THE SUGAR BARONS
Matthew Parker, Walker & Co., 446 pages, $30.
Europeans first encountered sugar's sweet delights in the 15th century. Within a couple of hundred years the coming of sea power, and with it the means to create empires across the oceans, resulted in large tracts of land in South America and the Caribbean being seized. Matthew Parker's narrative account of the sugar trade that resulted and the formidable families who were behind it is a tumultuous rollercoaster of a book.
The wealth that came from sugar was extraordinary. In late 17th-century Barbados, the income from a 200-acre cane plantation and the processing factory that went with it was enough to support the lifestyle of a duke in England. A hundred years later, the trade flowing from Jamaica alone -- sugar, slaves and rum, which was made from molasses -- was worth more than all the traffic with North America. But while the "plantocracy" accumulated massive fortunes, there was a terrible downside to the whole enterprise.
The British and other Europeans who went out to the West Indies to get rich usually died first. The climate and the mosquito-infested swamps, combined with copious quantities of rum, took an appalling toll. In Kingston, the biggest town in Jamaica, about 20 percent of the white population succumbed to fatal diseases each year, mainly yellow fever. Even if you were one of the few with the constitution to survive, there was a good chance that a raid by the French or marauding buccaneers would get you instead. There was also no shortage of natural disasters preparing to strike at any time, from hurricanes to earthquakes.
West Africans were thought to have a greater resistance to the heat and the tropical diseases, so slaves began to replace indentured white labor in the plantations. But their life expectancy was hardly better. Weakened by the dreadful conditions on the slave ships sailing the notorious Middle Passage and worked to exhaustion by cruel overseers, they too died in huge numbers. The whole vile business went into decline in the early 19th century through a combination of the moral and social decay in the islands, growing revulsion against the slave trade in Britain and an understandable preference among the successors of the founding plantation families for flaunting their wealth at home rather than managing their West Indian estates.
"The Sugar Barons" suffers from opening chapters that hop between time and place a bit too much, and what will strike many readers as a slightly hurried end. But for the most part, Parker tells an extraordinary, neglected and shameful story with gusto and a keen eye for the telling contemporary quotation.