I’ve learnt quite a lot from reading The Sugar Barons, by Matthew Parker, and I previously didn’t realise how interesting is the history of the West Indies. I read another book about Sugar in Barbados some time ago, and therefore knew something about the history of that island, and Parker’s book covers some of the same material, but it also deals with sugar production and its history in other islands, especially Jamaica and Antigua, and places the history of the sugar barons in a wider context.
I had not realised how deadly the islands in the West Indies were in the early centuries of their development – in Kingston, as many as 20% of the town’s population died every year during the first decades of the eighteenth century, mostly from malaria and yellow fever. Sometimes the death rate for Europeans was higher than for slaves, despite the poor diet and living conditions of the latter. It was a cruel existence for all concerned, and lead to much drinking and unsavoury conduct.
Treatment of slaves was extremely harsh in Jamaica, Barbados and the other islands and worse than on the American mainland. This was because the plantation owners and managers were more outnumbered on the islands by slaves. Many believed that the only way to keep order and stop revolts was by using dreadful methods of control.
A lot of the plantation owners became absentee owners. Those who survived often made large fortunes, and sometimes spent them back in the UK, on building enormous houses and buying their way into Parliament. There, they were known as West Indian nabobs. Parker doesn’t say so, but I believe that some reformers in Parliament wanted to extend the franchise so that such nouveau riche could no longer purchase seats.
Many of the plantation overseers were Scottish (probably because their relatively better education in Scotland made them seek opportunities not available in their homeland, and also because of changes to Scottish society in the 18th century). Sometimes, due to the free availability of rum, they were responsible for the worst attrocities against their slaves.
I had not realised that, towards the late 18th century, the Caribbean colonies were seen in North America as extensions of the mainland colonies, and many there expected the islands to join with them in revolt against the Crown. Although the West Indian assemblies had a long tradition of defying imperial control from London, that they didn’t join the North Americans was partially because the English in the West Indies never had the attachment to the place that those in North America developed. For many in the West Indies, ‘home’ remained Britain. They were also much more dependant on trade with London, Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow than the North Americans.
There was much more fighting between the islands than I had realised. French, British and Spanish colonies changed hands fairly regularly.
At the end of the Seven Years War, at the Treaty of Paris, the French were given the choice of retaining Guadeloupe or ceding large parts of Canada. They did not hesitate to choose Guadeloupe and hand over Canada. In London, people thought that the government had sold out to the French! What happened only makes sense when you realise how valuable the islands were in those days – in 1773, exports from Grenada alone were worth eight times those from Canada.