I’ve just finished The Sugar Barons: Family, Corruption, Empire and War by Matthew Parker. I highly recommend it for a very readable history of the sugar business in the Caribbean and how it contributed to the rise of the British empire.
The title is a little misleading, though. The book started out exploring some of the geopolitics of the imperial powers and their fight for land and trade in that part of the world, but a whole lot of the book was actually an exploration of how slavery was integral to the rise and fall of the sugar barons and describes in explicit detail how the slaves were treated. Did you know that two-thirds of slaves in the Americas in the 17th and 18th centuries were working on sugar plantations in the West Indies? The number of black slaves far outnumbered the number of white settlers. I don’t even want to remember some of the images that Parker extracted from people’s diaries about this whole situation. Sodom and Gomorrah, indeed.
But it also gave me a renewed appreciation for the fight to end the slave trade. How impossible it must have seemed to the abolitionists when they started out! It’s so hard for us to imagine today, but slavery was just accepted as part of the system, and if you challenged it – in other words, not just hoping for better treatment of slaves, improved conditions, etc. – but challenged the system at its very core, you were up against a brick wall. Once the trade was banished for good in 1807 (the bill in Parliament having been washed with Wilberforce’s tears), it forced the plantation owners to treat their existing slaves better. The slaves eventually started to rebel and take over, and finally in 1838 slavery was abolished throughout the empire.
The book also gave me a good sense of the futility of evil. Although sin’s effects live on in our broken world, evil people will fail in their efforts, whether in this life or the next. I wanted to share this excerpt from the book, about William Beckford of Fonthill, the last of the line of the Beckford family to live off their sugary fortune, and his last-ditch effort to leave a mark on the English landscape by building Fonthill Abbey. The Beckfords were notorious for for their brutal treatment of slaves and their extravagant lifestyle. It reminds me of the man in Jesus’ parable who builds bigger barns to house his treasure. It also reminds me of Citizen Kane languishing in Xanadu. Someone should make a movie about this.
“Fonthill Abbey was, like Jack Fuller’s sugar loaf, or the Draxes’ tower, a folly, but on a massively grand scale. Inside it was very uncomfortable and impractical. The kitchen was situated a huge distance from the oak parlour where Beckford took his meals. There were 18 bedrooms for the guests who seldom if ever came, only reachable by twisting staircases and corridors, and 13 were so small, poky and ill-ventilated as to be unusable. The whole structure was so cold and damp that 60 fires had to be kept burning, even in the summer.
“There was also something irredeemably fake and hollow about the whole thing. If anyone looked closely at the furniture, they could see that many of Beckford’s ‘James I’ coffers were obviously nothing of the kind…
“…The following year, he suddenly got bored with the whole enterprise, and put Fonthill and much of his collection of art and objets, including 20,000 books, up for public auction. This generated huge excitement and curiosity, with 72,000 copies of the contents brochure printed by Christie’s sold at a guinea each.
“The Times commented in reaction that Beckford’s collection marked him as ‘one of the very few possessors of great wealth who have honestly tried to spend it poetically.’ Essayist William Hazlitt was less complimentary, writing that Fonthill and its contents were ‘a desert of magnificence, a glittering waste of laborious idleness, a cathedral turned into a toy shop, an immense museum of all that is most curious and costly and at the same time most worthless…the only proof of taste he has shown in the collection is his getting rid of it.’
“…the proceeds of the sale, some £330,000, allowed Beckford to clear his debts – estimated at £145,000 – and to live out the rest of his days in idleness at a grand house in Bath. He kept his favourite paintings by Titian, Rembrandt, Bronzino, Holbein and Velasquez, as well as the portrait of his father by Reynolds and of himself by Romney. His whim in his latter years was to have the dinner table laid elaborately each day for a number of guests but to dine in a solitary state. He was having problems with his teeth and his bladder, and was steadily losing his Jamaican properties through Chancery suits to the Wildmans. When he died in 1844, lonely and eccentric, the unprecedented Beckford fortune built up by his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, on the back of the labour of thousands of slaves under the burning Jamaican sky, had all been frittered away.”