The Sugar Barons: Family, Corruption, Empire, and War in the West Indies

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Overview

To those who travel there today, the West Indies are unspoiled paradise islands. Yet that image conceals a turbulent, dramatic, and shocking history. For some two hundred years after 1650, the West Indies became the strategic center of the Western world, witnessing one of the greatest power struggles of the age as Europeans made and lost immense fortunes growing and trading in sugar—a commodity so lucrative it became known as "white gold."

As Matthew Parker skillfully chronicles...

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The Sugar Barons: Family, Corruption, Empire, and War in the West Indies

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Overview

To those who travel there today, the West Indies are unspoiled paradise islands. Yet that image conceals a turbulent, dramatic, and shocking history. For some two hundred years after 1650, the West Indies became the strategic center of the Western world, witnessing one of the greatest power struggles of the age as Europeans made and lost immense fortunes growing and trading in sugar—a commodity so lucrative it became known as "white gold."

As Matthew Parker skillfully chronicles in his sweeping history, the sugar revolution made the English, in particular, a nation of voracious consumers, so much so that the wealth of her island colonies came to underpin the entire British economy, ultimately fueling the Industrial Revolution. Yet beside the incredible wealth came untold misery: the horrors of slavery and of slaves, on whose backs the sugar empires were brutally built; the rampant disease that claimed the lives of one third of all whites within three years of arrival in the Caribbean; the cruelty, corruption, and decadence of the plantation culture.

For those on the ground, the British West Indian empire presented a disturbing moral universe. Parker vividly interweaves the human stories—since lost to history—of visitors and slaves, overseers and soldiers, and of the families whose fortunes and fame rose and fell on sugar. Their wealth drove the development of the North American mainland states, and with it a slave culture, as the racist plantation model was exported to the warm southern states. Eventually opposition to sugar policy in London helped to unite the North American colonies against Britain.

Broad in scope and rich in detail, The Sugar Barons freshly links the histories of Europe, the West Indies, and North America, and reveals the full impact of the sugar revolution, the resonance of which is still felt today.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
A rich, multifaceted account. . . . Parker achieves admirable clarity and focus in this . . . complicated story of the sugar revolution." —-Kirkus
Publishers Weekly
Tiny Caribbean islands generate outsized wealth, influence, and cruelty in this gripping history of the British West Indies. Historian Parker (Panama Fever) recounts the heyday of the planters of Barbados, Jamaica, and the Leeward Islands who made sugarcane cultivation into a fabulously profitable agribusiness from the 17th to 19th centuries. The riches their plantations generated made them imperial power brokers, provoked wars—in settling the French and Indian War, France gave up Canada to regain the minute sugar island of Guadeloupe—and sparked a culinary revolution. But Britain's glittering West Indian colonies were also some of history's most appalling societies, the author notes. A tiny minority of whites worked the islands' black slave laborers to death and meted out brutality and violence—Parker's accounts of atrocities inflicted on slaves are extremely disturbing—at the slightest disobedience. This is a rousing, fluently written narrative history, full of color, dash, and forceful personalities, but it's also a subtle social portrait of plantation life and governance: its live fast, die young ethos as Europeans dropped like flies from tropical diseases. Parker's vivid evocation of the elite evokes the queasy moral rot beneath la dolce vita. Photos. (Aug.)
Library Journal
Parker (Panama Fever) traces the social, political, and economic history of the sugar trade in the British West Indies from the 17th to the 19th centuries through the stories of several families who ran enormous plantations with indentured and slave labor and amassed great wealth. Along with harrowing tales of the extreme hazards of harvesting sugarcane, the author also conjures incongruous images of the conspicuous consumption by the landowners who insisted on wearing full European wardrobes (wool coats and wigs) in tropical climates. In this concise volume, Parker manages to cover disease, race relations, slave rebellions, imperial rivalry, and more, leaving the reader impressed by his command of the sources—many of which are letters and diaries of the plantation owners and their visitors—and the comprehensiveness of the treatment. VERDICT Successful both as a scholarly introduction to the topic and as an entertaining narrative, this is recommended for readers of any kind of history. (Illustrations not seen.)—Megan Hahn Fraser, Univ. of California, Los Angeles, Lib.
Kirkus Reviews

A rich, multifaceted account of the greed and slavery bolstering the rise of England's mercantile empire.

