White Gold: Sugar in the New World

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.

Word With a Past: Juggernaut

The Hindu god Krishna is worshiped in the form of Jagannatha (Lord of the World) in a famous 12th c temple in Puri, in the Indian state of Orissa.

The most important of the annual festivals associated with the Jagannatha temple is the Chariot Festival.  The god’s image is placed in a highly decorated wagon and taken on procession from the temple to the country house of the god.   The wagon is so heavy that it takes hundreds of worshippers to move it.   The procession is accompanied by thousands of pilgrims, who crowd around the wagon.  Between the crush of the crowd and the weight of the wagon, accidents are common.   Occasionally an ecstatic pilgrim throws himself under the wagon’s wheels.

he Chariot Festival of the Jagannatha temple, Puri, Orissa, India. Enclyclopedia Britanica


Quiet devotions by individual worshippers don’t make much of a story.  Huge crowds and an inexorable wagon that crushes worshippers under its wheels?  The stuff that travelers’ tales are made of.  As early as the 14th century, European travelers in India were fascinated by the story of the Chariot Festival, and the worshippers who “cast themselves under the chariot, so that its wheels may go over them, saying that they desire to die for their god,”  (Friar Odoric, c 1321. Just to give an example.)

In the nineteenth century, more than one responsible British official checked the Orissa province records and reported that the instances of death by chariot wheel were greatly exaggerated.  It  didn’t  do any good.  The story of the chariot of Jagannatha  had become a metaphorical juggernaut, capable of  crushing mere facts beneath its wheels.

Juggernaut, n.   Anything that draws blind and passionate devotion, or to which people are ruthlessly sacrificed.




History on Display: That’s Ruff

Sometimes you stumble across something small at a museum that overshadows the museum’s larger purpose in your mind.

For instance, the only thing I remember about the historical museum in Galena, Illinois, is a half-smoked cigar that a child picked up after General Grant discarded it.  The boy evidently treasured it for years, handing it down for several generations until someone donated it to the museum.  Thirty years later, I can still work up a head of steam about the museum’s decision to exhibit that cigar.  What were they thinking?

I was just as distracted, though in a good way, by a single artifact in the Rubens’ House in Antwerp.  When the last detail of the house has vanished from my head, I’ll still remember the portefraes.*

I love 16th century portraits.  Flemish families. Jolly Dutch burghers.  Tough Tudor courtiers, and their softer Stewart relatives (technically 17th century).  I love the way those portraits give you a glimpse at the personalities of their subjects.  And I love the clothes, including the ruffs.  Over the course of the century, those ruffs get bigger and bigger.  By the end of the century, really fashionable people had to eat their soup with a 2-foot long spoon.  (Honest, I couldn’t make this stuff up.) * *

I’ve always assumed those ruffs were held up with starch.   Wrong.

The largest ruffs, known as cartwheel ruffs, were supported by a metal frame that went around the wearer’s neck like, well,  a cartwheel around an axle.  The frames were covered with silver wire to make them more attractive, but not all the silver wire in the world could have made them comfortable.

Gives a whole new meaning to stiff-necked, doesn’t it?


* Also known as supportasses  and  underproppers.  The things you learn during a Google search.

** I don’t know about you, but give me a 2-foot long spoon and a bowl of soup and I can guarantee you I’ll have soup down my front.