Sweet Negotiations: Sugar, Slavery, and Plantation Agriculture in Early Barbados

Article excerpt

Russell R. Menard. Sweet Negotiations: Sugar, Slavery, and Plantation Agriculture in Early Barbados. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2006.

Students of early Caribbean and British Imperial history have long been familiar with the so-called "sugar revolution" thesis of economic development. This account focuses on the island of Barbados, and goes something like this: after successive failures of the island's other staples, Barbadians began farming sugar in the 1640s with the help of Dutch instruction from Brazil and capital from Holland; the sugar crop then transformed Barbados' economy, driving out small-scale farming, pulling in slaves from Africa, and ushering in the plantation system, all within the span of two decades. It is a handy story that neatly sets the stage for the twin pillars of pre-emancipation Caribbean history: sugar and slavery. This narrative has so extensively dominated the literature that when Russell Menard began research for his new book, Sweet Negotiations: Sugar, Slavery, and Plantation Agriculture in Early Barbados, he sought only to refine the theory's central arguments. What he found, however, presents major challenges to this prominent thesis.

In reassessing the sugar revolution model, Menard takes aim at several specific components of the argument. His first chapter suggests that sugar farming did not emerge in Barbados amidst an economic depression, as many have contended, but rather during a general export boom alongside the island's other commodities. In particular, he argues that Barbados' pre-sugar crops, such as tobacco and cotton, had been successful in the run-up to the 1640s, enough so to keep the island's economy afloat, and to provide the capital necessary for early forays into sugar farming. Although Menard is not availed of much economic data for this time period, his logic is compelling. Why would there have been such a sustained presence in Barbados, with new migrants regularly coming over, if the island were disastrously unprofitable.

Menard takes the other key assertions of the sugar-revolution to task as well. Using an impressive array of statistics on European and African bound labour, Menard debunks the traditional assertion that with the arrival of sugar, planters immediately turned to enslaved Africans to farm it. The author finds, instead, that planters transported Africans in significant numbers before the sugar boom, and that white labour increased alongside the growing number of Africans, not falling until the general decrease of European emigration in the 1660s and 70s. Menard also challenges the "myth of the Dutch," by reconstructing the financing of sugar development in Barbados. He finds almost no backing by Amsterdam's merchants; discovering, instead, that most capital came from a number of London merchants, in particular the Noell family. Moreover, he stresses the importance of the financial holdings of the islanders themselves in Barbados' transformation, although he admits that the sugar boom would have occurred much more slowly were it not for foreign investment. Finally, Menard looks at the growth of the integrated plantation during this period, and its emergence from the dispersed system of agriculture. He does not believe that integrated plantations came about in sudden response to the needs of sugar farming. Rather, the author notes that even by the 1680s, after sugar had firmly dominated the Barbadian economy, many integrated plantations still depended on the yields of small-scale farmers who grew cane, but did not process it themselves. Indeed, it took years of experimentation before planters successfully refined their integrated systems, as Menard's masterful appendix detailing the costs and difficulty of running a plantation shows.

These findings lead to Menard's general conclusion that the advent of sugar did not produce a sea change in the direction of Barbadian economic practices. …