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

By McCusker, John J. | 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


McCusker, John J., The Journal of Caribbean History


Richard B. Sheridan, Sugar and Slavery: An Economic History of the British West Indies, 1623-1775, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974, xiv + 529 pp.

Richard B. Sheridan's new and important book is best viewed as a harbinger of things to come. It serves a pivotal function in summarizing the existing knowledge of, and pointing new directions for, the study of the colonial sugar industry and it does these things well.

Sheridan's own The Development of the Plantations to 1750: An Era of West Indian Prosperity, 1750-1775 (Barbados, 1970) treats both the British and the non-British West Indies in much the same fashion as the book under review here. Carl and Roberta Bridenbaugh's No Peace beyond the Line: The English in the Caribbean, 1624-1690 (New York, 1972) covers the years after the founding of the English colonies in the literate, descriptive manner for which they are well known. Richard S. Dunn's Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624-1713 (Chapel Hill, NC, 1972) is a model of research and analysis, remaining literate while going well beyond the descriptive; with it Dunn has made a significant contribution to the social history of the seventeenth century and created a point of contrast and comparison for the many studies of society in England and the continental colonies both already completed and still in progress. Sheridan's new book supplements those of the Bridenbaughs and Dunn, as well as his own earlier work, and goes beyond them all into other times and other matters.

Sugar and Slavery is essentially a description of all aspects of the production and distribution of sugar within the British Empire from the earliest times to the American Revolution. Sheridan touches on almost everything, beginning with the organization and settlement of the islands and continuing through detailed discussions of every aspect of his story to treatments of the imperial impact upon and the imperial implications of every feature of the sugar business. He has assembled great quantities of information, organized them well, written up the whole adequately, and provided the reader with a compendium on the subject of the sugar industry of the British West Indies. "It is the contention of this study that, however inhumane, the sugar industry made a notable contribution to the wealth and maritime supremacy of Great Britain" (p. xii). Sugar and Slavery will not be easily surpassed.

Should anyone be interested in further work in the subject, Sheridan's book suggests what is yet to be done. For instance, he has quite properly made much of the newer materials that he uncovered in his research. His work began as a doctoral dissertation at the London School of Economics a quarter-century ago. Since then Sheridan has visited archives in Great Britain, the United States and the Caribbean to find other sources. Among those he has turned to especially good use are the records of individual plantations. Much more can be done with just this type of source, and the recent or imminent publication of four guides will make the task easier. The Guide to Manuscript Sources for the History of Latin America and the Caribbean in the British Isles (Oxford, 1973), edited by Peter Walne, mirrors for Great Britain Kenneth Ingram's Manuscripts Relating to Commonwealth Caribbean Countries in United States and Canadian Repositories (Barbados, 1974). Ingram, the librarian of the University of the West Indies at Mona, Jamaica, completed an even more massive survey devoted just to Jamaica as a 1970 thesis for the University of London; we can hope for its imminent publication since it will neatly complement Jerome S. Handler's valuable Guide to Source Materials for the Study of Barbados History, 1627-1834 (Carbondale, 111., 1971). Studies of the organization and operation of individual sugar plantations based on collections of plantation records will provide us with the facility of testing and expanding Sheridan's own work. …

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