Reconstruction by Way of the Soil

by G.T. Wrench

Chapter 17

East and West Indies

The Dutch began their career as empire-makers in the East almost at the same time as the British, the British actually having the small start of ten years. Both peoples came to the East to trade and both became imperialists almost as an accident of their being traders. But there was a notable difference between the two peoples, close neighbours though they were in Europe. It lay in their attitude to their own soils, and this difference they carried with them to their eastern possessions.

The consequence was that the Dutch, in their island government, left the cultivation of the acquired lands to the native cultivators, without interference other than that of the payment of taxes in kind, by which they got the tropical products they needed for sale in the markets of Europe. All that was concerned with the native agriculture, subsistence farming, the village system, and native rule, were left undisturbed. It was a method of rule, like to that which the British now follow in some of their West African Colonies and which that great colonial statesman, Lord Lugard, described as The Dual Mandate.

In the latter part of the last century, the Dutch Government of the islands gave up acting itself as trader. But it had become so firmly convinced of the value of the Javanese and other peasantries, that it protected them by the absolute prohibition of the sale and purchase of land.

Mr. Boys, of the Bengal Civil Service, visited Java in 1892, and he summed up the preservation of the Javanese peasantry in this remarkable passage: 'The Javans have escaped the fatal gift of proprietary right, which has been the ruin of so many tens of thousands of our peasantry in India, and with which, while striving to bless, we have so effectually cursed the soil of India. It is not too much to say that the many benefits which would have been conferred on Java by the substitution of the English for the Dutch rule, were not too high a price to escape from the many evils of the unrestrained power to alienate private property. Under their present Government, the Javans according to our English ideas ought to be the most miserable people. That they are not so, but that, on the contrary, they are the most prosperous of Oriental peasantry, is mainly due to one cause -- the inability of the Javan to raise a single florin on the security of his fields, and the protection thus gained against the moneylender and himself. Nature is bountiful in Java, and undoubtedly the abundant fertility of the soil enables the Javan to stand up against many ills to which he is subject; but were her fecundity doubled, were she able to pour her gifts as from a cornucopia into his lap, nothing would ultimately save him from the moneylender and from the consequent eviction from his fields and his home, if he were able to pledge the one or the other as a security for an advance.'

The Javans carry out a very skilled peasant-agriculture and 'have got erosion under as complete control as has been achieved anywhere in the world,' writes Mr. G. V. Jacks, and continues: 'The Dutch Government in Java has carefully preserved and encouraged native anti-erosion agriculture, and the same principles are applied to European-controlled estates. There are no social barriers between European and natives in Java. The primary object of agriculture is to feed the people; the food supply of the community as a whole must be maintained on a permanent and secure basis before rubber, tobacco, coffee, etc., can be produced for export.'

Here, in this island picture, everything has been favourable to the soil. The traditional cultivation and anti-erosion measures of the Javanese are excellent; the early Dutch Government, as trader, was able to get what it required through taxes in kind without other interference; with knowledge, the Government came to value the peasants' skill so highly that it did everything to support it. And, in order to support it, the Dutch encouraged a rightly ordered agriculture, the primary object of which was to feed the people. By the absence of social barriers, both peoples, Dutch and Javans, were able to base themselves on the soil. By both the soil is, one can say, vitally valued. In Java, writes Mr. Jacks, they 'give every acre of land a national value that may be out of all proportion to its money-making power'.

