The West Indies Trade

Sugar Barons: Family, Corruption, Empire, and War in the West Indies, Matthew Parker, 2011.

I listened to the audiobook version of Matthew Parker’s book, on my drives to and from work at UMass. I’m writing a dissertation about a commodity and about families, so I was very curious. And some of the characters in my story begin their American careers in the “West India Trade,” out of Middletown CT, so I thought I might pick up some data or ideas. I learned a lot about the chronology of Caribbean settlement, the development of the sugar industry, and even the growth of buccaneering and piracy (which sheds an interesting light on British historian Christopher Hill’s articles about the New Model Army and pirates). And I realized that the sugar trade was a key element in the development of the British colonies in North America that often goes unmentioned in US History textbooks.

But there’s actually much less in Sugar Barons about the people than I’d hoped -- especially regular people. The book opens with a description of the voyage to the Indies, from the perspective of a more-or-less ordinary person who wrote a memoir. But the story moves quickly to the people who’d be central in any traditional political/military history from the last century. The book is a pretty standard history in that sense: the main action involves the building of the British sugar empire in Barbados, the Leeward Islands, and Jamaica. There are several big names the story revolves around for a while: James Drax, his son Henry, Peter Beckford, Christopher Codrington. They all seem like very interesting characters, but Parker doesn’t give them much room to move around in. For the most part, the story moves quickly from battle to battle, recounting the major events that shaped the development of the British West Indies.

And it really is the story of the
British West Indies. Although the Spanish and French are present as antagonists, and the Dutch are in Brazil, there’s very little said about their activities or points of view. Even where a description of other nations’ efforts cultivating sugar could have helped contextualize the scope and style of British sugar production, it’s largely missing. Also missing is a discussion or the demand side or the cultural impact of sugar, beyond a few lines describing changes in per capita consumption over time.

An interesting aspect of Parker’s story for me was the impact of sugar and the Caribbean on the development of New England. I used material from Parker’s story in my US History survey, to set the scene for the traditional stories of the Pilgrims, Puritans, and Virginians. Because I think initially, colonists’ expectations for the new world included not only a place to build a new society, but a place where they would get rich. Even religious idealists like the Pilgrims looked forward to opportunities for social mobility that were unavailable to them in England. And right from the start, European colonies in North America were commercial. In addition to fishing, growing tobacco, and trapping beaver, the North American colonies benefited from the booming sugar economy of the Caribbean. Islands such as Barbados that had once produced their own food began to specialize in the highly profitable commodity, so they looked to their neighbor colonies for food supplies. John Winthrop, remembered as the pious Puritan leader who helped establish Boston and was governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony four times before 1650, actually sent his second son Henry to help establish Barbados in 1626. When Cromwell’s English Civil War stopped the flow of trade to the ten-year-old Bay Colony, trade with the West Indies saved Boston’s economy. Winthrop’s younger son Samuel joined the growing community of New England traders in the sugar islands in 1647. And in the southern colonies, commercial cultivation of tobacco for the European market required lots of cheap labor. At first, many of the workers were poor English men and women, who came to the colonies as indentured servants. Later, when the supply of British workers was cut off (by the Civil War, and then again by the American Revolution), southern planters began to rely on enslaved Africans, already present on West Indies sugar plantations, to do the work.

Although there’s slavery throughout the story, Parker steps around much of the brutality and general debauchery when he’s talking about his main characters. Not that he tries to whitewash them — they’re not even really “heroes” in the standard sense. They’re just the central characters of a chapter or two, that the story hangs on or close to. But it might be interesting to dig deeper into the lives of some of these guys, and see them more completely. Slavery is clearly one of the big elephants in the room, but probably not the only one. The younger Christopher Codrington was a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, who during his student years hung around with the lights of London. But he was also a bloodthirsty sod who joined William III’s army in the Netherlands just for the joy of battle. These guys are very complicated, and I would have been really interested in a deeper look into their complex, self-contradictory personalities. I wonder if Parker has a whole lot more of that type of material stored away, that got edited out of the final manuscript?