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The Sugar Barons [Paperback]

Matthew Parker
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (42 customer reviews)
RRP: 8.99
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Book Description

2 Feb 2012

For 200 years after 1650 the West Indies were the most fought-over colonies in the world, as Europeans made and lost immense fortunes growing and trading in sugar - a commodity so lucrative that it was known as white gold.

Young men, beset by death and disease, an ocean away from the moral anchors of life in Britain, created immense dynastic wealth but produced a society poisoned by war, sickness, cruelty and corruption.

The Sugar Barons explores the lives and experiences of those whose fortunes rose and fell with the West Indian empire. From the ambitious and brilliant entrepreneurs, to the grandees wielding power across the Atlantic, to the inheritors often consumed by decadence, disgrace and madness, this is the compelling story of how a few small islands and a handful of families decisively shaped the British Empire.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Windmill Books (2 Feb 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0099558459
  • ISBN-13: 978-0099558453
  • Product Dimensions: 13.2 x 19.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (42 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 34,212 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Born in Central America in 1970, Matthew Parker spent part of his childhood in the West Indies. He has written for most UK national newspapers as well as The Literary Review, History Today and BBC History Magazine, as well as lecturing around the world and contributing to TV and radio programmes in the UK, Canada and US. His bestselling and critically-acclaimed books include Monte Cassino, Panama Fever and The Sugar Barons. His new book, Goldeneye, published in August 2014, explores the importance of Jamaica in the creation of British national icon James Bond. He lives in east London with his family and annoying dog. More at

Product Description


"Compelling, wonderful . . . The Sugar Barons is an exemplary book; history as it should be written" (Independent)

"Gripping . . . a compendium of greed, horrible ingenuity and wickedness, but also a fascinating and thoughtful social history" (William Dalrymple)

"A shocking tale of corruption and brutality ... an admirable and gripping history" (Sunday Times)

"Very impressive - a meticulously researched piece of work, and so engagingly written ... what a story!" (Andrea Levy, author of Small Island and Long Song)

"A tumultuous rollercoaster of a book ... Mr Parker tells an extraordinary, neglected and shameful history with gusto" (Economist)

Book Description

Power, money and corruption in the British Empire: the English families for whom the sugar trade brought wealth beyond their wildest dreams

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
39 of 39 people found the following review helpful
Make no mistake this book could have been a dry old tome, or equally it could have been the sort of dynastic saga once popularised by James Michener. Instead it borrows from the best of both and is both scholarly and exciting, horrific and enlightening. It is very, very readable. It doesn't shirk the issues either. Firmly placing slavery in context, the sugar trade absolutely relied on the practice, it explores the social mores of the time and how families such as the Drax, Codrington and especially the Beckfords made and frittered fortunes amassed thanks to the enforced efforts of fellow humans. The author does not look back with rose tinted glasses either and tells this intriguing tale with well reasoned condemnation but with also a certain understanding of why the colonial powers acted as they did. In the book you will meet pirates, natives, courtesans, and toffs who inhabited a world of great privilege alongside that of the slaves and factory workers who lived in a world of squalor. Although there are many harrowing passages there are also many amazing adventures along the way.

If you are interested in one of the major factors on which the "success" of the British Empire was based, and want a right rollicking yet very human story to read then this is the book for you.
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26 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An epic tale expertly told 30 May 2011
By chris
The subtitle for Matthew Parker's Sugar Barons is Family, Corruption, Empire and War, which provides a fair summary of this incredibly readable account of the West Indies sugar trade.

For Parker, the sugar trade - and the families who made their fortunes from it - provide the starting point for a no-holds barred account of colonialism in the region across the 17th and 18th centuries. In particular, Parker unpacks the British role in the establishment of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, much of which - to this reader at least - came as a shameful revelation. Parker details the barbaric trade right through from the horrendous sea passage from West Africa to the brutality of forced labour on the plantations, where vile punishments and abuse were routinely - and often randomly - meted out by the plantation managers.

In the account of the families - the Draxes, Beckfords and Codringtons - and individuals (notably the extraordinary diary of life on the plantations provided by Thomas Thistlewood) Parker explores, without ever excusing, some of the conditions in which an economy and society could come to be built on such inhuman cruelty: high rates of disease and mortality, which made life cheap and bred amorality, decadence and alcoholism; the vast profits to be had from the sugar trade for the few, often propped up by protectionism; the constant fear amongst the heavily out-numbered white minority of revolt by the slaves; and the realisation that immense wealth could not buy the plantation owners the respectability and acceptance they craved back in England, where they were mocked for their tasteless ostentation - and their West Indian vowels.