This high valuation of the soil was indigenous. But one can well understand how highly it itself was appreciated by such a people as the Dutch. When they came to Java, the Dutch were themselves the best cultivators in Europe. But they were something in addition. Of all peoples in Europe, they had waged the greatest and most unceasing fight for the preservation of the soil; they, above all people had given land a national value. They had for centuries won land from the sea and flood and guarded it by dykes, which were their perpetual care. In knowledge of the use of water and drainage, in the rotation of crops, in the use of clover, in the full art of cultivation, the Dutch invaders in the Indies were greatly the superiors of their British contemporaries. The very improvements in agriculture in England, which were first adumbrated at the time of Elizabeth, were due to Dutch and Flemish influence and infiltration. It was Charles the First who brought Dutch experts in dyke and drainage to make his estate of the Isle of Axholme the best worked in England. Of all Western peoples, therefore, appreciatively to take over Java and its sister-islands -- if such were destined to occur -- none could have been better chosen than these skilled and soil-revering farmers of north-western Europe.

So, in this respect, the Dutch East Indian islands had the advantage over the British West Indian Islands. Of the quality of the Eastern cultivators themselves, there is no better account than that of Mr. C. R. Wallace in his famous book The Malay Archipelago, firstly, because he was a great observer, and secondly, because he visited the islands seventy years ago and, in the island to be described, saw its agriculture as something entirely its own. It was a most felicitous combination of observer and observed. The resulting almost paradisical picture is one of enthusiasm, but at the same time of unexaggerated verity. The island is that of Lombock, separated from Java by the island of Bali. It has at present some 600,000 inhabitants. Its capital is Mataram.

'Soon after passing Mataram', wrote Mr. Wallace, 'the country began gradually to rise in gentle undulations, swelling occasionally into low hills towards the two mountainous tracts in the northern and southern parts of the island. It was now that I first obtained an adequate idea of one of the most wonderful systems of cultivation in the world, equalling all that is related of Chinese industry, and as far as I know surpassing in the labour bestowed upon it any tract of equal extent in the most civilized countries of Europe. I rode through this strange garden utterly amazed, and hardly able to realize the fact, that in this remote and little-known island, from which all Europeans except a few traders are jealously excluded, many hundreds of square miles of irregularly undulating country has been so skilfully terraced and levelled, and so permeated by artificial channels, that every portion of it can be irrigated and dried at pleasure. According as the slope of the ground is more or less rapid, each terraced plot consists in some places of many acres, in others of a few square yards. We saw them in every state of cultivation; some in stubble, some being ploughed, some with rice crops in various stages of growth. Here were luxuriant patches of tobacco; there, cucumbers, sweet potatoes, yams, beans or Indian corn, varied the scene. In some places the ditches were dry, in others little streams crossed our road and were distributed over lands about to be sown or planted. The banks which bordered every terrace rose regularly in horizontal lines above each other, sometimes rounding an abrupt knoll and looking like a fortification, or sweeping round some deep hollow and forming on a gigantic scale the seats of an amphitheatre. Every brook and rivulet had been diverted from its bed, and instead of flowing along the lowest ground were to be found crossing our road half-way up an ascent, yet bordered by ancient trees and moss-grown stones so as to have all the appearance of a natural channel, and bearing testimony to the remote period at which the work has been done. As we advanced farther into the country, the scene was diversified by abrupt rocky hills, by steep ravines, and by clumps of bamboos and palm trees near houses and villages; while in the distance the fine range of mountains of which Lombock peak, eight thousand feet high, is the culminating point, formed a fit background to a view scarcely to be surpassed in human interest or picturesque beauty.'

This great naturalist and observer, it will be noted, is struck by 'one of the most wonderful systems of cultivation in the world'; 'in a remote and little-known island, from which all Europeans except a few traders are jealously excluded'; a cultivation due to assiduous labour; a skilled and complete use of water including every rivulet and brook; the roads themselves are made subject to the water channels; the levelling of every plot of land, large and small, so that the water could be equally distributed; and he is able to end his description with a true and happy association of 'picturesque beauty' and 'human interest'.

The British in the West Indies met with no great indigenous cultivators like those of Java, Bali and Lombock. The British pioneer invaders of the West Indian Islands were themselves men of adventure. They were buccaneers, the bold buccaneers, who at their own personal risk and for their own personal gain set out upon the high seas to dispute the Pope's fiat that the New World, known and unknown, belonged to the Spanish King. They and the French took many of the islands from the Spaniards, and made them their own.

