; but the crops, at harvest, being double of what they had been in former years, taught the farmer of Cisalpine Gaul to plough amongst the corn. And, to show that the value of feeding-off was not unknown, we give a quotation from Virgil—"What commendation shall I give to him who, lest his corn should lodge, pastures it while young, as soon as the blade equals the furrow." The same author counsels the Romans to utilise the water of the rivers for their grass lands. I have dwelt thus long on this part of my subject for the purpose of pointing out the perfect system of agriculture which obtained amongst the Romans, and to show that every branch of husbandry practised by ourselves was equally known to them. It is true that science has taught us to anticipate, and to understand to some extent the workings of Nature, and how to utilise such substances as coprolites, which, but for science, must have remained a dead letter to the end of time. Professor Henslow first pointed out its great value to the agricultural world. Mechanical skill has furnished us with more expeditious means of performing our farming operations; and, with these exceptions, which are, of course, all important, I would ask how far have we advanced in practical knowledge ?

We have before stated that the Romans loved agriculture. How vivid and beautiful a picture of that trait is placed before our minds by the words which Cicero puts into Cato's mouth—"I come now to the pleasures of husbandry, in which I vastly delight. They are not interrupted by old age, and they seem to me to be pursuits in which a wise man's life should be spent. The earth does not rebel against authority; it never gives back, but with usury, what it receives. The gains of husbandry are not what exclusively commend it. I am charmed with the nature and productive virtues of the soil. Can those old men be called unhappy who delight in the cultivation of the soil ? In my opinion there can be no happier life; not only because the tillage of the earth is salutary to all, but from the pleasure it yields. The whole establishment of a good and assiduous husbandman is stored with wealth; it abounds in pigs, in kids, in lambs, in poultry, in milk, in cheese, and honey. Nothing can be more profitable, more beautiful, than a well cultivated farm." This quotation speaks volumes, and goes far to establish all we have been claiming for a people who were once masters of the known world. Agriculture had attained its highest glory about the time when Rome was in the zenith of her greatness. It enjoyed, as we have before stated, the profound respect of the proud and polished Romans, and embodied many of the principles, and some of the practices, of boasted modern improvements, the study of which page 154 challenges the wonder of farmers of the present day. But, when the baneful influences of luxury and ambition began to throw a haze over the land, agriculture dwindled away, and was well nigh extinguished by the inroads of the ruthless Goths and Vandals. After the fall of the Empire it was utterly neglected, and remained so during the dark ages, and was only preserved on the estates of the Church. Thus, with all its greatness, Rome that was has passed away, and has left nothing but the pages of history and the ruins of such grand architectural structures as the Colliseum to mark where once a great and glorious people flourished.