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A Fascinating and Unusual History With Some Interesting New Perspectives,
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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.