The early history of Jamaica is typical of these happenings. The island was discovered by Columbus in 1494, and taken over by the Spaniards. With a criminality towards indigenous peoples, which seems to have been peculiarly their own, the Spaniards annihilated its gentle and peaceful inhabitants. When the British took the island from them, the total of Spanish masters and their slaves did not exceed three thousand. So the British, who had left their homeland for love of adventure, and others who had left for fear of the law, now found fortune before them. In 1672 the Royal African Company was formed and Jamaica became one of the busiest slave marts of the New World. The cultivation of sugar was then introduced. Pepper, coffee, cocoa, ginger and indigo, products sent from Java to Holland by the Dutch, were now sent from Jamaica to Britain. When slavery was abolished in 1838, the prosperity ofJamaica was at its zenith.

In Java, as we have seen, the management of trade was undertaken by the Government itself, and the work was carried out by the people on their traditional lines. In Jamaica, the work was carried out by Negro slaves owned by planters, whose object was to enrich themselves, with or without the enrichment of partners in Britain. Though buccaneers no longer, the personal motive of the buccaneer remained with them, namely, that of using their property primarily for their own personal advantage. Soil and labour were both their slaves.

But slavery, while it endured, carried with it the obligation of the planter to feed and house his slaves upon the estate. So, the first function of the soil, to feed the people who work upon it, was fulfilled. There was a direct relationship between the workers and the soil upon which they worked. The planters, as slave-owners, had also a direct relation with their workers, a position that in the case of many of them, possessing the innate moderation and humanity of the British, amounted to a guardian, paternal chieftainship. They stood in a parental relationship, such as is so movingly described in a recent best-seller, the novel Gone with the Wind, a relationship which, indeed, in its wide dimensions, has constituted the main human binding power of the British Empire, and which acted as a drag-anchor to the endangering selfishness of the increasing money-power.

'Slavery', writes Mr. W. M. Macmillan, in his Warning from the West Indies, 1936, 'was not, as some maintain, wholly evil in its effect on the slave-owner's character. It not only fostered a proprietary sense of responsibility; slaves made possible a spacious leisure ... Many fine planters in the West Indies and the Southern States, like some Cape farmers, have a delicacy of culture associated only with the choicest traditions of old Europe.' Such culture made good masters. The prosperity of the planters overflowed in a generosity to their dependants. One may say that, in terms of happiness, the West Indies were well off in the eighteenth century.

Anomalous as it may seem, the change was brought about by the emancipation of the slaves in 1838. This emancipation was an act of liberalism. But there is something greater than liberalism, and that is soil-wisdom. And in the light of soil-wisdom, this emancipation was superficial and unreal ... It was an apparent release of the slaves from compulsion; it was no less a release of the planter from certain responsibilities. The overruling factor in an agricultural island is not slavery or freedom, but direct subsistence-farming and craftsmanship for the peasants, their families and their kinsfolk.

And it is because of this that there are only two human relations of agricultural workers to the soil. The first is that of slaves, when they are assured of their subsistence from the soil and are valued by their owners and kept in health and happiness, because the estates are then well-worked and conserved and the human feelings of the family-owners give to the estates the quality of a home. A certain easy and ready acceptance of life, with the rich flavour of a landed aristocracy, comes into being, and places the whole art of life on a plane which stands above that of land as a mere agency for the market and for profit. The buccaneer becomes a gentleman and the slave a devotee.

Nevertheless, the money-purpose will become paramount, when the freedom and wealth of the landed gentry becomes shackled by the middlemen of the town. Money takes command. Moreover, the highly skilled, soil-conserving agriculture is not acquired by slaves, because they have not the sense of property. The meticulous care of the soil, which is required for it, seems to be the possession only of the second form of a human relationship of agriculture, that of the peasant-family ownership. The self-dependence of free peasants produces qualities of a grade necessarily superior to those of slaves.