Throughout the book there are fascinating sub-plots and details - the breadth and depth of the author's research is astonishing - but Parker is too talented a writer ever to let the pace flag. Sugar Barons is a gripping read from start to finish and is very highly recommended.
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22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A great read 10 May 2011
By Sharon
Shocking, fascinating and unputdownable

I really enjoyed Matthew Parker's book on the building of the Panama Canal, Hell's Gorge, so had high expectations of his new one. In fact, it is even better. At the heart of the book are a handful of family sagas - we trace families across three of four generations, as they progress from entrepreneurs and adventurers, to sugar grandees, to decadent or hapless inheritors. Along the way, there are gripping battles, pirates, smugglers and privateers, and, of course, the horrors of slavery, calmly related, but all the more powerful for that. The author is particularly good at recreating the heat and drunkenly violent atmosphere of the sugar islands, and showing how even those who came out from England with the best intentions were corrupted by the West Indian slave society they found themselves in. The book rattles along at a great pace, but is at the same time is nuanced and highly intelligent, as well as fabulously well-researched. Thoroughly recommended, even if you are not a regular reader of history.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
By Dr. R. Brandon TOP 1000 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This substantial work presents a fascinating history of the West Indies and the major role that these small islands played for over two hundred years in the colonial history of Britain. This pre-eminent role was due to the cultivation of the immensely lucrative crop, sugar. The author, Matthew Parker, has clearly undertaken a prodigious quantity of research in areas not usually covered by works found on British bookshelves; the West Indies and the North American colonies. Parker tells an intriguing tale of early settlement in the West Indies where colonists and planters managed to make a living and eventually prosper despite the depredations caused by the indigenous people, atrocious conditions, frequent wars with Spain and France, and the most calamitous of all, an appalling death rate often equal to that of the great plagues, mainly due to yellow fever. The author describes the cultivation of sugar, initially on the island of Barbados and then the Leeward Islands and finally on an altogether massive scale on Jamaica. In the process he charts the rise of the Drax, Codringtons and Beckfords, the premier sugar barons. Sugar sold for immense sums but was highly labour intensive to grow, complicated to process and soil depleting, factors which inevitably lead to the utilisation of slave labour to make such a hazardous project financially viable.
The elements of the slave trade are explained and there is a section on the growth of buccaneering and piracy. This later subject had me recalling books I had read as a child and it was wonderful to see some of these larger than life characters in the pages of a serious history book.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars good read, educational.
being of irish parentage this book is
very interesting. easy to read also. knew cromwell was a monster but worse than i thought.
Published 1 month ago by mrs mary parris
4.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating, often shocking read about the 'first British Empire'...
I could never have thought I would find myself so engrossed in a history of sugar production in the British West Indies, ie. Jamaica, Barbados, Antigua etc. Read more
Published 3 months ago by C. Ball
5.0 out of 5 stars Sugar amazement
Superb from start to finish. A fascinating subject of significant historical proportions. You will wonder and contemplate every time about the innocent action of adding sugar to... Read more
Published 4 months ago by whippet one
5.0 out of 5 stars History made fascinating
Hugely well-researched and comprehensive history of the islands and the warring nations at a time when communication was very difficult. Learnt a lot.
Published 5 months ago by plou 6691
4.0 out of 5 stars Human greed and cruelty
An easily readable account of the history of the exploitation of the Carribean including privateers, pirates, wars, disease, short life expectation, appalling treatment of slaves... Read more
Published 5 months ago by MISTER MOO
4.0 out of 5 stars The story of the West Indian colonies and their masters
This gripping and enthralling book was originally borrowed from the public library for some casual research. Read more
Published 6 months ago by Neil Spurgeon
4.0 out of 5 stars Sugar
Good and informative history of the sugar barons and sugar islands and it prompted me to then buy The Sugar Girls.
Published 7 months ago by Ryer
5.0 out of 5 stars what a tremendous book
Incredibly detailed, thoroughly researched history of the sugar trade in the Caribbean. Astonishing breadth and attention to detail at the same time. Read more
Published 10 months ago by michaelbcn
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating Read
Matthew Parker makes history come alive in "The Sugar Barons," with vivid imagery of the debauchery, inhumanity and brutality of the English planters and the misery,... Read more
Published 10 months ago by Richard M. Romm
5.0 out of 5 stars Engaging read
An interesting and entertaining history of the West Indian sugar industry, starting from the very early foundation in Barbados to the later centuries on the other islands. Read more
Published 11 months ago by C. Collins
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