I own I am shock’d at the purchase of slaves,
And fear those who buy them and sell them are knaves;
What I hear of their hardships, their tortures, and groans
Is almost enough to draw pity from stones.
I pity them greatly, but I must be mum,
For how could we do without sugar and rum?
William Cowper (1731 -1800)
Sweeping the Fields is an act of remembering and of cleansing; a contemporary gesture to history’s groan which acknowledges the possibility of an emerging post-plantation apothecary. The action of sweeping, documented through a suite of photographs, developed out of my walking the fields on Walkers dairy farm in Barbados, where I live and work.
Part of a 350-year old colonial history that links the Caribbean with the rest of world, Walkers was operational originally as a sugarcane plantation from the 1660s. It was formerly named Willoughby Plantation after the Eton-educated, English landowner and Governor of Barbados, William Willoughby, who developed the several-hundred-acre estate. The undulating landscape was carved into fields named: Big Mansion, Lower Orchard, Upper New Ground, Moor Door, Holy Field and Rab Land, all of which are still used today. The estate transitioned into a dairy farm three decades ago.
Barbados was where the British Empire began its involvement in the Caribbean and was considered their first “sugar island”. Sugar, the primary by-product of Saccharum officinarum – a grass domesticated in New Guinea – went on to conquer the world. Officinarum means ‘of the apothecaries shop’, and sugar, ironically, was first considered a medicine. The phrase “an apothecary without sugar” came to describe a state of utter helplessness.
The green liquid extracted from the plant was transformed into golden crystals, shipped to the British Empire and refined into white crystals. The expansion of the sugar economy is directly linked to the almost 400,000 enslaved who were exported to Barbados between the 17th and early 19th century to plant, harvest and refine sugar cane. The new British nobility who made their wealth from trading in sugar and enslaved bodies collected art, built libraries, banks and theatres, far away from the colonies. The powerful West Indian plantocracy exerted significant influence in both the House of Lords and Commons.
There is a virtual slaughterhouse that lies beneath the thin topsoil of this 21 x 14 mile island. Acknowledging the raw history of Barbados and the wider Caribbean requires reckoning with the centuries old, fundamental abattoir below the fields while recognising the forms in which colonialism continues to be practiced today through the continual enslavement of people, the extraction of natural resources at the peril of the environment and the practice of mass consumerism.
Centuries later, what does repair work – healing, renovation, restoration, rejuvenation – look like in post-plantation economies of the Caribbean, and how might one shift from seeing nature as a commodity, to instead considering the landscape as a site of genesis and regeneration? My work is inspired by a scientific concept called phytoremediation, referring to the process where some plants naturally absorb toxins from a lethal field, creating balance and harmony.
Today, many abandoned sugarcane fields spawn a proliferation of numerous wild plants, contributing to an increase in plant biodiversity on the island as they emerge out of the soil, ignoring the field’s clearly delineated borders. Reasserting their presence, the brush offers itself as a true apothecary, replenishing the weary land while offering sustenance to body, mind and soul. Knowledge of the healing properties of wild plants has been passed down orally through generations of Barbadians (the former indentured and enslaved) who would have grown and harvested wild plants for their use in bush teas and bush baths. Blue Vervain, West India Bay leaf and Cerasee were known respectively to cure insomnia, detoxify the body and cleanse the blood.
This quiet, botanical uprising, taking place in former sugarcane fields is in sharp distinction to the harsh imposition of a mono-crop into the island’s landscape for more than three centuries. The ensuing ordered demarcation of landscape; the naming of fields; the classification of human labour into gangs; the cataloguing of information into ledger pages and the admiration for the bucolic rolling landscape collectively betray the unrelenting atrocities lived by hundreds of thousands of people. The fields’ subterraneous layers - a dark domain - hold within them a compendium of seeds which spring to new life, yielding a true apothecary. They offer a form of transformative remediation to the exhausted topsoil, to the descendants of the close to half a million indentured and enslaved human souls and to the settler class.
Inspired by the resurgent diversity of this emerging botanical archive asserting itself against a historically imperial landscape, Sweeping the Fields is not meant to conceal the dark secrets of the colonial era. Rather, the goal is to engage with the past through this particular site in interdisciplinary ways; reckon with the weight of a collective, traumatic past and act in ways which move against the grain of history while imagining the possibility of a healthier post-plantation reality and considering what that might look like or mean for contemporary society.
Annalee Davis is a visual artist who works with post-plantation economies and engages with the land where she lives. Her e-catalogue from her recent solo exhibition in Austin, Texas can be seen here: https://readymag.com/u65571097/503504/ and for information on a conversation she is part of at School of Visual Arts, New York on April 6th, 2017 visit: http://www.macp.sva.edu/local-address-barbados-newyork
All photographs by Helen Cammock