Sugar and Slavery: An Economic History of the British West Indies, 1623-1775

By Craton, Michael | The Journal of Caribbean History, July 1, 2002 | Go to article overview

Sugar and Slavery: An Economic History of the British West Indies, 1623-1775


Craton, Michael, The Journal of Caribbean History


Richard B. Sheridan, Sugar and Slavery: An Economic History of the British West Indies, 1623-1775, Kingston: Canoe Press, University of the West Indies, 1994 (1974), xx + 529pp.

That a West Indian press elected to republish in 1994 a facsimile edition of a book that was in many respects old-fashioned when originally published in 1974 testifies both that it has abiding worthwhile qualities and that it has not yet been superseded.

As its subtitle indicates, Sugar and Slavery offers straight and traditional economic history, with limited involvement in the revisionary and cross-disciplinary concerns that have energized and complicated the study of British West Indian history - even economic history - over the last three decades. More concerned with narrative description than analysis, the book takes for granted the economic determinism and conclusions of Eric Williams and the predominance of questions of technology, profit, loss, and the building of planter family fortunes found in the work of Richard Pares. It makes few departures from the assumptions and conclusion of Richard Sheridan's United States forerunners, Lowell J. Ragatz and Frank W. Pitman.

As Hilary Beckles, in a generous introduction to this reprint, says, the book does make some effort to turn the focus of West Indian economies from the metropole to the colonial periphery, in a way that was revisionist when the author completed his doctoral thesis in 1951, if not in 1974. Sheridan's presentation of the "Williams thesis" of the vitality of slave trading and plantation profits in building up British capital and fueling the Industrial Revolution also shows rather more scholarly rigor than did Williams himself. The choice of 1775 for a closing date (when British West Indian plantations were indeed at a peak of profitability) cannily avoids a decision as to whether or not the thesis of decline after the American War, which Williams adopted from Ragatz, was purely mythical. But one looks in vain for any acknowledgment of the conclusions of recent economic historians that Williams' figures were sloppily derived or seriously exaggerated, let alone in error.

Sheridan says much about the British merchants and planters but far less about the Afro-Caribbean slaves, and almost nothing even of their contribution in affecting the balance of profit and loss in the West Indian plantations. Eisa V. Goveia's book Slave Society in the British Leeward Islands at the End of the Eighteenth Century (1965) is listed in the bibliography but makes little impact on the text; and subsequent important works on the effects of creolization, slave demography, epidemiology, family life, varied and changing forms of slave labor, protopeasant and protoproletarian formations, slave-marketing networks, and slave resistance - by Brathwaite, Patterson, Mintz, Hall, Dunn, Higman, Kiple, Morgan, Turner, and a host of others - seem to have come too late for incorporation. …

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