Power, money and corruption in the British Empire: the English families for whom the sugar trade brought wealth beyond their wildest dreams
The contemporary image of the West Indies as paradise islands conceals a turbulent, dramatic and shocking history.
For 200 years after 1650, the West Indies witnessed one of the greatest power struggles of the age, as Europeans made and lost immense fortunes growing and trading in sugar - a commodity so lucrative that it was known as white gold.
This compelling book tells how the islands became by far most valuable and important colonies in the British Empire. How Barbados, scene of the sugar revolution that made the English a nation of voracious consumers, was transformed from a backward outpost into England's richest colony, powered by the human misery of tens of thousands of enslaved Africans. How this model of coercion and exploitation was exported around the region, producing huge wealth for a few, but creating a society poisoned by war, disease, cruelty and corruption. How Jamaican opulence reached its zenith, and its subsequent calamitous decline; and the growing revulsion against slavery that led to emancipation.
At the heart of The Sugar Barons are the human stories of the families whose fortunes rose and fell with those of the West Indian empire: the family of James Drax, the first sugar baron, who introduced sugar cultivation to Barbados, as well as extensive slavery; the Codringtons, the most powerful family in the Leeward Islands, who struggled to fashion a workable society in the Caribbean but in the end succumbed to corruption and decadence; and the Beckfords, Jamaica's leading planters, who amassed the greatest sugar fortune of all, only to see it frittered away through the most extraordinary profligacy.
The Sugar Barons reveals how the importance of the West Indies made a crucial contribution to the loss of the North American colonies, and explores the impact of the empire on Britain, where it still constitutes perhaps the darkest episode in our history.
“Compelling, wonderful . . . The Sugar Barons is an exemplary book; history as it should be written”
“Gripping . . . a compendium of greed, horrible ingenuity and wickedness, but also a fascinating and thoughtful social history”
“A shocking tale of corruption and brutality ... an admirable and gripping history”
“Very impressive - a meticulously researched piece of work, and so engagingly written ... what a story!”
Andrea Levy, author of Small Island and Long Song
“A tumultuous rollercoaster of a book ... Mr Parker tells an extraordinary, neglected and shameful history with gusto”
“Parker's descriptions of West Indian life are not only beautifully crafted but full of surprises. What's more, his accounts of tropical combat are utterly compelling. As a portrait of the heat, horror and vanity of that time, The Sugar Barons is surely without equal”
John Gimlette, Spectator
“Parker's epic story, from the 19th century to the present day, is awesome”
“An epic tale of human folly and endeavour, beautifully told and researched”
John le Carre
“Alternately excoriating and scintillating, Parker's account blends an analysis of how slavery deformed Britain's early empire with narratives worthy of Conrad. It is a tale peopled by terrifying grotesques: captains of industry whose initiative, swagger and fortitude were more than matched by the monstrous scale of their crimes.”
Tom Holland, Guardian (Book of the Year)
“Fabulously researched, the diary entries, letters and papers reveal a staggering level of corruption and cruelty . . . He constructs, piece by piece, what amounts to a compelling prosecution of the slavery and Imperial greed that left a shocking legacy in the region”
“Racy, well-researched history . . . The Sugar Barons provides eloquent testimony to the mercantile greed of a few and manifest misery endured by millions in the pursuit of sweetness”
Ian Thomson, Guardian
“Required reading for anyone interested in history ... timely and thrillingly told”