World Sugar History Newsletter

Number 43, September 2012

In this issue:

  1. Reviews
  2. Conference


Veront Satchell, Sugar, Slavery and Technological Change: Jamaica, 1760-1830 (Saarbrücken, Germany: VDM Verlag Dr. Müller GmbH & Co. KG., 2010). 284 pp. €79. ISBN 978-3-639-20692-0.

In this volume Veront Satchell makes an important and welcome contribution to the economic histories of sugar, slavery, the Caribbean, and tropical agriculture more generally. He challenges those scholars who interpret the decades before slave emancipation in the British West Indies as a period of economic decline and who emphasize the incompatibility of technological innovation and slavery, as well as the indifference of West Indian planters to technological change. The book examines the relationship between technology and productivity and the effects of technological change on economic growth in Jamaica between 1760 and 1830. Satchell’s detailed and comprehensive analysis of the technological transformations of sugar cultivation and manufacture in Jamaica at once illuminates the historical development of the Jamaican sugar plantation as a productive enterprise and enables scholars to re-examine debates about the history of sugar production, slavery, and technological change, and the crises of sugar and slavery in the British West Indies.

Satchell seeks to demonstrate that technological innovation is compatible with slave labour, and that Jamaican planters were actively concerned with economy, improving yields, and technological innovation. In his view, arguments for the incompatibility of slavery and technology are flawed because of their restrictive focus on labour-saving technologies. He emphasizes, instead, the importance of capital saving technologies; those, he contends, are compatible with slave labour. He begins the book by surveying various economic and sociological conceptions of technological change. He emphasizes the analytical and practical distinctions between invention, innovation, and diffusion and argues that all three are essential elements of technological progress. Following Schumpeter, Satchell views innovation as more important to economic development than invention. Satchell adds that the ultimate success of any innovation depends upon its diffusion, and further contends that agricultural technologies have to be adapted to local conditions in order to be successful. Within this perspective, Satchell calls attention to the engagement of Jamaican planters in a continuous process of technological adoption and adaptation. In the remainder of the chapter he delineates the economic conditions that led planters in Jamaica to turn to technological innovation to maintain their competitiveness between 1763 and 1830.

The second chapter surveys the geography and early history of Jamaica. It focuses on the conditions under which sugar, slavery, and the plantation economy emerged. Against the background of pre-Columbian and Spanish settlement, Satchell traces the evolution of agriculture and the geography of the sugar industry from English occupation in 1655 to the 1720s when Jamaica emerged as the major sugar producer in the British Empire. He emphasizes the material processes of sugar production and the productive organization of the plantation system in order to provide a baseline for his subsequent treatment of technological innovation. Accounts of slave labour and of the system of land tenure instituted under British colonial rule are integrated into his analysis of the sugar plantation.

In Satchell’s model, market changes are the source of impulses toward innovation. Chapter Three surveys the patents enacted by the Jamaica Assembly between 1760 and 1830. Aware of the limitations of the use of patents as a source of documentation of technological innovation, Satchell uses the patents enacted as indicators of the need to reform techniques. Although the number of patents enacted in Jamaica during these years seems small at first sight, he argues that they compare favourably with the number of patents for agricultural improvement in Britain before 1840. From the 1760s through the 1780s the overwhelming majority of patents enacted (80%) were for improvement of sugar mills rather than for sugar and rum manufacture. These reached their peak in the 1770s and include the earliest efforts to apply steam power to sugar milling. Patents for sugar milling declined thereafter and only began to rise again in the 1820s. The great emphasis on the improvement of milling was directly related to the inefficiency of this strategically important step in sugar manufacture. Patents for “new mills” were evenly divided with those for “improved mills.” However, there were no patents for “new mills” after 1817, while the great majority of patents for “improved mills” were granted between 1821 and 1825. Satchell distinguishes between incremental innovations and the implementation of new technology systems that were intended to increase efficiency and profitability. The steam-powered mill and especially the three-roller horizontal were central elements of the new constellation of technical and economic innovation. Both were in widespread use in Jamaica by the 1830s and their adoption led to a decrease in the number of patent applications. There were far fewer patents granted for the manufacture of sugar and rum. Most innovations here had to do with clarifying cane juice, while the most significant innovation, the vacuum pan, was only adopted in 1846, well after the abolition of slavery. Satchell attributes the relative lack of innovation in this sector to mercantilist restrictions on the export from the colony. Over eighty percent of the patentees were resident in Jamaica. Artisans predominated in this group, followed by planters. Satchell argues, plausibly, that slave and free coloured artisans played a significant role in the development of innovations even though they were not included in the documentation.

