The Enslavement Of Land And Nature

Slavery in the Americas complemented the early consolidation of capitalism as an increasingly globalizing force and mode of production. Between 1500 and 1600, some 275,000 African slaves were sent to America and Europe. In the seventeenth century, the number rose to an estimated 1,341,000, largely in response to the demand of sugar plantations in the Caribbean. It was the eighteenth century, however, that was to be the golden age of slaving, with the forcible export of more than 6 million people from Africa to the Americas between 1701 and 1810.33

The introduction of slavery to support the plantation economies in the Americas had its cultural correlate in the treatment of land. The land became a "slave" of the new system of export crop production. Planters cleared it of trees, making it more prone to drought and erosion. In 1690, trees still covered more than two-thirds of Antigua; by 1751, every acre suitable for cultivation had been stripped of forest cover.34 Intensive cultivation of sugar cane mined the soil, robbing it of its nutrients. What Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano wrote of the northeast of Brazil was true of most of the Caribbean islands as well:

Sugar ... destroyed the [Brazilian] Northeast This region of tropical rainforests was turned into a region of savannas. Naturally fitted to produce food, it became a place of hunger. Where everything had bloomed exuberantly, the destructive and all-dominating latifundia left sterile rock, washed-out soil, eroded lands. At first there had been orange and mango plantations, but these were left to their fate, or reduced to small orchards surrounding the sugarmill-owner's house, reserved exclusively for the family of the white planter. Fire was used to clear land for canefields, devastating the fauna along with the flora: deer, wild boar, tapir, rabbit, pacas, and armadillo disappeared. All was sacrificed on the altar of sugarcane monoculture.35

The creation of sugar monoculture left these colonies dependent on Europe, North America, and the South American interior for their food. "To feed a colony in America," Abbé Raynal ironically observed in 1775, "it is necessary to cultivate a province in Europe."36 At the end of the sixteenth century, reports Galeano, "Brazil had no less than 120 sugarmills worth some £2 million, but their masters, owners of the best lands, grew no food. They imported it, just as they imported an array of luxury articles which came from overseas with the slaves and bags of salt."37 The export of sugar grew rapidly. After 1660, England's sugar imports exceeded its combined imports of all other colonial produce; by 1800, the English population consumed almost 15 times as much as it had in 1700.

Despite its importance, however, sugar was only one pillar in a triangular trade that linked Europe, Africa, and the Americas. The first leg in the triangle connected European ports to Africa. European ships carried a cargo of salt, textiles, firearms, hardware, beads, and rum. In Africa these products were bartered for slaves, who were packed into the American-bound vessels with each individual having a space as small as 5 feet 6 inches long and 16 inches wide. In the New World, the surviving slaves were auctioned off to plantation owners, and, in the last leg of the triangle, sugar, silver, molasses, tobacco, and cotton - all of which had been produced with the help of slave labor - were purchased and shipped back for sale in Europe. In Britain, such important seaports as Liverpool, Bristol, and Glasgow owed their rapid growth in the eighteenth century primarily to this triangular trade.38 In short, in the early modern search for wealth, the newly colonized native territories were plundered to meet the need for new land, relying on slaves and indentured work systems for cheap labor. The expansion of capitalism and the growth of associated forms of commerce greatly accelerated the pace of ecocide, resulting in the death of hundreds of millions of large animals at the hands of hunters and traders.

In the following three sections, I sketch three major examples of ecocide in modernity: the commercial assault on species associated with the early modern global fur trade, the mass slaughter and near extermination of the North American buffalo in the nineteenth century, and the rise of commercial whaling.

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