logo: Matthew Parker: Panama Fever
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The Sugar Barons

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 the 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 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 the islands’ fortunes: 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.

 

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