Improvements in agriculture were less dramatic than the mechanization of sugar milling and manufacture. Nonetheless, in chapter four Satchell demonstrates that Jamaican planters constantly experimented with improvements in agricultural techniques. Hiring jobbing gangs, increasing the number of ratoon crops, improved irrigation and soil management, new varieties of cane, the adoption of the plow, and new labour management practices were all strategies employed by them to increase agricultural productivity and profitability.

Chapter Five revisits the sugar mill and factory in order to provide a more technical assessment of innovations in each sector. The author analyzes the characteristics of the vertical three-roller mill and the attempts to improve its performance. The vertical mill is contrasted with the all-metal horizontal three-roller mill. The latter was far superior and represented a breakthrough in milling technology. By the 1830s it was used throughout the island, generally in combination with steam power. Satchell’s treatment of the mill is followed by a detailed description of sugar manufacture and rum distillation. Sugar was not refined in Britain’s Caribbean colonies because of mercantilist restrictions, and the Sainthill method of clarification, developed in Jamaica, was the most important innovation in this sector. Satchell emphasizes the lag between the date of invention of significant new technologies, most notably the three-roller horizontal mill and the vacuum pan, and their adoption in Jamaica and sees significant new innovations as late in coming. But his earlier distinction between invention, diffusion, adoption, and adaptation, would seem to provide a plausible explanation for this delay. It is not altogether clear that Jamaica was any later than other sugar colonies in adopting the new technologies.

The following chapter treats the sources of power employed in Jamaican sugar mills. Satchell offers detailed descriptions of animal-, water-, and wind-powered mills. He argues that the use of animal, wind, water, and steam power were contingent upon the island’s geography, topography, and climate. Animal traction was the most common means of providing power to sugar mills through the eighteenth century. But by the 1830s animal-powered mills were being replaced by water, wind, and steam mills where local conditions allowed. He shows that the relative absence of water mills in Jamaica was not an indicator of backwardness, as charged by various authors. Rather, their use was restricted to those parts of the island where local conditions were favourable. After 1800, the number of watermills increased, despite the expense they entailed, while the number of estates relying on less efficient animal-powered mills declined. Likewise, in the few places where windmills were suitable, planters went to great effort to build them.

Chapters Seven and Eight document the pioneering efforts of Jamaican planters to apply steam power to sugar production. Chapter Seven provides a careful technical and historical evaluation of the early efforts to use steam power in Jamaican sugar mills, and provides a particularly thorough account of the engine invented by Jamaican millwright John Stewart (Robert Rainey) in 1768. Chapter eight documents the diffusion of steam power in Jamaica between 1810 and 1830 through an analysis of the records of the British firm of Boulton and Watt. British West Indian planters were prominent among the clients of the firm. Of the 132 engines exported to overseas sugar estates during this period, 51 were sent to Jamaica and another 51 to British Guiana. Sales peaked between 1812 and 1818, and declined thereafter. Satchell attributes this decline not to lack of interest or lack of capital on the part of Jamaican planters, but to price, difficulties in supply, marketing, and service as well as competition from other firms.

Boulton and Watt engines generated between six and fourteen horsepower. They were efficient and dependable and offered many advantages over other sources of power. Jamaican planters bought larger engines than planters elsewhere in order to increase output and productivity. Satchell offers an economic and technical analysis of the Boulton and Watt sugar mills and provides a comprehensive survey of their placement on specific plantations. Unfortunately, there is no documentation for the period after 1818 or for firms other than Boulton and Watt. Satchell surmises that the decline in the purchase of Boulton and Watt engines was due to a preference for more powerful and efficient high-pressure steam engines manufactured in the US rather than their failure to adopt steam-power.

