Sugar, Slavery & Colonial Rivalry

Matthew Parker, The Sugar Barons: Family, Corruption, Empire and War

Hutchinson, 446pp, £25.00, ISBN 9780091925833

reviewed by Tony Norfield

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 tells of how 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, on a climate that was very fertile for the rapid growth of sugar cane. Revenues were high because sugar was a new luxury product beginning to get a mass market in Europe, and also because of the restriction of competition within 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, long 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 considered 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 a thousand 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 have been 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, when we consider that representatives from Shell and BP met the UK Labour trade minister Baroness Symons ahead of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, it would seem that little has essentially changed, except that there is now a clearer division of labour between the state and the corporations; against this history, scepticism about the NATO mission in Libya is well-founded.

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 culminated in 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 associated with 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 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 briefly covers the long period of agitation in Britain against the slave trade, ahead of the passing of the Slave Trade Act in 1808. His account provides fascinating details of the impact of the agitation on the sugar baron families who are the main subject of his book. 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. 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 Eric Williams’ classic text, Capitalism and Slavery (University of North Carolina Press, 1944). Williams shows how the economic factors were the driving motivation 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.