cover image The Sugar Barons: Family, Corruption, Empire, and War in the West Indies

The Sugar Barons: Family, Corruption, Empire, and War in the West Indies

Matthew Parker. Walker, $30 (464p) ISBN 978-0-8027-1744-3

Tiny Caribbean islands generate outsized wealth, influence, and cruelty in this gripping history of the British West Indies. Historian Parker (Panama Fever) recounts the heyday of the planters of Barbados, Jamaica, and the Leeward Islands who made sugarcane cultivation into a fabulously profitable agribusiness from the 17th to 19th centuries. The riches their plantations generated made them imperial power brokers, provoked wars%E2%80%94in settling the French and Indian War, France gave up Canada to regain the minute sugar island of Guadeloupe%E2%80%94and sparked a culinary revolution. But Britain's glittering West Indian colonies were also some of history's most appalling societies, the author notes. A tiny minority of whites worked the islands' black slave laborers to death and meted out brutality and violence%E2%80%94Parker's accounts of atrocities inflicted on slaves are extremely disturbing%E2%80%94at the slightest disobedience. This is a rousing, fluently written narrative history, full of color, dash, and forceful personalities, but it's also a subtle social portrait of plantation life and governance: its live fast, die young ethos as Europeans dropped like flies from tropical diseases. Parker's vivid evocation of the elite evokes the queasy moral rot beneath la dolce vita. Photos. (Aug.)