In the final chapter, Satchell assesses the impact of technological change on the Jamaican sugar industry. Sugar production in Jamaica increased in the years from 1760 to 1805. In Satchell’s view, the American Revolutionary War did not have the disastrous effects on the Jamaican economy that some scholars have claimed, and it benefited from the collapse of the Saint Domingue sugar industry. Nonetheless, production fell between 1805 and 1812. It then rose sharply, with short-term declines until 1826, and stabilized thereafter. In contrast to the production curve, the number of sugar estates reached a peak of 830 in 1804 and then declined steadily to 670 in 1834. Output per slave mirrored the production curve. It rose from the 1760s onward and peaked in 1805. It then declined briefly but rose again between 1814 and 1820 and declined gradually thereafter. In Satchell’s view, the performance of individual estates is drowned out by macro-level data and he examines the output of sample individual estates. In contrast to the typical eighteenth-century sugar estate, those he samples were, on the whole, larger, employed more slaves, and had adopted steam-power and horizontal grinding mills among other innovations. Satchell concludes that technological innovation contributed to maintaining productivity levels. He attributes the failure of individual estates to external factors such as war, drought, and hurricanes and to international competition, not to a failure to innovate and the incompatibility of slavery and technology.

In Sugar, Slavery and Technological Change, Veront Satchell offers a rigorously researched and closely argued analysis of one of the major sites of Caribbean slave sugar. His original contribution compels a reconsideration of debates on slavery, sugar, and technological change in the British West Indies, even by those who may not share his interpretive framework.

Dale Tomich
Binghamton University

Matthew Parker, The Sugar Barons: Family, Corruption, Empire, and War in the West Indies (New York: Walker & Company, 2011) 384 pp. $28. ISBN 978-0-8027-1744-3.

The title of Matthew Parker’s 2011 monograph seems to promise an epic tale about the “Big Men” of the plantation society in the West Indies; the revelation of family shenanigans and secrets; empire-chasing and building; corruption, and war. Yet, because the tropics and the plantation provide the book’s backdrop, one might be forgiven if one immediately thinks of scenes from “Gone with the Wind”, and of parasols, billowing skirts, Rhett Butlers, and Scarlett O’Haras. Although neither Rhett nor Scarlett make an appearance in The Sugar Barons: Family, Corruption, Empire, and War in the West Indies, Parker is able to provide his readers with a set of memorable protagonists as he crafts a detailed narrative about the lives of those men who left England in search of riches in the West Indies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In fact, this is perhaps the most noteworthy observation about this book: whereas many historical works today tend to delineate a narrative “from below”, Parker instead invites us to follow the lives of successful and swashbuckling colonialists (the “one-percent”)—men like James and Henry Drax, Peter and William Beckford, and all three of the Christopher Codringtons (the first, second, and third), inter alia. Although one might argue that a lot of the information provided in the twenty-nine chapters in this book is not new, it is filled with interesting anecdotes about the enterprising and sometimes courageous men who actually survived their journey to the Caribbean. These were the men who had survived the “Barbados Distemper”, smallpox, alcoholism, and the various diseases and afflictions that account for why “a third of all [W]hites died within three years of arriving in the Caribbean” (p. 46).

Parker’s telos is evident even from a studied analysis of the book’s dust jacket. The dust jacket is divided into two sections with the book title and the author’s name accentuating the division. On the upper half of the book, in colour, are images of three men (revealed to be William Beckford, James Townsend, and John Sawbridge) all attired in sartorial splendour whereas the lower part of the book’s dust jacket is anchored with sketches of plantation life and shadowy figures of individuals. This latter image provides a glaring contrast to the detailed images of the aforementioned trio. These images—one prominent, the other shadowy—are reflected in Parker’s work as he reveals what life was like for pre-eminent members of the plantocracy in colonial Barbados, Jamaica, and the Leeward Islands, whereas the enslaved men and women who toiled to make the plantation possible basically go un-named. Parker’s narrative is, after all, about the “sugar barons”. However, Parker also does something else, something that allows him to add depth to the characterisation of these Big Men. Refusing to portray them as one-dimensional characters, he instead delves deeply into their lives—sometimes even their psyches—to show a human side of these men who were in some cases destroyed by their own hubris. In this regard, for instance, Parker reveals the brilliant and dashing polymath, Christopher Codrington the Younger, to be a proud and insecure man who could not accept that his “day in the sun” was over after being passed over for the governorship of the Leeward Islands, a position that he had held previously. So well-known was Codrington’s disdain for the governors who replaced him that one of the friends of Colonel Daniel Parke, one of the replacement-governors, stated that Codrington was “‘enraged with Envy […] at Colonel Parke’s being preferr’d [sic] before him’” (p. 212).

