Review of Matthew Parker’s The Sugar Barons

In “Happy families” (Caribbean Review of Books, January 2012) Bridget Brereton reviews Matthew Parker’s The Sugar Barons: Family, Corruption, Empire, and War in the West Indies. See excerpts with a link to the full article below:

The Sugar Barons aims to tell the story of the rise and decline of the great Caribbean sugar dynasties, the British families who, over several generations, made and often lost fortunes through the sugar and slavery economies in the British West Indian colonies. It is unabashedly the story of Englishmen in the Caribbean, the buccaneers, soldiers, visitors, overseers, pioneering planters, and established plantocrats who got involved in the sugar business. The book’s three parts are titled “The Pioneers”, “The Grandees”, and “The Inheritors”, and all three, even the last, refer to English planters and owners of estates and slaves.

[. . .] Parker shares with many earlier writers on the region’s history — including Eric Williams, in his 1970 Columbus to Castro — a sense of nostalgia for the time when the Caribbean islands were at the forefront of European wars, diplomacy, and politics in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. By the 1690s, he notes, these “minute specks in the sea” had “become bitterly contested between the rival great powers of the time, and were already dictating imperial policy.”

[. . .] In telling the stories of the sugar barons, Parker concentrates on a handful of the most successful: the Beckfords and Prices of Jamaica, the Drax and Codrington clans of Barbados and the Leewards. Much of the book focuses on Barbados, where the sugar business in the English islands began, and Jamaica, by the 1720s Britain’s richest colony. He follows the first generation of these families, during the 1640s to 1660s in Barbados, and the 1660s to 1700s in the case of the Leewards and Jamaica. These pioneers, who carved out plantations from scratch and began the tricky and tedious business of growing and processing canes, were tough, ruthless, energetic, and driven men.

Bridget Brereton is emerita professor of history at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine. Her work focuses on the history of Trinidad and Tobago, and on the post-emancipation development of the Caribbean.

Matthew Parker was born in Central America and spent part of his childhood in the West Indies, “acquiring a life-long fascination with the history of the region and a hopeless enthusiasm for cricket.” His other books include Monte Cassino: The Hardest-Fought Battle of World War II and Panama Fever: The Battle to Build the Canal.

For full review, see

For an earlier review, see New book: The Sugar Barons by Matthew Parker

Image from the author’s page:

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