29 of 30 people found the following review helpful
An epic tale expertly told,
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.