Book review: Matthew Parker, The Sugar Barons: Family, Corruption, Empire and War, London: Hutchinson, 2011, 446 pages
Britain was once the world’s biggest slave trader, transporting African slaves to colonies in the Americas. Two-thirds of the slaves worked on sugar plantations in the Caribbean, and this book gives the history of the British families who owned them: the ‘sugar barons’. Parker’s account of the mercantile entrepreneurs who developed plantations in the West Indies is interesting, and he shows that their colossal wealth made the King of England look like he was down on his luck. But more enlightening is his tale of the colonial escapades of Britain and the other European powers in the West Indies of the 17th and 18th centuries. He shows how events were shaped by the growth of the world market, the economics of slave labour on the plantations and the changing balance of power between the dominant countries.
The huge wealth of the sugar barons came from low costs and high revenues. The low costs were based on slave labour imported from Africa to work on the plantations in Jamaica, Barbados, Antigua, etc, and on a climate that was very fertile for the rapid growth of sugar cane. High revenues were helped by sugar being a new luxury product beginning to get a mass market in Europe, and also by the restricted competition in the British empire, enforced by Britain’s naval strength and mercantile trading rules. It was not all easy for the barons, however. Heat, humidity, hurricanes, mosquitoes, disease and disasters took their toll, and a significant proportion of these willing emigrants to the West Indies died within a few years. Another big health hazard for Europeans was their debauchery and drunkenness. Plantation owners would even be plastered at breakfast on claret, Madeira and hock.
The profitable sugar plantations made 18th century Jamaica the ‘best jewel in the British Diadem’, in the words of Admiral George Rodney. This was the period before India had become the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the British empire. Not surprisingly, the economic status of the West Indian islands meant that there were persistent naval clashes, seizures of land and re-annexations between Britain, France, Spain and the Netherlands. Both before and after the 1776 American Declaration of Independence from Britain, America’s Thirteen Colonies also played a key role in these wars. Parker notes how, during America’s war of independence, Britain’s ‘defence of Jamaica was given priority over the war with America’. Jamaica was the more valuable asset.
One fact that strikes the reader who may know little about this period is that unbridled aggression between the major powers was common. Within the boundaries of Europe and the surrounding seas there was more of an attempt to regulate conflict; outside, no holds were barred. In the Caribbean, merchant ships were frequently attacked and looted, but not only by pirates. There were also many ‘privateers’ given explicit endorsement by their states to bring back the booty. Parker notes how 1000 buccaneers operated out of Port Royal in Jamaica in the mid-1600s, working under official sanction from the British authorities to attack the Spanish settlements and ships in the region. Far from Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow being one of the outlaw ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’, he was just as likely to be operating under government licence. Even the Royal Navy got involved in the theft. In 1780, the previously mentioned Admiral Rodney looted St Eustatius, an island colonised by the Dutch, and spent three months selling the captured goods!
This was a more obvious link between military power and economic plunder than appears to be the case today. However, the evidence that Shell and BP met the UK Labour trade minister Baroness Symons ahead of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the latest British adventures in Libya to control its energy resources, show that there is now just a clearer division of labour between the state and the corporations.
The West Indian sugar barons eventually became absentee owners, preferring to live back in the comfort and safety of Britain on the profits of empire and slavery. They wasted much of their riches building extravagant country estates, but also put a lot of cash into more speculative ventures – some of which turned out to be Britain’s industrial revolution in the late 18th and early 19th centuries! By contrast, the West Indian colonies saw no development. Instead the islands were vulnerable to the problems that came from a monoculture economy determined by the needs of the ‘mother country’. The sugar plantations went into decline as soil fertility diminished and cheaper sources of supply were found elsewhere to supply the growing world sugar market. Only the turmoil in the more productive French sugar producing colonies that followed the French revolution in 1789 – including the later slave revolts led by Toussaint L’Ouverture - gave Britain’s sugar colonies a breathing space as prices rose again.
Parker’s book briefly covers the long period of agitation in Britain against the slave trade, ahead of the passing of the Slave Trade Act in 1808. As one antidote to British hypocrisy and smugness on this issue (although he does not call it so), he notes that individual US states had already begun banning the slave trade more than 20 years earlier than Britain. However, he does not pay enough attention to the economic factors behind this British decision, and the much later move to abolish slavery itself in the British empire in 1838 (with generous compensation to the slave owners, of course). His account does provide interesting details of the impact on the sugar baron families and their political connections - the main subject of his book. But a more fundamental analysis of the role of slavery in the mercantile form of capitalism and its decline with the growth of industrial capitalism is given by Eric Williams’s classic text, Capitalism and Slavery. Williams shows how the progressively less attractive economics of slavery for British capitalism was behind parliament’s move to ban the trade and, only later, the institution itself. It was because the economic changes took many years to work themselves out that the moral arguments of the anti-slavery movement were irrelevant for so long.
One feature of the book that concerns me is that it is prone to include phrases of regret when discussing Britain’s colonial adventures. This is despite its detailed documentation of the many crimes committed by Britain and other powers, including ‘the invention of ever more brutal tortures’ of disobedient or unruly slaves. For example, Parker says ‘the unhappy precedent of Hispaniola [a previous failed offensive] asserted itself’ when the British had to abandon an attack on a Spanish colonial city (p253). Why use the phrase ‘unhappy precedent’, unless one hoped that it had not been a defeat for the British? It would make more sense just to explain what happened. Perhaps Parker is just being sarcastic. But this kind of phrase is found in the writings of many who look upon their country’s depredations as casting a bad light on what, at heart, is a decent country worth defending. Nevertheless, The Sugar Barons is well worth reading to get a good idea of the state of the world before the emergence of industrial capitalism and imperialism.
Tony Norfield, 4 August 2011
Addendum, 24 September 2013: A reader of the above review points out that many Irish slaves (or 'indentured labourers') were also sent from Ireland to the Caribbean by British 'transportation' policies. This was not covered in my review, nor in the book, but the numbers involved were significant. For further information, check out Wikipedia or an article here.
 Paul Bignell, ‘Secret memos expose link between oil firms and invasion of Iraq’, The Independent, 19 April 2011.
 Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery, University of North Carolina Press, 1994 (originally published in 1944).
 For a useful review of the modern version of slavery, see Kevin Bales, Understanding Global Slavery, University of California Press, 2005. Today’s slavery is bound up with the news stories of ‘human trafficking’ and is principally a result of bonded labour, resulting from debts owed to landlords and moneylenders in poor countries. Today there are reported to be around 27 million bonded labourers and other forms of slave working in countries all over the world, including in the richer countries.
 Karl Marx was referring to such behaviour when he wrote that “Jamaican history is characteristic of the beastliness of the true Englishman”, a comment that Parker notes in his book.
 Hispaniola was the name of the major island in the Caribbean now containing the Dominican Republic and Haiti. The island had been fought over by major European powers, and was divided up mainly between France and Spain.