[Marxism] The Sugar Barons

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Aug 17 06:43:47 MDT 2011


The Sugar Barons by Matthew Parker - review

The cane fields of the West Indies hid a corrupt society

     Ian Thomson
     The Guardian, Saturday 2 April 2011

In Jamaica recently, I was invited to lunch at a Restoration-era 
plantation house. The sound of crushed ice clinking against glass 
greeted me, as bow-tied waiters served guests at a long table 
draped in linen. The top brass of the island's sugar industry was 
there. For three centuries the plantation's slave-grown sugar had 
satisfied the British craving for cakes, confections and the 
popular version of coffee and tea (that "blood-sweetened 
beverage", the abolitionist poet Southey called it).

Modern Britain, according to Matthew Parker, was built on sugar. 
There is hardly a manufacturing town on these shores that was not 
in some way connected to the "Africa trade". The glittering 
prosperity of slave ports such as Bristol and Liverpool was 
derived in large part from commerce with Africa. In the heyday of 
the British slave trade, from 1700 to 1808, West Indians (as white 
sugar barons were then known) became conspicuous by their new 
wealth. A popular melodrama of 1771, Richard Cumberland's The West 
Indian, satirised them as boorish creatures who had settled in the 
Caribbean to acquire a fortune and a social status they would have 
been denied at home.

In The Sugar Barons, Parker provides a glittery history of the 
British impresarios, heiresses and remittance men involved in 
Caribbean slavery. Typically they cast Jamaica or Barbados aside 
like a sucked orange in order to fritter their profits back home 
in England. Outside of Georgian London, the greatest concentration 
of retired West Indians was in the Bristol suburb of Clifton. 
There, in their cocked hats and fashionably buckled shoes, the new 
men of capital were disliked for their ostentation. George III, 
the story goes, was peeved to encounter a West Indian in the 
seaside resort of Weymouth whose coach was more resplendent than 
his own. "Sugar, sugar, hey? – all that sugar!" the king 
complained loudly.

In this racy, well-researched history, Parker concentrates on such 
egregiously cruel sugar barons as Thomas Thistlewood, who ran a 
slave plantation in west Jamaica between 1750 and 1786. By his own 
precise account, Thistlewood had sexual intercourse on 3,852 
occasions throughout his 40-year-long Caribbean rampage. His 
strenuous licentiousness, chronicled in schoolboy Latin in a diary 
he kept ("About 2am, cum Negro girls"), makes it clear that sex 
was important to Britain's imperial project: the empire gave 
planters like Thistlewood the licence to abuse their captive women 
and indulge a predatory nature.

Needless to say, sugar barons had no scruple about the brutality 
of the "Negro trade". At Drax Hall estate in north Jamaica, slaves 
were flogged virtually into the grave in order to speed up 
cane-cutting and crushing. (The Drax family gave its name to the 
fiendish Sir Hugo Drax in Ian Fleming's 007 extravaganza Moonraker.)

Since the West Indies were riddled with disease, insects and 
reptiles, British planters became absentee landlords if they 
could, or else they liquidated their tropical holdings outright. 
Still others never set foot in the West Indies at all. The Gothic 
novelist William Beckford's sole attempt, in 1787, to visit his 
father's property Drax Hall took him no further than Lisbon: 
sea-sickness, combined with a fear of shipboard cockroaches, 
detained him.

The few planters who did stay behind aimed to send their children 
"home" to England for their education. Tobias Smollett (pictured), 
the 18th-century Scottish novelist, having married a "home-comer" 
from Jamaica, appointed a London agent to oversee the sale and 
purchase of his wife's slaves. Typically, funds were slow to 
arrive as British slaving agents were inefficient and, often as 
not, drunk. "That cursed Ship from Jamaica", Smollett complained 
in a letter of 1756, "is at last arrived without Letter or 
Remittance." Smollett and his wife could hope to earn £80 for each 
"Negro man" sold on their behalf – a considerable sum in those days.

To judge by Parker's account, sugar was the only reason for the 
British Caribbean's existence. Barbados society was notably 
created from slavery; Barbadian customs and culture were fashioned 
by slavery. The effects of slavery are moreover plain to see in 
the island's class and racial divides today. Though African 
complicity in the British slave trade can hardly be ignored, 
Parker makes nothing of it. The African side of transatlantic 
slavery was exemplified by the slave castles the British operated 
along the Gold Coast until the slave trade's abolition in 1807, 
and which served as holding centres for Africans captured by and 
sold into servitude by fellow Africans. Conceivably, the forebears 
of British Jamaicans today passed through these 
warehouse-dungeons. The Sugar Barons provides eloquent testimony 
to the mercantile greed of a few and the manifest misery endured 
by millions in the pursuit of sweetness.

Ian Thomson's The Dead Yard: A Story of Modern Jamaica (Faber) won 
the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje award 2010.

More information about the Marxism mailing list