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George Fox in Barbados
Clare Marie White reviews a new book by Simon Webb
George Fox in Barbados by Simon Webb £2, IBSN 0954475917 From the Quaker Bookshop The title makes it sound a little like an Enid Blyton book, the latest of George’s adventures around the world. Such a series would be a fine idea if it is written in the same vivid way as this little book by Simon Webb. At only twenty-four pages, including the text of the letter to the governor of Barbados, the book is very accessible, not assuming any prior knowledge of the subject. Simon Webb describes how Quakers came to be on the island, voluntarily and through transportation in the 1660s;, the sugar trade that enabled economic success and the conditions of slaves. Interestingly, he emphasises the fact that at first, through kidnappings and indentured labour, most of the workers were white and they were normally given land after their period of service. However, after land became more limited and valuable because of the increasing popularity of sugar, large numbers of black slaves were imported from West Africa to meet demand. Fox and his team of ‘weighty Friends’ visited in 1671, during a time of great insecurity for all inhabitants of the island. Attacks by hungry monkeys, raccoons and caterpillars deprived of their
forest home, fires set to destroy rat infestations spreading across the island because of high winds, epidemics and slave revolts, hurricanes... and amongst all this, some troublesome Quakers were refusing to bear arms. Fox himself was also concerned about hearsay of polygamy, incest, cruelty towards slaves and, perhaps worst of all, bad record-keeping amongst the Quaker community. Probably because its dense, biblical language makes it difficult for wide consumption, the letter is sometimes referred to in passing as one of the early Quaker protests against slavery. In fact, as Simon Webb describes, it does not condemn the principle of slavery. He describes the letter as being in keeping with pacifist views by denying that Quakers were encouraging slave revolts – the response to which would be violent and bloody with the white population holding far more arms than the blacks. He is less sympathetic towards the letter’s description of the treatment of slaves, calling it ‘at best illinformed’ and suggesting that the visiting Quakers only saw the conditions of house-slaves who were kept in better conditions than field-slaves. Simon Webb then goes on to describe the theological content of the letter and again this is more conservative than might be
expected – although Webb steps into the modern context for a moment to assert that although Fox may have used phrases like ‘the Seed’ and ‘the Light’ which can be interpreted very widely, his experience and beliefs were completely rooted in a Christcentric view. Although the writers may have shared some more radical views, they were keen to reassure the authorities of Barbados by showing them that freedom of the Holy Spirit within each worshipper was not a precursor to anarchy. The letter deliberately takes, for the time, a fairly mainstream stance towards both theology and religion, a diplomatic approach designed to help the island’s Quakers rather than serve any other political interests. Some might not like the refusal to condemn slavery, others would see in the letter the pragmatism that has run through Quaker work ever since and an address to the slaves which, at least, treats them as human beings and part of the ‘family’ living on the island. In this edition, which invites further Bible study by inserting references that may not have been included by the authors, Simon Webb enlightens a document that is very well known, but probably not very well read. It should appeal to those with different interests and of all ages in the average Meeting.
the Friend , 3 November 2006