By Mark Clavier

When John Atkins, a British royal navy surgeon, visited Barbados in 1722, he was astonished by what he found. He had heard about the wealth and fertility of the island, then a leading producer of sugar in the British Empire. Instead, he saw a colony in decline: “the Crops of late years have very much failed… The Soil fertile in the Age past, seems now growing old, and past its teeming time.” Forty years later, the land was so exhausted from monocropping that planters briefly imported soil from South America until it became clear that transporting earth swarming with wood ants in wooden ships was not the wisest strategy.

Barbados had been among the most fertile places on the earth, home to an array of sugar plantations that produced tremendous wealth for their owners and considerable income for Britain. Both their profits and sugar transformed British society by expanding access to luxury goods. Sugar helped not only to make coffee and then tea central to European social gatherings but also introduced sweets, pies, cakes, and rum to the diets of everyday people. By the sweat of plantation workers came the expansion of capitalism and the first flush of our consumer society. Until the late 18th century, few were troubled that that sweat poured from the brows of enslaved Africans.

Largescale monoculture agriculture only developed in Barbados (and later elsewhere in the Caribbean) because of slavery. While Bajan planters had initially grown tobacco and other crops, such were the profits of “white gold” that almost all plantations had switched to the more labor-intensive sugarcane by the late 17th century. This created a demand for cheap labor, which the nascent British slave trade was quick to meet, supplying the British Caribbean and North American colonies with thousands of newly enslaved west Africans each year. Free labor, violence, and extensive monocropping destroyed the rich fertility of Barbados within a hundred years, all for a product that was entirely a luxury item. “Blood-sweetened tea” (as a British abolitionist tract termed it) was the ruin of both people and the land.

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The combination of slavery and largescale agribusiness devastated the environment, wrecked lives, and corrupted white society. Visitors to Barbados and the other sugar islands noted the degrading effects of white “despotism” over Blacks, excessive leisure, and inordinate wealth. Only too rarely did they also note the extreme cruelty inflicted on the Africans who toiled in the fields or manned the boiling houses. According to historian Matthew Parker, for example, when the young George Washington visited Barbados, he praised the hospitality he received, regretting only that the young women whose beauty he admired dressed in the “Negro Style.” A major slave owner himself, it’s no surprise that he made no mention of thousands of slaves he undoubtedly saw.

Washington did note, however, a feature of white society that’s more familiar: there were “very few who may be called middling people they [sic] are either very rich or very poor.” The economy based on free or cheap labor and an industry that sought to maximize profits at a high cost to the natural world produced extreme economic inequalities. Wealth accumulated within the few planter elite families and those best positioned to supply them with their needs — none better than New England shippers. Money stoked a desire for yet more money, resulting in an economy that prioritized short-term profits and luxury over long-term sustainability. The families who profited the most also controlled the island’s colonial government. Both the economy and political power served the interests of the elite to maximize profit.

In many respects, 18th-century Barbados presaged our own world. Compared to two-thirds of the world, westerners enjoy high levels of affluence in a society increasingly stratified between the super-wealthy and the poor. While we no longer engage overtly in slavery, our economy remains dependent on the availability of cheap labor, which in many places all but equates to slavery. Cheap labor and the demand for cheap goods, in turn, begets an economy that’s swiftly destroying the environment. We’re exhausting fertile soil on a global level as quickly as the slave-owning planters did their own in Barbados. According to the World Wildlife Fund, over half of the world’s topsoil has been lost during the past hundred and fifty years. In 2014, Maria-Helena Semedo of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization predicted that at current rates of degradation, most of the fertile soil in the world will be exhausted in about sixty years.

Moreover, the racial divide between white consumers and non-white producers remains stark. According to the OECD, the only predominantly non-white countries to be included among the highest wage-earning nations are Japan and South Korea. Globally, predominantly white nations continue to enjoy cheap goods manufactured mainly by low-wage, non-white laborers, be they immigrants working in our fields or African, Asian, and Latin American factory workers. Indeed, consumption in the West can only be maintained at current levels because it’s beyond the reach of two-thirds of the world. Effectively, the western world has assumed the role of planters while the rest of the world toils on our behalf for next to nothing. We’re colonial Barbados writ large.

Until the eve of the American Revolution, the church largely colluded with the structures of slavery and racism. Barbados by and large didn’t draw the cream of the Anglican clerical crop from Britain, while the planters themselves resisted the conversion of their slaves as it was technically illegal for them to enslave Christians (unlike in French colonies where Jesuits worked actively among the slaves). Until the late 18th century, even Quakers owned slaves on Barbados, though many, like more conscientious Anglican planters, expressed some concern for the well-being of those they otherwise considered property. Not until the Evangelical revival swept across Britain, did abolition and Christianity, especially Evangelicalism and Nonconformity, became strongly linked. Until then, clergy were happy to preach God to the whites in their pews while ignoring the plight of Black slaves in the field and the soil that groaned beneath their feet.

Similarly, the Church today has generally been slow to recognize how the West’s demand for cheap goods, the global expansion of monocropping, and our reliance on predominantly non-white cheap labor are devastating our planet. But the past year with both Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter, it has become ever clearer that we must confront the fact that our destructive economy, rooted in the racism of the past, undermines non-white communities around the world, which now bear the brunt of our growing ecological crisis. Western privilege is swiftly destroying creation as once it did a small island in the Caribbean.

