A rich, multifaceted account of the greed and slavery bolstering the rise of England’s mercantile empire.
Considering the myriad international influences that vied for predominance in the West Indies, London-based author Parker (Panama Fever: The Epic Story of One of the Greatest Human Achievements of All Time-- the Building of the Panama Canal, 2008, etc.) wisely focuses on the pioneer British dynasties that built the sugar empires on Barbados and the English Leeward islands, such as the related Drax and Codrington clans, and later on Jamaica, the Beckfords. Sugar production was not initially an English enterprise—from New Guinea to India, Persia to North Africa, sugar-cane cultivation was carried ever westward by the Arabs, Spanish and especially the Portuguese, the last who “put to cane” the islands of Madeira, Principe and the vast colony of Brazil to corner the sugar market by the early 17th century. The enterprising Dutch elbowed into Barbados by the 1640s, creating the ideal conditions whereby James Drax, an Anglican immigrant, would learn by trial and error how to coax the fabulous new crop in the rich soil. Barbados became a magnet for the dumping of indentured servants, dissidents and the disaffected during the reign of Charles I, followed by refugees from the English Civil War, many of whom perished by ill treatment and disease within three years of arriving. However, sugar production was labor-intensive, and blacks from West Africa—already long established as labor within Portuguese possessions—were imported, apparently hardier and more tractable than the native Caribs. Parker delves skillfully into the important effects of the English Civil War, such as the passage of the Navigation Act of 1651, which created a formal system of mercantilism to benefit England’s home vessels and ports; even Oliver Cromwell masterminded a “western design” into Hispaniola and Jamaica, to less-than-successful effect. Still, the English dug in, and their treatment of slaves to wring profits from vast plantations was predictably harsh and deplorable.
Parker achieves admirable clarity and focus in this sprawling, ugly, complicated story of the sugar revolution.