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Friday 23 March 2018

‘Sugar Barons’ gripping history of sugar cultivation

The Sugar Barons by Matthew Parker is a comprehensive account of the families who dominated sugar cultivation in the West Indies, with the emphasis on Barbados and Jamaica. Trinidad only merits a passing mention, a sentence here and there because the great days of sugar were already in decline when cane was king in this country.

Parker traces the cultivation of sugar from New Guinea, where that giant cane was first domesticated, to India (in 500 BC), to the Mediterranean, Madeira – to Brazil where James Drax, the first of the sugar barons, realised the rich possibilities of planting cane in Barbados.

It wasn’t easy; the white indentured labour force (a few hopefuls expecting to make a fortune in the “Indies” but most petty criminals sentenced to labour in the colony) died like flies of tropical diseases or the inhumane conditions and poor diet doled out to the indentured labourers.

Every West Indian schoolchild knows the labour problems were solved by importing hundreds of thousands of African slaves. This book (now available at RIK) gives accounts of the horrendous Middle Passage, of barbaric punishments, of families torn apart but, as the title suggests, the main emphasis is on the sugar barons themselves, on the Drax family in Barbados and Jamaica, Codrington families in Barbados and the Leeward Islands, and on the Beckfords in Jamaica.

In their heyday the Sugar Barons were rich beyond the dreams of avarice, immensely wealthy. Of those who came out to the islands, most began with good intentions but succumbed to the corruption and decadence of the West Indian society, of rum-soaked days and nights, taking their pleasure wherever and whenever it pleased them to father tribes of illegitimate children.

It’s not a pretty history but it grips the reader from the first page when we meet a failed journalist travelling with other, similar persons anxious to make their fortune in the West Indies and arriving in Jamaica where he was horrified by the decadence, the drinking, the pursuit of pleasure and riches and the barbaric treatment of the slaves.

The West Indies was a place to attract petty criminals, where pirates became Governors of the island (see Henry Morgan), where, in Jamaica, Port Royal was indeed the wickedest city in the world. Sugar was also the foundation of the fortunes that built the British Empire – the sugar trade was one of the grievances that led to the American War of Independence.

While reviewers of this book on Amazon.com (and .co.uk) appear to have had very little knowledge of West Indian history, most of the history of the slave trade, the inhumane treatment of slaves, the decadence of society in the West Indies, the squabbles and infighting in the councils and between islands is, or should be, well-known to most in this part of the world, nevertheless, this is a gripping read from start to finish.

Matthew Parker quotes from diaries of travellers, we get excursions in for example, the destruction of Port Royal, the fecklessness of those inheriting fortunes, the follies of Fonthill Abbey that ate up the entire Beckford fortune.

You may think you know all there is to know about West Indian history but I’m willing to bet Parker’s meticulous research into the highways and byways of the history of Barbados, Jamaica and the Leeward Islands from the middle of the seventeenth century to 1834 will hold your interest from page one to page 364 - including the English Civil War, Cromwell and the Restoration – plus 50 pages of source notes a bibliography and, of course, an index

Finally, a reminder that you’ll find this excellent book at RIK outlets, nationwide.


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