Sugar transformed our world. From its origins in New Guinea, this tall sappy grass initially made slow progress around the globe. It reached India in 500 BC, and then travelled harmlessly to Persia, arriving 1,000 years later. But, in the early 15th century, it reached Europe, and suddenly everything changed. Sugar would become the catalyst for the greatest and most rapacious expansion that humankind has ever seen.
Europeans couldn’t get enough of it, and were soon rearranging the world. No longer was foreign adventure a matter of pilfering and persecution; by the early 1600s, the newly emerging seapowers were competing for land. Huge tracts of South America and the Caribbean were snapped up, and then fought over for the next 200 years — often with devastating ferocity (Britain’s attack on Cuba in 1741 involved 28,000 troops, of whom 22,000 perished). West Africa, meanwhile, was plundered for its labour, and maintained in a state of perpetual war.
Much ink — and much blood — has been spilt on the topic of the sugar economies, and the slaves that powered them. But less has been said about the planters who kept it all going, and the tendency has been to dismiss them as ogres. In this fascinating new study, Matthew Parker (much admired for Hell’s Gorge, his history of the Panama canal) sheds new light on this neglected class. But it’s a vast topic, and so Parker wisely focuses on a single theatre, the English Caribbean, from around 1640 to 1830.
Of course, there are still plenty of ogres. From the very start, England produced men who were casually cruel, and rum (or ‘Kill-Devil’) made them crueller still. There were no effective laws protecting slaves, and public displays of mutilation were considered essential to government. Planters and their servants could also be sexually voracious, and Jamaica’s Port Royal, in 1680, was described by one visitor ‘as more rude and antic than ere was Sodom’. Almost 10 per cent of the colonies’ children were progeny of the white man’s ‘goatish embraces’. Sometimes, he won his way with trinkets, but, as often as not, he took what he wanted regardless of consent. By way of case study, we are treated to a chapter on Thomas Thistlewood, who arrived in Jamaica, in 1750. Not only did he rape hundreds of slave girls, he also logged every violation in his journal, written in schoolboy Latin.
But the sugar barons are by no means all repellent. Parker concentrates on three families in particular: the Draxes, the Codringtons and the Beckfords. They were all self-made, arrived at the start, and became fabulously wealthy (indeed, around 1800, the Beckfords produced Britain’s first commoner millionaire). Unsurprisingly, they all had their moments of monstrosity but there were also moments of enlightenment (like William Codrington’s will of 1703, leaving a vast fortune for the education of slaves). But what’s most striking of all is their ordinariness. Parker’s exhaustive research reveals them to have been savvy businessmen but not much more. Indeed, their legacy would consist of wealth but little else (except pineapples on gateposts, a West Indian sign of welcome). They aren’t ogres, just products of their time.
And that’s perhaps the genius of this book, shedding light on the moral climate of that age. After all, it’s an intriguing question: how did Britain, for so long, not only tolerate but support an industry that was so much at odds with its supposedly Christian values? Parker brings huge understanding to this subject. Of course, greed and opportunity played their part. But he also portrays a morally disorientated society. For much of the period between 1640 and 1800, even the most enlightened Englishmen (including the Quakers) were simply unable to compass the evil of slavery. This is partly because the lives of most Englishmen were themselves characterised by brutality, poverty and ignorance.
This is a magnificent account of a bleak and torrid era, told with great humanity and even some much needed humour. Parker’s descriptions of West Indian life are not only beautifully crafted but full of surprises. What’s more, his accounts of tropical combat are utterly compelling (in particular, Cromwell’s savage invasion of Jamaica in 1655, with an army comprised of the ‘scum of scums’). As a portrait of the heat, horror and vanity of that time, The Sugar Barons is surely without equal.