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46 of 46 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A "must read" for those interested in British and Caribbean history
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...
Published on 28 April 2011 by Big Jim

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8 of 17 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Plodding
My husband asked for this book as he is interested in this area of history, even though I had read several reviews (The Oldie was lukewarm about it, I seem to recall) and had previously decided not to surprise him with it. Unusually for him, a man who can read a large hardbook book in two days if it interests him, he has still not finished it six months later. He says...
Published on 12 Jun. 2012 by L. E. Metcalfe


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46 of 46 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A "must read" for those interested in British and Caribbean history, 28 April 2011
By 
Big Jim "Big Jim" (London, UK) - See all my reviews
(TOP 100 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: The Sugar Barons (Hardcover)
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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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Fascinating and Unusual History With Some Interesting New Perspectives, 10 July 2012
By 
Dr. R. Brandon (England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Sugar Barons (Hardcover)
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.
Perhaps some of the most interesting parts of the book relate to the interplay and mutual dependence between the West Indies and the North American colonies, and why during the 17th and 18th centuries the West Indies appeared to be the more valuable to Britain. The early factors which sowed the seeds of rebellion in North America, the Navigation Act, the Molasses Act and other trade restrictions, not to mention the removal of the French threat from Canada, are interesting and show that there was more to this than is often represented by just the `Boston Tea Party'. Unfortunately the all too familiar story of British government incompetence and misjudgement plays a major role. The story of filial squandering of hard earned sugar fortunes also makes for depressing reading.
This book can be quite heavy going at times and might have been an easier read had some of the sections on minor and rather inconsequential characters been omitted, however, it must be very difficult to discard hard won research. Nevertheless this is an illuminating read and throws quite a different slant on early English colonial history.
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29 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An epic tale expertly told, 30 May 2011
This review is from: The Sugar Barons (Hardcover)
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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23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A great read, 10 May 2011
This review is from: The Sugar Barons (Hardcover)
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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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars sugar, booze, doe & death, 17 Oct. 2014
By 
M. Baerends - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Sugar Barons (Paperback)
This is a book I will not lightly forget. It describes the ups and downs in the life of a number of families on a selected few Caribbean islands (the British controlled ones, basically). Starting from the early 1600s settlements in Barbados based on unsuccesful tobacco planting we see the dramatic impact of the sugar industry. This industry, extremely capital-intensive by contemporary standards, completely changed the picture as it put small planters out of business, while making the biggest ones extremely rich. Of course, being extremely labour-intensive as well, its rapid growth led to the imports of vast numbers of slaves.
The 'conquest' of Jamaica in the mid 1650s, part of Cromwell's 'Western design' is another highlight - what a mess that was. In general, life on the islands had a pretty depressive aspect: the insane mortality (equal to that during the height of London's 1666 plague - but all the time, year in year out), the resulting influx of desperadoes trying to get rich quickly or die trying in the attempt, the excessive drinking, the horrific violence required to keep the growing slave population in check - not much good about it all, except for the lucky few who made fortunes out of sugar. This is all nicely contrasted to life in the American colonies where people had much better life expectancies, drank less, prayed more & did work themselves - most of them anyway.
Again, fantastic read, highly recommended. One minor point of criticism is that the various wars might have been described in just a bit more detail.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating, often shocking read about the 'first British Empire'..., 19 April 2014
By 
C. Ball (Derbyshire) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Sugar Barons (Paperback)
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. I could hardly put this book down. In the wrong hands this could have been an immensely dull and dry scholarly work, but Parker writes with real flair, populating his narrative with colourful figures, both sympathetic and abhorrent. Pirates, slaves, merchants, traders, plantation owners, politicians, rebels, soldiers and sailors, they're all here.

That said, this book is far more than just a history of sugar production - it is more of a history of colonialism in the West Indies from the mid-seventeenth century up to the abolition of slavery in the early nineteenth, and the creation of the 'first British Empire', founded on an immensely rich market in sugar and slaves. Parker pulls no punches, detailing the horrifying realities of life for a slave on a sugar plantation, contrasted with the life of almost unparalleled luxury and magnificence enjoyed by those select families whose fortunes were made, names such as Drax, Codrington and Beckford.

What I found particularly interesting was the relationship between the West Indies and the American colonies, a relationship I never thought much about, for all my interest in the American settlement. So much of the available land on the Caribbean islands was given over to sugar production that they relied heavily on the American colonies for almost all food and lumber, creating a heavy dependence that had a devastating impact in the wake of the American Revolution. Similarly, sugar, molasses and rum, and the British government attempts to regulate and profit from the trade thereof, played an important role in stiffening resentment and antagonism towards the 'mother country' and helped soften the ground for the seed that would become the American Revolution.

And all this from sugar? Who knew?
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars sugar: the origins for the industrial-colonial model, 14 Mar. 2012
This review is from: The Sugar Barons (Paperback)
Parkers history of the West Indies sugar industry is one of the most valuable reads of the year for students of industrial and imperial history. He outlines the origins of the industry which originated on the Caribbean island of Barbados and reached its peak with the cultivation of Jamaica. The final chapters look at eventual decline and collapse.

However, this is much more than a narrative. It's value is in how it draws in key strands of Britains early imperial history showing how they all worked together - but reading between the lines it also makes clear modes of behaviour that still exist amongst the descendants of the sugar barons today - the bankers of the city.

