The British Empire Library

The Sugar Barons: Family, Corruption, Empire and War

by Matthew Parker

Matthew Parker has written a well-researched and engaging book that follows the rise and fall of the British Caribbean Empire from its very earliest days until the abolition of slavery. It is an epic tale that follows England's initial interest into muscling into the Spanish lake and seeking to find its own place in the sun. Initial interest seemed to revolve around duplicating the relative success of the tobacco crop which had taken off in Virginia. But soon, the potential for the small islands to produce the far more valuable sugar cane were realised. This was first noticed on what would become the blueprint for plantation society; Barbados. This was largely thanks to the importation of Dutch skill and expertise. Indeed, the early years saw a strange mix of competition and cooperation between rival European powers as they each sought their own economic bounties whilst facing similar threats from disease, piracy, hostile tribes, hurricanes and even earthquakes. Ultimately though, the Europeans kept coalescing or falling out with one another as alliances were made and broken and the Caribbean became a tropical battlefield for much of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.

Matthew Parker charts the story of these islands with considerable skill as he scaffolds much of the story around a remarkable, if often ruthless, collection of families that would dominate Caribbean economic life but would also become very influential in British domestic political circles, at least until the abolition of slavery. These are the so-called 'Sugar Barons' or 'Sugar Kings'. The exploits of the Draxes, Codringtons and Beckfords are recalled in detail as the relative success of the generations of these families seem to correlate with the various stages of development of the sugar islands. The rugged pioneers turn into the ruthlessly efficient expansionists who turn into the influential lobbyists and scions of the political establishment who turn into spendthrifts with conflicted consciences and lack of business acumen - generally within the space of 4 to 5 generations. In the meantime, countless wars and diplomatic disturbances are interspersed with the desperately sad tales of human misery as slavery became the dominant economic orthodoxy to service this profitable business. The author does not shy away from the worst excesses and goes into considerable detail to explain the overwhelmingly toxic effect of the institution of slavery onto all aspects of the lives of the inhabitants of these islands. It is sobering to read how quickly people became innured to the worst excesses of slavery and accepted its horrors and brutalities so completely and so rapidly. The increasingly tiny white population defended their privilege with savagery and the forces of the state in the form of the military and the legal system. The fact that many of the most successful planters moved back to Britain once they had made their fortune and were replaced by managers and accountants only made things worse as corruption and greed only exacerbated the power inequalities on the islands. Even evangelists and missionaries were slow into lobbying for the abolition of Slavery as many Christians found slavery more than compatible with their beliefs. It was mainly the non-Conformists who eventually turned themselves into an effective lobbying group and who eventually were able to match the lobbying power of the vested Caribbean interests through a remarkably innovative campaign which is recounted by the author in detail.

The author is also good at pointing out the importance of the Americas as a whole to the success, and ultimate failure, of the sugar islands. Britain's North American colonies were soon identified as being able to provide food, lumber and supplies to islands which were becoming increasingly mono-agricultural. These American colonies also provided shipping and markets in their own right as they rose in terms of population and wealth. However, their role in undermining the mercantilist system is also important as smuggling and trading with other colonial empires seemed to offer the quickest route to the increasingly important Free Trade philosophy. Little realised was just how reliant these slave islands were on their privileged access to British markets and how Free Trade would ultimately undo much of the economic rationale of these islands. The critical role of the Caribbean in the American Revolution is also highlighted and the consequences of the sundering of this First British Empire for the long term future for the Sugar Islands would provide yet another fatal nail in their economic coffins.

This is probably the best single volume that I have read on the history of the early Caribbean Empire. It does end abruptly with the end of slavery and I would love to read a follow up book on the history of the islands and how they fared over the next two centuries and into independence. But if you want to gain an insight and understanding into the foundational accounts of the British West Indies, there is no finer book to begin with than this one!

British Empire Book
Matthew Parker
Random House
Also by the Author
Willoughbyland: England's Lost Colony