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James Walvin reviews an engaging exploration of the slave-based sugar islands in the West Indies
The story of West Indian fortunes has been told before and in various ways. And by any telling it is a remarkable historical saga.
It embraces the European settlements in the tropical Americas, the massive importation of enslaved Africans, war and trade between competing European maritime/colonial powers, piracy and plunder and the gradual emergence of a new political society in North America. It is easy to see why it has been so appealing to novelists and film-makers alike.
Equally, the story of slave-based wealth continues to attract historians. Matthew Parker is, then, only the latest to find the story compelling. And though The Sugar Barons retells a familiar tale, it does so with a vigour and panache which often eludes more academic studies.
The search for viable British settlements in the tropical Americas was a consequence of political struggles and upheavals in Britain itself, linked to the British drive to outflank and surpass Iberian competitors. In the process humble soldiers and settlers could, with luck and persistence, thrive beyond the seas.
But their tenuous settlements, in the smaller islands of the eastern Caribbean, were ultimately transformed by the development of the sugar plantations and by the arrival of boatloads of African slaves. It is easy to forget that the sugar islands, though European settlements, were, in effect African societies on the far side of the Atlantic.
In the islands, as smallholders were marginalised, first in Barbados, later in Jamaica, some massive fortunes were made by the lucky few. It is that elite of sugar planters – notably the Drax, Codrington and Beckford families/dynasties – which forms the core of Parker’s study.
Here were men who came to wield sway over thousands of acres, and thousands of slaves – men who lived in grand style, in the islands and back ‘home’ in Britain. They and their commercial associates (British merchants, shippers and financiers) came to form a uniquely powerful ‘sugar lobby’ which could bend the ear of ministers and governments. What was good for sugar was good for Britain.
Through all this, organised Christianity played a peripheral role: objections to the massive violations on the slave ships and plantations passed virtually unchallenged – until late in the 18th century.
Throughout, the West Indies and its slave-based wealth seduced all and sundry, from the consumers of rum in New England, to the ubiquitous British desire to have their food and drink sweetened with slave-grown sugar. Not surprisingly, international conflict about slavery and slave trading regularly flared on both sides of the enslaved Atlantic.
Personifying the entire system were the planters – the plantocracy – who, like Indian nabobs, flaunted their slave-based wealth from their grand London mansions, from their elaborate rural estates and via their political clout. Yet all this was soon undermined, notably by the upheavals in North America after 1776, and especially by the upheavals after the French revolution of 1789.
Parker rushes perhaps towards the end, trying to round off the study by capturing the demise of the system, and of the families he studies. The book becomes a more broadly-based account of the rise and fall of the West Indies.
Even so, The Sugar Barons is an engaging reminder of the pivotal role of sugar and slavery in the shaping of an early British empire.
James Walvin is the author of The Slave Trade (Thames & Hudson, 2011)