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Sugar Barons

The Sugar Barons - Matthew Parker I’ve listened to the first half of the audible audiobook version of this, on my drives to and from work. I’m writing about a commodity and about families, so I was very curious. And some of my guys begin their American careers in the “West India Trade,” out of Middletown CT, so I thought I might pick up some data or ideas. And I’ve learned a lot about the chronology of Caribbean settlement, the development of the sugar industry, and even the growth of buccaneering and piracy (which sheds an interesting light on Christopher Hill’s articles about the New Model Army and pirates).But there’s actually much less about the people than I had hoped. The book opens with a description of the voyage to the Indies, from the perspective of a more-or-less common person who wrote a memoir. But the story moves quickly to the people who’d be central in any traditional political/military history from the last century. The first half, at least, is a pretty standard history in that sense: the main action involves the building of the British sugar empire in Barbados, the Leeward Islands, and Jamaica. There are several people the story revolves around for a while: James Drax, his son Henry, Peter Beckford, Christopher Codrington. They all seem like very interesting characters, but Parker doesn’t give them much room to move around in. For the most part, the story moves quickly from battle to battle, recounting the major events that shaped the development of the British West Indies.And it really is the British West Indies. Although the Spanish and French are present as antagonists, there’s very little said about their activities or points of view. Even where a description of their efforts at cultivating sugar could have helped contextualize the scope and style of British sugar production, it’s largely missing. As is any discussion or the demand side or the cultural impact of sugar, beyond a few lines describing changes in per capita consumption over time. I’m not sure if I’m going to listen to the second, eight-hour half of this audiobook. I’d really like to know whether he gets around to the impact of sugar and the Caribbean on the development of New England. So I’ll probably listen to the rest. These are really interesting characters, and I think it would be a really interesting (and difficult) project, to try to render them completely. Parker sort-of shies away from mentioning slavery and general debauchery when he’s talking about his “heroes” in the story. Not that he tries to whitewash them — they’re not even really “heroes” in the standard sense: they’re just the central characters of a chapter or two, that the story hangs on or close to. But it would be interesting to dig deeper into some of these guys, and see them more completely. Slavery is clearly one of the big elephants in the room, but probably not the only one. The younger Christopher Codrington was a fellow of All Souls, Oxford, who hung around with the lights of London. But he was also a bloodthirsty sod who joined William III’s army in the Netherlands just for the joy of battle. These guys are very complicated, and I would have been really interested in seeing deeper into their complex, self-contradictory personalities. But that’s my interest, which isn’t necessarily shared by all. The real question for me is, how will I do it? The scope of Parker’s story precludes there being one character who could carry it — but maybe a family could have done the job. In my story, I’m also covering too much time to write it as one person’s story, so I’m trying to write it as the story of three families. What techniques can I use to foreground the personal stories of my characters, without losing the historical context and the narrative thread? Personal motivations, even personal quirks and idiosyncrasies, might shed a different light on the story and on the times. Does that lead to “too much” contingency? I guess we’ll see…