Considering the myriad international influences that vied for predominance in the West Indies, London-based author Parker (Panama Fever: The Epic Story of One of the Greatest Human Achievements of All Time-- the Building of the Panama Canal, 2008, etc.) wisely focuses on the pioneer British dynasties that built the sugar empires on Barbados and the English Leeward islands, such as the related Drax and Codrington clans, and later on Jamaica, the Beckfords. Sugar production was not initially an English enterprise—from New Guinea to India, Persia to North Africa, sugar-cane cultivation was carried ever westward by the Arabs, Spanish and especially the Portuguese, the last who "put to cane" the islands of Madeira, Principe and the vast colony of Brazil to corner the sugar market by the early 17th century. The enterprising Dutch elbowed into Barbados by the 1640s, creating the ideal conditions whereby James Drax, an Anglican immigrant, would learn by trial and error how to coax the fabulous new crop in the rich soil. Barbados became a magnet for the dumping of indentured servants, dissidents and the disaffected during the reign of Charles I, followed by refugees from the English Civil War, many of whom perished by ill treatment and disease within three years of arriving. However, sugar production was labor-intensive, and blacks from West Africa—already long established as labor within Portuguese possessions—were imported, apparently hardier and more tractable than the native Caribs. Parker delves skillfully into the important effects of the English Civil War, such as the passage of the Navigation Act of 1651, which created a formal system of mercantilism to benefit England's home vessels and ports; even Oliver Cromwell masterminded a "western design" into Hispaniola and Jamaica, to less-than-successful effect. Still, the English dug in, and their treatment of slaves to wring profits from vast plantations was predictably harsh and deplorable.

Parker achieves admirable clarity and focus in this sprawling, ugly, complicated story of the sugar revolution.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781452632612
  • Publisher: Tantor Media, Inc.
  • Publication date: 8/16/2011
  • Format: CD
  • Edition description: Library - Unabridged CD
  • Product dimensions: 7.00 (w) x 7.00 (h) x 1.80 (d)

Meet the Author


Matthew Parker, the author of Panama Fever, Monte Cassino, and The Sugar Barons, has written for a number of newspapers and magazines and has worked as a contributor to history television projects.

Jonathan Cowley is a British actor whose recording of The Tower, the Zoo and the Tortoise by Julia Stuart earned him an AudioFile Earphones Award. He has narrated many audiobooks as well as film trailers and documentaries on both sides of the Atlantic.

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Table of Contents

Maps vii

Simplified Family Trees xii

Chronology xv

Picture Sources xviii

Introduction 'Hot as Hell, and as Wicked as the Devil' 1

Part 1 The Pioneers

1 White Gold, 1642 9

2 The First Settlements, 1605-41 14

3 The Sugar Revolution: 'So Noble an Undertaking' 32

4 The Sugar Revolution: 'Most inhuman and barbarous persons' 44

5 The Plantation: Masters and Slaves 52

6 The English Civil War in Barbados 67

7 The Plantation: Life and Death 76

8 Cromwell's 'Western Design': Disaster in Hispaniola 88

9 The Invasion of Jamaica 97

Part 2 The Grandees

10 The Restoration 115

11 Expansion, War and the Rise of the Beckfords 132

12 'All slaves are enemies' 147

13 The Cousins Henry Drax and Christopher Codrington 161

14 God's Vengeance 169

15 The Planter at War: Codrington in the Leeward Islands 180

16 The French Invasion of Jamaica 192

17 Codrington the Younger in the West Indies 197

18 The Murder of Daniel Parke 211

19 The Beckfords: The Next Generation 219

20 Piracy and Rum 234

21 The Maroon War in Jamaica and the War of Jenkins's Ear 248

22 Barbados, the 'Civilised Isle' 259

23 Thomas Thistlewood in Jamaica: 'Tonight very lonely and melancholy again' 270

24 Jamaica: Rich and Poor 285

25 The Sugar Lobby 296

Part 3 The Inheritors

26 Luxury and Debt 311

27 The War Against America 325

28 The West Indian 'Nabobs': Absenteeism, Decadence and Decline 333

29 Peace and Freedom 345

Epilogue The Sins of the Fathers 359

Source Notes 365

Select Bibliography 417

Acknowledgements 433

Index 435

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 17, 2013

    This is the worst book I have ever read. There are so many Gramm

    This is the worst book I have ever read. There are so many Grammatical errors. Do not buy! I could only read five pages before I had to stop.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 27, 2011

    Well written and informative. Excellent History.

    This book is very well written and an excellent history of the region. It provides and outstanding reference as to why the "new world" experienced the racial difficulties that it has.

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    Posted February 19, 2012

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    Posted March 29, 2012

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    Posted October 3, 2011

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