Happy families

By Bridget Brereton

The Sugar Barons: Family, Corruption, Empire, and War in the West Indies, by Matthew Parker
(Walker and Company, ISBN 0802717446, 464 pp)

Codrington College

Codrington College, Barbados. Photograph by jcantroot, posted at Flickr under a Creative Commons license

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.

In this sense, the book belongs to an older tradition of writing West Indian histories, the tradition that was dominant up to the 1950s, before the “decolonisation” of Caribbean historiography. This older school had no doubt that the creators of Caribbean history were Europeans. These were the men (hardly ever women) who “founded her [England’s] colonies, fought her battles, covered the ocean with commerce, and spread our race over the planet to leave a mark upon it which time will not efface,” in the words of J.A. Froude, one of the main writers of this school. Froude wrote in the 1880s, but in a book published in 1951, W.L. Burn wrote that the real interest in studying the region’s past was as the scene of the “thoughts and activities of men, and especially of Englishmen, over three centuries.” And in his History of the British West Indies, published in 1954, Sir Alan Burns saw the history of the region as “mainly the story of the white conquerors and settlers, as the much larger Negro population, during the centuries of slavery, had little to do, save indirectly, with the shaping of events.” The story of the conquerors and settlers, Burns noted, was “one of brave deeds and romance, and, unfortunately, of abominable cruelty” — but good or bad, that was the story that counted.

So Matthew Parker’s ambitious book is old-fashioned in the sense that it deals with the settlement of the English colonies in the Caribbean, the wars and British military or naval campaigns, the misdeeds of the buccaneers and their fraternity, the politics of the white settlers, the building of fortunes by the sugar planters. All these are perfectly legitimate topics for historical enquiry, but none is likely to be chosen by most of today’s generation of Caribbean historians — perhaps to their and our loss. It’s old-fashioned too in being essentially narrative history. Of course, there’s some analysis, and some “pauses” in the narrative flow, but basically Parker aims to tell a series of interrelated stories as dramatically as possible. But since there’s been something of a “return” to narrative history in recent years, he may in fact be ahead rather than behind the trends here.

Parker confines his study to the English, later British, islands (he omits the British settlements on the mainland of Central and South America altogether), and takes for his chronological period the 1630s to 40s (the start of the “Sugar Revolution” in Barbados) to the early 1800s (when the decline of the older sugar colonies had begun). In other words, he concentrates on the “old” sugar colonies — Barbados, the Leeward Islands, Jamaica — and on the heyday of the sugar planters of those islands. As a result, he says little about the islands that became British in 1763 (Tobago, Dominica, St Vincent, Grenada), and nothing at all about Trinidad or the Guyanese colonies, which didn’t develop as important sugar colonies until after 1800.

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.” He quotes Williams approvingly in calling the Caribbean “the cockpit of Europe, the arena of Europe’s wars, hot and cold.” One can sense the regret when it’s all over: “The West Indian islands have never recovered their pre-eminent global importance.” Parker is well aware of the price paid by most of the inhabitants of the region for its “cockpit of Europe” status, but chooses not to dwell on it.

Most of the writers on Caribbean history of the older “imperial” school concentrated on the same period as Parker, the period when Sugar was King and European states competed for possession of the colonies, and tended to lose interest in the following period, when sugar was in decline and the powers no longer wanted to seize West Indian islands. Since his main theme is the rise of the sugar barons, Parker’s choice of period is understandable: he’s more interested in their fortune-building phase than in “the fall of the planter class in the British Caribbean” (the title of a famous book by Lowell Ragatz, published in 1928 and much admired by Williams). But he seems to share with some of the “imperial” historians the view that once the old plantocracy had indeed “fallen,” what followed was abandonment and overall decline. In a word, ruin — the great trope of these historians when dealing with the period after the end of slavery. “An almost palpable sense of decline” hung over the islands after the end of the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans and as emancipation approached, Parker writes, and the colonies became decreasingly valuable to Britain after the 1830s. Again, it is not part of his project to make the point that “ruin” for the old plantocracy might not have been altogether a disaster for the majority of people inhabiting the islands.

Parker focuses on the sugar barons in the heyday of plantation slavery in the Caribbean. He notes that “writing about West Indian history has, unsurprisingly, been dominated by a concern with slavery and . . . with the economics of the plantation system”; but he has “tried to focus on other aspects of the time, although, of course, neither can be ignored.” Enslaved people are not at the forefront of his narrative, though they are certainly not absent; free non-white people are virtually invisible. Perhaps this will offend some; but there’s more to the region’s history than slavery, even during the era when it dominated society, and a new/old approach to the period may illuminate it.

At no point in this book does Parker seek to evade or ignore the brutality of enslaved labour, on which his barons founded and maintained their fortunes. There are many sections on the vicious realities of Caribbean plantation slavery, such as chapter twelve, on late-seventeenth-century Barbados, in which he writes: “the brutality of the plantations was perhaps unprecedented in Western history.” Or chapter twenty-three, based on the famous diaries of Thomas Thistlewood, an overseer and then small landowner in Jamaica between the 1750s and the 1780s. (To his credit, Parker has read and quotes from the actual, voluminous diaries, not just the two books published about Thistlewood by Douglas Hall and Trevor Burnard, which provide many quotations from them.) He presents Thistlewood as he was: both a well-read would-be gentleman and a “monster: a rapist and a brutal sociopath.” So while this is not a book about slavery or about the victims of that system, the reader will be left in no doubt about the realities of the “peculiar institution.”

