The emergence of sugar as the world’s most coveted commodity during the 17th and 18th centuries – equivalent to oil in our times – not only sweetened tea and raised metabolic rates; it also stimulated the quest for empire – a grasping, sordid race to exploit new territories and by any means necessary. Ascendant sugar lifted other boats as well: intercontinental trade, shipbuilding, North American agriculture, rum production, armies and navies, buccaneering, and insurance and banking.
Sugar also meant slavery on a scale unprecedented in human history. Two thirds of all the enslaved Africans in the Americas worked on plantations in the West Indies. Despite their diminutive size, islands like Barbados were at times as valuable to England as all of its North American colonies combined. Barely larger than Martha’s Vineyard, Barbados would become the most densely populated and productive place in the English-speaking world, and by the late 1600s fully 80 percent of the island was planted in cane.
Such an ambitious and exploitative business plan required cheap labor, and blacks soon outnumbered whites by three to one on Barbados and by more than 10 to 1 on Jamaica. With its West Indian sugar industry waning, Britain would free its 800,000 slaves in 1834.
In The Sugar Barons: Family, Corruption, Empire, and War in the West Indies, Matthew Parker ably weaves such detail into a rich narrative about England’s sugar colonies, including St. Kitts and Antigua, as well as rival islands like Cuba and Hispaniola. In this, his fourth book, the author tracks the great families and their blood feuds, while chronicling the frequent wars, pestilences, hurricanes, and slave rebellions that shaped the history and culture of the West Indies.
The inclusion of family trees for the baronial lines of the early settlers – the Draxs, Codingtons and Beckfords – is most helpful because their issue (legitimate and otherwise) through the decades can get a tad confusing, the way a mega family reunion can. Parker doesn’t focus on one family for long stretches, but returns to each one frequently throughout.
One of the ironies of the West Indies, where slavery and fabulous wealth coexisted uneasily, is that it was a region where an English commoner could catch a break, and where the second, third, and fourth sons of landed gentry often went to seek their fortune in an era of primogeniture. Peter Beckford, the son of an illiterate cloth worker, arrived in Jamaica in 1661 at age 19 and would become the wealthiest of all the sugar daddies. In 1770, his grandson would be the first commoner reputed to be worth a million pounds – at a time when a million pounds meant something. Indeed, during sugar’s heyday the per capita income of whites in the West Indies was considerably higher than that of their countrymen in the Mother Country – and many times the take-home pay of North Americans colonists.
If the West Indies was a destination where money could be made, and quickly, it was also a place where death hovered over grand mansions and hovels alike. Disease and the stifling climate would kill or demoralize countless white immigrants. According to one observer in the 1730s, of the slaves who survived the passage from Africa (more than 10 percent did not), 40 percent died within the first three years in Jamaica. The whites who were lucky enough to make their money and live often returned to England for good, leaving their estates in the often dubious care of overseers and lawyers.
Many of the returnees, flush with cash, stood for Parliament, and would constitute what became known as the Sugar Lobby. North Americans, who tended to stay put, would come to resent the fact that their countrymen to the south, unlike themselves, had representation and influence in London. The 1764 Sugar Act was one example of what the Thirteen Colonies viewed as favoritism toward their saccharine cousins.
In fact, Parker maintains that such was official British devotion to the West Indies that London gave the region priority over efforts to pacify the rebellious American colonies: "Following the declaration of war by the French, the British had given up Philadelphia, then the largest city in the United States and the capital of the Revolution, primarily to free up 5,000 troops for the conquest of St. Lucia.”
Now, that’s sweet.
David Holahan is a Monitor contributor.