St. John and Slavery: A Case Study In How Creation Heals From Its Wounds

By Andy Patton

Map of St. John circa 1780. Including plantations.

[Ed. note: This article is part of our series of weekly reflections, called Deep Down Things, published on Wednesdays.]

History washes across the globe and we leave our relics everywhere. As humanity is a mixed bag of glory and depravity, so too are the things we leave behind. I came across an example of the latter when I was traveling in the U. S. Virgin Islands and hiked through the jungle on St. John.

St. John was originally peopled by the Arawaks, who were displaced by Europeans searching for a place to plant sugar. Historians tell the story of how the Arawaks, upon first seeing explorer Christopher Columbus’ strange ships, swam out to meet them and offered the Spaniards gifts. In his journal Columbus writes of this encounter with the native people. “They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance … with fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.” And they did. By 1515, less than 20 years after Columbus landed in the West Indies, the Arawaks’ population had been reduced from 250,000 to 50,000. By 1550 there were 500.

It was no different on St. John.

As St. John’s native population died at alarming rates, the Europeans were forced to turn to another continent for labor: Africa. To grow and mill the sugar that was proving to be such a cash crop, they brought in African slaves and cleared the tropical island until it looked like the hills of Virginia. They cut down the jungle and conformed it to European sensibilities.

Since that time the island has regrown, but like all creation it bears the marks of its history.

As I hiked that day our guide explained that even the trail we walked on was built by African slaves.They hauled stones up the steep hillsides, the top of which were the preferred sites for the plantation owners to build their homes (there were fewer mosquitoes at high altitudes).

The group I was with stopped when we came to the ruins of an old building. The jungle crowded close around it. I imagined the slaves spending as much of their time beating back the wild plants as they did on construction; now, hundreds of years later, the jungle had returned.

I wandered away from the group and came to a ruined staircase. The guide soon walked up beside me and said, “This was the master’s house.” Then I saw this:

The wall of the master’s house had a tree growing out of it. The tree was swallowing the wall just as the jungle had swallowed the master’s fields and time had swallowed the slave trade on St. John. Long ago the wall watched the line of forest return slowly, like the front line of an advancing army. At some point a tiny seed fell on the top of the wall. The seed sent tendrils down through tiny cracks in the wall and put buds forth. By the time I arrived, the tree held up the wall, not the wall the tree.

This creation God has made is beautiful and complex. That day the story of the island was thick around me, and the healing God brings to creation despite our sin seemed a slow drama unfolding everywhere. It was good to see that although we sometimes abuse the world, it is built to come back, and the things God has made, like the tree on the wall, can make even our worst works into better parts of themselves.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Karen February 17, 2011 at 3:12 pm

I am in St John reading your post! True words!

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