The 17th century saw the cultivation of sugar following ideas first used in Brazil by the Dutch and Portuguese. Other islands soon followed as the price for sugar rocketed in Europe and fortunes were made by the estate owners. Sugar became an essential luxury and demand forced more and more land into cultivation. More was being made in profit than could be spent on the islands- the growing surplus was being spent and invested in England - providing funds for other commercial and early industrial ventures. so far so good, but it is in exploring other aspects of this growth that the book excels:

* the early years coincided with Spain's domination of the area. London encouraged the settlers to help defend and expand their investments. Privateering - the use of ships to attack and loot Spanish treasure ships was encouraged. This would become little more than blatant piracy, especially as it happened consistently, not just during war due to the odd concept that the West Indies were "beyond the line" of normal diplomatic niceties. By the late 17th century this was real "Pirates of the Caribbean territory.
* Sugar is not an easy crop to produce. It requires complex processing from cane and as such represents one of the first areas of agriculture heavily dependent on capital and expertise - key elements of the later industrial revolution in Britain.
* From the start the significance of the wealth generated from sugar for the English economy was recognised in London. Cromwell and the restored Stuarts introduced the Navigation Acts to ensure that the industry and its transportation and sale remained in English hands. so developed close ties with that less important part of England's American empire - the New England colonies. Newport, Rhode Island grew in direct response to the profits to be made by trade with the Indies. Many new England families bought land and ran sugar estates in the West indies making vast profits for themselves and giving them political influence in new England. Several are eventual signatories of the Declaration of Independence.

* Attitudes of the most powerful and influential families towards law and authority from London were selective at best. As time went on and they amassed wealth greater than most others they formed a powerful lobby on the English parliament ensuring financial and foreign policy was directed their way. Government seemed to fear upsetting their perceived interests in way familiar to their modern relations with the Banks.

* The mid 18th century Sugar and Stamp Acts which ultimately led to the US War of Independence were introduced to provide funding to protect the Indies at the expense of what was considered at the time the less significant colonial territory.

However the key thread of the book is that of slavery. Generally little focus is placed on the use of slaves in British colonies. Writers (and syllabuses) tend to focus on the slave trade - the inference being the slaves were carried to be used elsewhere - presumably the US southern plantations. Parker makes it very clear that this "modern" slavery was driven by the needs of the Indies. Sugar cultivation is very labour intensive. The islands were amongst the least healthy places on earth with mortality, especially amongst Europeans being very high. Slaves brought in from Africa were the answer for the owners and were employed in ever growing numbers from the mid 17th century, despite their own high death rates. On some islands they eventually outnumbered whites 16 to 1. They were considered of little value other than as an economic commodity and Parker shows clearly how dehumanised the owners and their white management had become to slavery. In places I was reminded of the treatment in Schindlers List of the Jews by the Feinnes character in the Labour camp. Harsh, brutal treatment was considered by many as correct. Even those arriving from England with initial scruples, usually lost them pretty soon. In one of the books most valuable chapters though Parker uses the diaries of an English overseer Thomas Thistlewood, to draw attention to the complexities of the white-black relationship as well as its sexual consequences for women slaves.

Supported throughout by individual histories with a focus on the Landowners, this is well written and accompanied by good maps and illustrations.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Sugar Barons, 29 Oct. 2012
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This review is from: The Sugar Barons (Paperback)
This is the way history should be recorded and presented. It was listed for my Reading Circle and, as I'd spent many holidays in the West Indies, I thought it might be of special interest - and I was not disappointed. In mirror history, the European wars were fought out among the islands as individually they rose or fell with the fortunes of the Spanish, French, English, Portugese and the Dutch, cursed by terrible weather, harsh terrain, plague and successions of armies, not to mention the greed and exploitation of the barrons themselves. If only my history teacher had had such skills I would not have forsaken her subject too early for my O Levels, and my life might have been changed for ever!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The past is a foreign country?, 17 Feb. 2012
By 
Daniel Park "danielpark99" (West Yorkshire, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Sugar Barons (Paperback)
Matthew Parker has a passion for good history. His research is thorough and his narration is utterly compelling. It perfectly highlights the events leading to the meteroric rise and fall of the sugar barons - a class of ambitious, but latterly greedy and ultimately feckless businessmen who founded a money-making empire in the 17th Century and then lost it all to war, natural disasters and short-term profits that resulted in soil depletion and the sheer waste of human lives that inevitably came from human slavery.

Time and again, Parker cites Englishmen and women of seemingly good character who boldly criticise the brutal methods of the sugar barons, but then go on to either justify the practice of slavery or become so immune to the brutality in the West Indies that they begin to condone or even participate in it. To begin with, I found myself thinking of that famous quote from Leslie Poles Hartley "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there", but the more I read, the more Parker showed me parallels with the world in which we live today - for whenever we value one "kind" of human being over another to justify our disregard for the plight of those suffering in droughts, wars and famines, we start to slip seamlessly into the mindset of the sugar barons.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Gruesome, gripping, greed, 7 Mar. 2012
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This review is from: The Sugar Barons (Kindle Edition)
This is an excellently written and hugely well-researched book. As other reviewers have mentioned, it could have been dreadfully dry in the style of a school textbook, but instead, in a riveting fashion, it follows events semi-chronologically and shows how the world of today (including the nature of international trade, shipping, war and the modern diet) was influenced by the trade in sugar. Lesser writers would have concentrated on the slave trade alone, but Parker makes it his business to show how that despicable trade took place in a greater context, collusion at all levels being the primary enabler. The mindset required was how people thought during that time and he makes it clear that it was easy for even the liberally minded to become part of the whole sorry business. The image of the last scion of one of the great sugar families, alone in his gothic ruin , thousands of miles away from the source of his wealth and the misery caused by his family, will remain with me for a long time. It doesn't matter if you are not interested in the Caribbean, or in slavery or even international trade; read this book if you are interested in the hubris of humanity , the dark side of humanity and the vulnerability of all the works of Man in the face of nature itself. A great book.
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The Sugar Barons
The Sugar Barons by Matthew Parker (Paperback - 2 Feb. 2012)
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