In this work, Parker also shows that successful planters were able to amass a great deal of wealth. Not only was this wealth used to establish a comfortable life in the West Indies and construct ostentatious buildings like St. Nicholas Abbey in Barbados and Drax Hall (one in Barbados and the other in Jamaica), but many of these plantocrats made the lives of their families comfortable as well. In this regard, many of them bequeathed their riches to their families. For instance, in his will dated 22 February 1703, Christopher Codrington the Younger, according to Parker, “doled out huge sums, in the hundreds of pounds, to cousins”. The will also stipulated that Codrington’s illegitimate son William “was to get an allowance and £500 at the age of 21…” In addition, another William, this time Codrington’s cousin, was the “largest single beneficiary of the will” and out of his inheritance, £10,000 was to be paid to All Soul’s College, Oxford (pp. 205-6).

It must be noted that although one of the central aims of the book is to highlight the tremendous wealth and influence of the “sugar barons”, Parker also deals with a vast array of other topics, which turns out to be both a strength and a weakness of the book. As a case in point, Parker examines in detail the Sugar Revolution; details the wars that were waged in the Caribbean as different European powers jockeyed for pre-eminence in the region; touches on the hierarchies that existed within the White community in the colonies; notes the importance of primogeniture; and illustrates vividly the peripatetic nature of the White community as those with the means to do so either went back to England, or moved on to places like Virginia or South Carolina and extended the colonial enterprise beyond the Caribbean. To add to these themes, Parker also touches on the conflicts that occurred between the colonists in North America and those in the Caribbean; he examines the impact of the Navigation Acts; he references the activities of the anti-slavery lobby in Britain, all the while continuing to regale the readers with tales of the profligate plantocracy and their excesses—in terms of sex, food, alcohol, their dwellings, and even furniture.

Indeed, the information that Parker provides is sometimes overwhelming. In fact, the details that Parker feeds to his readers are akin to the spread that James Drax was reputed to have laid out to impress visitors of his wealth. Although such displays of excess might have worked for Drax, what happens when a similar spread is laid out between the pages of The Sugar Barons is that there is an array of details upon which one can gorge, but at the expense of analysis with which one can feel satisfied. It was easy to forget names and connections between individuals. Sometimes reading this book descended into a futile guessing game of who-begat-whom and whether an individual who had been mentioned in a previous chapter, but then mentioned again in a later one, were still alive. (This latter problem came because Parker relates his story in a circular rather than strictly linear fashion). Yet, this can be perhaps viewed in a positive light as the wealth of information that Parker provides may be testimony to his voracious consultation of a wide range of published primary and secondary sources.

One caveat is in order, however. As an historian and researcher, I found Parker’s citation style to be frustrating. Parker does not signal to the reader in the text that there is a place to which one could go to find more information about a quotation or other material. Instead, after some searching, I stumbled across the “Source Notes” that Parker practically hides at the back of the book. These fifty pages are organised by chapter and page numbers and seem more like part of a forgotten past; forgotten much like some of the illegitimate children fathered by some of the sugar barons to whom Parker refers in his book.

In addition, the phrasing the author uses in the book was occasionally curious. For example, William Beckford of Fonthill was described by Parker as “predominantly homosexual” (p. 340); and in an earlier chapter Parker had written that “Sugar’s ugly sister rum also failed to catch on in France, where brandy reigned supreme…” (p. 297). In spite of this, however, one of the book’s strengths is its accessible and sometimes mellifluous prose. Perhaps Parker is able to make his prose engaging because he has worked as a writer, as his website indicates. Whatever the reason, the men that he delineates are presented as more than just stock characters. They are complex historical subjects whose lives leap off the page.