The emancipation of slaves converts them into supposedly and so-called free, individual labourers. This change presented itself upon the West Indian arena in 1838. It has existed now a hundred years and recently celebrated its centenary. This it did, logically enough as we shall see, by riots and revolts.

Mr. Harold Stannard, in The Times in 1938, described the dwellings of the humble agrarians in Jamaica: 'The first time I saw one of these hovels, I could hardly believe that it was intended for human habitation. Strands of dried bamboo are woven round a framework of stakes and the "room" thus formed is covered with palm thatch. There is no furniture except sacking on the earth and some sort of table for the oil-stove ... Urban conditions are, if anything, worse.' Royal Commissioners declared the slums of Port of Spain, Trinidad, to be 'indescribable in their lack of elementary needs of decency'. Conditions of labour sometimes find the Commissioners equally wordless: 'It would be hardly possible to find terms strong enough' to express their disapproval. The expression is but a part of the general chorus, which accompanies the imperial achievements of the time and which finds its full harmony in Royal Commission reports on labour in India, Basutoland and elsewhere.

Here is Mr. Stannard's statement with regard to nutrition and subsistence, the primary test of a right of property in the soil: 'Under the stimulus of a circular dispatch from the Colonial Office, inquiries have been conducted in the islands and have yielded disquieting results. Even to a non-medical eye the frequency of bad teeth among a population whose diet could and should contain a large proportion of fresh fruit and vegetables, gives cause for misgiving. Indeed, it is not necessary to look into the islanders' mouths. It is enough to glance inside the shops where they buy their food. Every Chinese-kept store exhibits, from floor to ceiling, shelf after shelf of tinned goods. These superbly productive islands, living mostly by the export of food, cannot feed themselves. It is estimated that Trinidad imports four-fifths of what it eats.'

This, then, is the condition of the islands, which Britain cherishes as the oldest of her colonies. Throughout their career of 'freedom', she has never adopted, as an unalterable principle, the right of the people to support from their soil. She brought Africans as slaves to the islands. In the ascendancy of the money power, even the subsistence of the slaves from the soil has been taken from them, and under the cover of apparent freedom, she has made their condition more subtly oppressive than it was in the past. The words of that great pope, Leo XIII: 'For every man has by nature the right to possess property as his own. Hence man should possess the fruits of the earth, but also the very soil', do not apply. They apply neither as to the soil nor as to the fruits of this very fertile island earth. The money power once again emerges as the enemy of the people's source of life.

We will continue with Mr. Stannard's words: 'Only by a reversal of the policy which prefers money crops to food crops can the native labourer be assured of the conditions which make a civilized life possible. Apparently the evil has increased in recent years. The Barbadian report is definite on this point. "In the old days plantation-proprietors planted a fairly large acreage in food crops, some of which were sold to labourers at preferential rates. But in recent years the cultivation of food crops has been so curtailed that the price of locally grown vegetables is so high as to be beyond the modest means of the labourer ... The absence of fresh vegetables and proteins in the diet of the labourer is, we gather, having a deleterious effect on his health and physique. In short, the modern methods, which have tended to divorce the field from the sugar factory and make of them distinct and separate entities of plantation economy, have worked to the detriment of the field labourer".' The quoted Barbadian report, it will be noted, uses emollient phraseology, such as 'we gather', 'in short', 'have tended', 'the detriment', to blur the stark reality. Mr. Stannard, however, is in no doubt about the reversal of the policy, re money and food crops. 'In the Dutch East Indies', he writes, 'land sufficient to meet the needs of the whole population is earmarked for food crops before any money crops are allowed to be grown.' Therein is the difference between the British West Indies and the Dutch East Indies.

