In The Sugar Barons: Family, Corruption, Empire, and War in the West Indies Matthew Parker, author of Panama Fever and Monte Cassino: The Hardest Fought Battle of World War II, uses the rise and fall of the sugar dynasties of the West Indies as a framework for the intertwined histories of sugar, slavery, the industrial revolution, and Britain’s American colonies. The story is occasionally horrifying but never dull.
Parker begins with James Drax’s first experiments in growing sugar cane as an alternative to tobacco on Barbados in the early 1640s. He ends with the decline of the West Indian sugar industry following Britain’s abolition of slavery in 1838. In between he tells the story of how West Indian “white gold” transformed the British economy, not to mention the British diet. Along the way, he introduces the reader to pirates, Dutch financiers, dissolute planters, Quaker reformers–and the thousands of African slaves on whose backs the Sugar Revolution was built.
In my mind the most fascinating aspect of The Sugar Barons is the on-going relationship between the West Indies and Britain’s North American colonies. In the world of British colonialism, the thirteen colonies on the Atlantic seaboard were the West Indies’ poor cousins. By the late eighteenth century, the West Indies were responsible for eighty percent of Britain’s colonial income. Not surprisingly, Parliament was quick to pass laws that sacrificed the interests of the northern colonies in favor of those of the West Indies, ending with the Sugar Act of 1764 and the first step on the road to the American Revolution.
This review appeared previously in Shelf Awareness for Readers.