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“Past its Teeming Time”: Lessons from Colonial Barbados about Environmental Racism

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.

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.

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