Our fertile islands now exhibit the stigmata, which, under urban conditions in Britain, have come to be known under the slogan of Scarcity amidst Plenty. Here are plentiful soils in a plenteous climate, and the stigmata which the British have incurred by their values are those of extreme poverty in the homes and malnutrition of the mass of the people. From cold, of course, the people cannot suffer and so their hovels have not to take upon themselves the protective character of northern homes. But, with this sole advantage over the northern island to which they belong, the people seem to be as far from plenty and as near destitution as a people can be. Mr. Macmillan, from his personal investigations, states that the spending power of the average citizen is so low that it is scarcely above that of the people of one of our more recent colonies, Nyasaland. But in many ways the islanders are what is considered advanced. The Barbadians, so many of whom cannot afford fresh vegetables, apparently take pride in calling their island 'Little England', since, though it is smaller than the Isle of Man, it supports, if not available vegetables, an Established Church, two Chambers, a Court of Grand Sessions, eleven Parish Vestries for local government, and probably the best educational system in the West Indies.

Agriculturally, the Barbadians are careful and skilled cultivators of cane. Their fields are clean and well tilled, and 'a respectable tradition demands a serious effort to find and make work for as many hands as possible ... for an abnormally dense population of more than 1,000 to the square mile by intensive island-wide cultivation of the sugar-cane'. Out of 176,000 inhabitants, some 18,000 are said to be small holders of a total of 14,000 acres, so 77 per cent of the small holders have less than an acre. Moreover, the land which the peasants do get for themselves is 'only the poorest soil. Quite often it is the land of some estate ruined by its European owner's bad and indifferent cultivation; but European critics are quick to point a finger and judge peasant possibilities by failure in such conditions ... Barbados, however, in face of a most serious population problem is in fact dead set against the peasant solution. Peasants, it is held, have failed to maintain the output, which has so far kept the island going, and so long as cane is the only industry nothing but the highest possible output will suffice. The peasants, however, have had their chance only on poorer soil, without organization or even sympathetic direction. The Barbadians, moreover, have no experience as peasants, little tradition but of supervised plantation labour. Though intelligent workers under direction they would not be at their best as individual cultivators. In the long run the only alternatives for Barbados would seem to be great industries absorbing much labour and making the island more like one town -- or a steady flow of emigration' (Macmillan).

Barbados and Antigua lack the range of mountains of most other islands in the West Indies. They have, therefore, been given over to mono-culture, that of sugar and, as Macmillan states, have no experience as peasants and little tradition but of supervised plantation work. They are, therefore, the most widely separated of all agricultural labourers from the families of the East Indian island of Lombock.

The other islands, in this, have great advantages over them. Let us take Jamaica, the largest island of the British West Indies with its 4,550 square miles and nearly a million inhabitants, as the chief example of an island with a central range of mountains.

Mr. Macmillan writes: 'The Jamaica peasant tradition is due not to any special aptitude of the slaves imported, but rather to the fortunate juxtaposition of ample valleys and less accessible but still fertile and attractively habitable hill country; this accident gradually led the estate owners, as seldom elsewhere, to leave some of the slaves to grow their own food supplies. Thus a strong agricultural tradition was established and has persisted. After Emancipation many freedmen became independent cultivators and the Jamaicans, though they may be less disciplined, to some extent escaped the routine work characteristic of the sugar islands.'

It has been said that there are no less than 150,000 smallholders. Mr. Macmillan, however, doubts this and declares that 'peasant lots are now obviously too few and too small to provide an adequate living for any sufficient number of Jamaica's million inhabitants'.

Some few are successful and have saved money from their farming. But they do not use their money to improve their land, but to buy up more land. They buy up the land of their weaker brethren, who then become their tenants. They are no careful partners of the soil. The values under which they live are those of private property and individuals, the survival of the fittest, and not of the controlled, recurrent creation of the well-farmed soil. So the successful peasants imitate the white landowners. Frequently they overreach themselves by taking too much land, while the white landowners, on their part, continue to hold only partially used estates in the hope that fortune will change and bring a better market. The final human stigma of an ill-founded agriculture then appears: 'Control if not ownership passing into the hands of banks or business firms ... the almost unseen change of control from private landlords to outside mortgagors.'