In the final analysis, this is a valuable book—whether one reads it for professional or personal reasons. Parker’s book made me long for more time—that commodity that seemed the most scarce in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Caribbean. The endless time needed to truly enjoy a book like The Sugar Barons can be found only in the fictionalised, romanticised tropics, the tropics of the tourist brochures where one has all the time in the world to lie back and read. This tropical landscape is not the one that was inhabited by the sugar barons, of course. The world of the sugar barons, according to Parker, was one where death, diseases, pirates, wars, natural disasters, and personal conflicts lurked. Yet, as Parker also shows successfully, the sugar barons were able to mock time by expanding the British Empire, producing and planting powerful elites in the metropole and the colonies, and adding to the coffers of the metropole that helped elevate it to primus inter pares among European nations.

Dawn P. Harris
Stony Brook University


Call for Papers: “Sugar and Beyond”

A multidisciplinary conference sponsored by The John Carter Brown Library, Providence, RI, October 25-26, 2013

Organizers: Christopher P. Iannini (Rutgers), Julie Chun Kim (Fordham), K. Dian Kriz (Brown)

The John Carter Brown Library seeks proposals for a conference entitled “Sugar and Beyond,” to be held on October 25-26, 2013, in conjunction with the Library’s Fall 2013 exhibition on sugar in the early modern period, especially its bibliographical and visual legacies. The centrality of sugar to the development of the Atlantic world is now well known. Sugar was the ‘green gold’ that planters across the Americas staked their fortunes on, and it was the commodity that became linked in bittersweet fashion to the rise of the Atlantic slave trade. Producing unprecedented quantities of sugar through their enforced labour, Africans on plantations helped transform life not only in the colonies but also in Europe, where consumers incorporated the luxury commodity into their everyday rituals and routines.

“Sugar and Beyond” seeks to evaluate the current state of scholarship on sugar, as well as to move beyond it by considering related or alternative consumer cultures and economies. Given its importance, sugar as a topic still pervades scholarship on the Americas and has been treated in many recent works about the Caribbean, Brazil, and other regions. This conference thus aims to serve as an occasion where new directions in the study of sugar can be assessed. At the same time, the connection of sugar to such broader topics as the plantation system, slavery and abolition, consumption and production, food, commodity exchange, natural history, and ecology has pointed the way to related but distinct areas of inquiry. Although sugar was one of the most profitable crops of the tropical Americas, it was not the only plant being cultivated. Furthermore, although the plantation system dominated the lives of African and other enslaved peoples, they focused much of their efforts at resistance around the search for ways to mitigate or escape the regime of sugar planting. We thus welcome scholars from all disciplines and national traditions interested in exploring both the power and limits of sugar in the early Atlantic world.

Topics that presenters might consider include, but are not limited to, the following:
-The development of sugar in comparative context
-The rise of sugar and new conceptions of aesthetics, taste, and cultural refinement
-Atlantic cultures of consumption
-Coffee, cacao, and other non-sugar crops and commodities
-Natural history and related genres of colonial description and promotion
-Imperial botany and scientific programmes of agricultural expansion and experimentation
-Alternative ecologies to the sugar plantation
-Plant transfer and cultivation by indigenous and African agents
-Provision grounds and informal marketing
-Economies of subsistence, survival, and resistance
-Reimagining the Caribbean archive beyond sugar: new texts and methodological approaches

In order to be considered for the programme, please send a paper proposal of 500 words and CV to The deadline for submitting proposals is December 15, 2012.

Presenters will likely have some travel and accommodation subvention available to them.

For more information: or email Margot Nishimura, Deputy Director and Librarian (

The World Sugar History Newsletter is compiled by Jock Galloway and Peter Blanchard. Correspondence should be sent to Peter Blanchard, Victoria College, University of Toronto, 73 Queen’s Park Crescent, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5S 1K7, or by e-mail to: or