Because Parker’s subject is the English families who gained great fortunes out of sugar and slaves, one might see it as part of the project underway in Britain to educate the population about their ancestors’ role in the slave empire, and how it helped to build up the mother country’s economy. This project received an impetus in the events held to commemorate the bicentennial of the British abolition of the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans, in 2007. One aspect is the “outing” of British families whose inter-generational wealth rests or rested, in part or wholly, on trading in and owning enslaved Africans. Some of the families Parker writes about seem to have disappeared, like the Beckfords of Jamaica, the richest of the lot. Others are still around, like the Lascelles family (Barbados) of Harewood House, an enormous stately pile in Yorkshire. The oldest dynasty of them all, the Drax family of Barbados, still owns Drax Hall and estate in that island, and (according to Parker) the owner visits every year. In 2010, Richard Drax was elected to the British House of Commons, continuing a family tradition.

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. So, often enough, were their sons and grandsons, who carried on and extended the plantations, built up vast trading networks, and amassed ever greater fortunes. In the case of the Beckfords, the leading men of the first three generations generally possessed those characteristics; but the heir in the fourth generation, William Beckford of Fonthill, was a talented layabout who managed to squander virtually all of an enormous fortune in a few decades. (His fascinating and scandalous story is told in chapter twenty-eight).

Sir James Drax was the man who began it all in Barbados, around 1640, and several of the early chapters of Parker’s book tell the story of the Drax-led “Sugar Revolution” in the island which provided the model, and became the “mother colony,” for the later sugar colonies of the Leewards and then Jamaica. The Drax dynasty would endure in Barbados, as we noted, and it also established a branch in Jamaica, with the result that there are two Drax Halls, one in each island.

The Codringtons, whose properties were in Barbados and the Leewards, were remarkable for the famous will of Christopher Codrington the Younger (head of the West Indian branch of the family in the third generation). In 1703, he was the wealthiest man in the English West Indies, with plantations in Barbados, Antigua, and St Kitts, and the owner of the whole of Barbuda, as well as a major landed estate in England. Besides making an immense donation to Oxford University for a great library there, he willed two valuable Barbados estates, with their enslaved labour force, to the Anglican Society for the Propagation of the Christian Religion, to provide for the construction and maintenance of Codrington College. It was to teach medicine and divinity, in order to train men to minister to the souls and bodies of the “Heathens” in Barbados — the slaves. When he died in 1710, and over bitter local opposition, the Anglican Church (the Society) became a slave owner and ran slave plantations, in a “radical experiment,” a “laboratory” for later efforts to convert “natives” elsewhere in the British empire. It gave a “toehold” in Barbados to an organisation which, though not antislavery, did represent an alternative moral universe to that of planter/slave society. The Codringtons sold off their last West Indian plantations in 1944, but the college survived, in a splendid neoclassical building, and is now an Anglican theological college affiliated to the University of the West Indies.

I suppose The Sugar Barons would be described as “popular” history: the author is not a university historian, and though there are notes and an impressive bibliography, the text is not densely referenced in the academic style. It shares many of the characteristics of good popular history: vigorous storytelling, a narrative flow, a fondness for anecdotes, very detailed accounts of exciting events, especially of battles and so on, and a fascination with colourful, strange, wicked, or downright weird individuals — William Beckford of Fonthill, for instance. I did find some of the narrative details excessive, especially in the chapters on military and naval campaigns, but the book is well written and generally very readable.

Though this is not a conventional academic text, Parker is very well read. The bibliography is long, and despite some surprising gaps (such as Barry Higman’s important Plantation Jamaica, 1750–1850, published in 2005), it is generally quite comprehensive and up to date, with items published in 2007 to 2009. Moreover, Parker makes very good use of archival and published contemporary sources, with many well-chosen quotations. Some sections are based on little-used archival sources and present fresh materials, such as chapter twenty, which is mainly based on the correspondence of eighteenth-century Rhode Island merchants who owned sugar estates in the Leewards, traded in rum and molasses, and also dabbled in slave trading. Parker includes much more “social” history in his narrative than the earlier writers of the imperial tradition — though there’s lots of political and military events too — and he incorporates some of the work of academic demographic and social historians into his chapters.

Overall, this is a lively, well-written book, based for the most part on sound scholarship. While there’s nothing especially new in it, either in terms of empirical data or interpretation, it’s informative and readable. Useful maps, family trees of the Drax, Codrington, and Beckford families, and well-chosen illustrations enhance the work.


The Caribbean Review of Books, January 2012

Bridget Brereton is emerita professor of history at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine. She is the author or editor of several books and many articles or chapters on the history of Trinidad and Tobago, and on the post-emancipation development of the Caribbean.