So peasant ownership as a policy languishes in the mountainous islands of the West Indies, as it does in England. 'In enlightened circles of widely different views', writes Mr. Macmillan, 'the approved policy, so far as there is a policy, is to offer opportunities of rising to peasant-status to as many as possible of this heterogeneous mass of small tenants -- a few of whom originally set the fashion without help. Official encouragement has been strongly pressed by individuals -- especially by Sir Henry Norman, ex-Governor, head of the West Indian Commission of 1897, and following him, by Sir Sydney (Lord) Olivier in his Governorship of Jamaica; but it is still only an aim, not an achievement. Even the aim has usually been hesitant. It is not quite clear whether peasants are to be relied on for the main agricultural production of the country, or whether peasant-ownership is only a means of relieving unemployment.'

The final terminus of ill-founded agriculture also now shows itself in these naturally luxuriant islands. Erosion of the soil is at work ... 'Different factors are concerned with the erosion which is occurring in many of the islands of the West Indies,' writes Mr. R. 0. Whyte. 'In Jamaica, small tenant farmers have practised shifting cultivation, paying rent for, say, one acre but burning and destroying forest over a very much larger area. In addition, accessible areas of forest have been heavily over-exploited, and there are insufficient Forest Reserves. In the plantation districts all land fit for this type of cropping has been cleared, but in addition, excessively steep slopes have been disposed of to petty settlers, for the production of foodstuffs ... Deforestation has also been excessive on some of the Windward and Leeward Islands. For example, a critical stage has been reached on the island of St. Vincent ... In Trinidad, felling of protection forests and shifting cultivation have caused serious denudation, erosion and severe flooding in the Maracas Valley and the Caroni plain.' Particularly valuable is the result of a reconnaissance survey of the United States island of Puerto Rico. It was found that 'there is slight erosion on 19 per cent of the island, mostly on cultivated parts of the coastal plains and alluvial valleys or on gently rolling pasture lands; moderate erosion was found on 29 per cent and severe erosion of about 39 per cent on the area. Most of the severe erosion occurs in the rough mountainous interior. Sheet erosion is the most common type, with gullies occurring on a little less than 22 per cent of the area.'

The same author elsewhere in his book writes of two British islands, scarcely less fertile than Puerto Rico and Jamaica, where a similar wanton disregard of the soil 'threatens to leave the country like an emaciated skeleton'. It seems that this haunting vision of the South Pacific now reaches the lovely-bodied islands of the Caribbean Sea.

Next chapter

Table of Contents
1. Introductory
2. Rome
3. The Roman Foods
4. The Roman Family
5. Roman Soil Erosion
6. Farmers and Nomads
I. The Land
II. The Nomads
III. The Farmers
IV. Nomadic Migrations and Farmers
7. Contrasting Pictures
8. Banks for the Soil
9. Economics of the Soil
10. The English Peasant and Agricultural Labourer
11. Primitive Farmers
12. Nyasa
13. Tanganyika
14. 'Earth Thou Art'
15. Sind and Egypt
16. Fragmentation
17. East and West Indies
18. German Colonies: The Mandates
19. Russia, South Africa, Australia
South Africa
20. The United States of America
21. A Kingdom of Agricultural Art in Europe
22. An Historical Reconstruction
The Initiation
The Institution
The Achievement
23. Recapitulation
24. Action

Back to the Small Farms Library Index

Community development | Rural development
City farms | Organic gardening | Composting | Small farms | Biofuel | Solar box cookers
Trees, soil and water | Seeds of the world | Appropriate technology | Project vehicles

Home | What people are saying about us | About Handmade Projects 
Projects | Internet | Schools projects | Sitemap | Site Search | Donations |