Any treatment of the epidemic of racism must, therefore, involve much more than the removal of symbols or even expanding access for ethnic minorities to wealth and privilege within our destructive economies. We need nothing less than a wholesale cultural, religious, and social transformation of our power structures and ideals so that we can begin to develop a more sustainable and equal society. Just as committed Christians in the late 18th century championed the unpopular idea that slavery is a grave sin, so too must we learn how to stand more firmly against the sin of environmental racism. Many bishops of the Anglican Communion have begun to do just that, demonstrating by their multi-racial and multinational presence that our discourses about racism and the ecological crisis should coalesce and transcend national borders to include people of color around the globe.

Perhaps the ecological crisis offers us an opportunity to do exactly that. Topsoil erosion, acidification of the ocean, climate change, and mass extinction are issues that are both transnational and color-blind. The impact of a ruined world will be felt by all. By working together globally, we can finally dismantle a socio-economic order that emerged through systematic racism, economic inequality, and environmental destruction, and begin to work towards the flourishing of all. By recognizing that Black lives matter, we may finally realize that all lives, including all God’s creatures, matter too.

The Rev. Canon Dr. Mark Clavier is the residentiary canon, or priest in residence, of Brecon Cathedral in mid-Wales.

About The Author

The Rev. Dr. Mark Clavier is the residentiary canon of Brecon Cathedral in mid-Wales, with primary responsibility for pastoral care, community engagement, and formation.

Mark has published four books: On Consumer Culture, Identity, the Church and the Rhetorics of Delight (Reading Augustine. Bloomsbury), Rescuing the Church from Consumerism (SPCK), Eloquent Wisdom: Rhetoric, Cosmology and Delight in the Theology of Augustine of Hippo (Brepols), and Stewards of God’s Delight: Becoming Priests of the New Creation (Cascade).

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Daniel Muth

I appreciate the history lesson, but am confused by this piece’s penultimate sentence: “By working together globally, we can finally dismantle a socio-economic order that emerged through systematic racism, economic inequality, and environmental destruction, and begin to work towards the flourishing of all.” I assume that this is supposed to actually mean something and therefore find myself wondering. First, who is the “we” there? The Christian Church? Everybody? Some specifics might help. Secondly, what are you proposing to dismantle? The entire socio-economic order or just the parts tainted by racism, inequality and pollution? How do we know which parts those… Read more »

Thanks, Daniel, for your engagement. Part of what you’ve detected is that I originally wrote the piece with another audience in mind and then adapted for Covenant. I probably should have clarified the ending more than I did. Of course, I could say simply that the ‘we’ refers to anyone who’ll listen. Less flippantly, I have in mind the Church, which to my mind is the only voice available to articulate a different way of living in the world–i.e., the Gospel. Yes, I do believe that there is much about the present order that needs, if not dismantling then challenging… Read more »

C R SEITZ

“Yes, I do believe that there is much about the present order that needs, if not dismantling then challenging and transforming.” This is such a global statement the danger is it just sounds grandiose, or vain. “The present order” — where? “Needs changing” — by whom, in the name of what, at whose behest? Perhaps there is a problem with audience conflation, but I share the concerns of Mr. Muth. And without quite concrete grounding it could be uttered by Karl Marx, (and I do not mean that as a cliche; indeed, it is what he said). And he said… Read more »

Thanks for, Chris. I suppose the statement does sound rather grandiose, though I think many on the receiving end of the evils of the present system might take a more favourable view of it. I suppose also that it might be something that Marx could have uttered, but you can also find it on the lips of Wendell Berry, Pope Francis, and William Wilberforce. Is not “challenging and transforming” part and parcel of the Gospel itself and the result of the Great Commission? I take your point about “concrete grounding”, which speaks also perhaps to a weakness of blog posts… Read more »

C R SEITZ

“Yes, I do believe that there is much about the present order that needs, if not dismantling then challenging and transforming.” I actually do not believe this statement can be found on the lips of those you wish to enroll. Not as stated. And of course these individuals were or are deeply embedded in the political or religious order of things, and so there was a basis for their concerns and a context for seeing them in the full light of their particularity. You mention blogs. I agree that they do tend to create grandiosity. Everyone becomes a Pope or… Read more »

I think similar sentiments can indeed be found in a great deal of Berry’s writings (see for example “The Economy and Racism”) and in the thrust of Laudato Si (not least in that it’s addressed to the world). Wilberforce’s speeches about the abolition of slavery offered a cleared-eye vision of how abolition would cleanse British society of a serious sin and thus transform it. Actually, I find it hard to understand what is so objectionable to the idea that the present order needs challenging and transforming. Hasn’t every order in human history needed this? And are we not as Westerners… Read more »

C R SEITZ

When I hear your words I do not think of Francis or Wilberforce or Berry. I hear Rauschenbusch — and the concerns of Reinhold Niehbuhr (esp his critique of utopianism in the face of global threats).

My goodness. Well, as they say, there’s a first time for everything!

It is at a point like this that I profoundly understand Matthew 19:22.