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

Author(s):Menard, Russell R.
Reviewer(s):Eltis, David

Published by EH.NET (November 2006)

Russell R. Menard, Sweet Negotiations: Sugar, Slavery, and Plantation Agriculture in Early Barbados. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2006. xiv + 181 pp. $39.50 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8139-2540-1.

Reviewed for EH.NET by David Eltis, Department of History, Emory University.

A number of benchmark issues in the history of slavery in the Atlantic World attract the more or less continuous attention of scholars and provide a quick way of assessing shifts in the interpretative eddies of the larger historiography. The relationship between slavery and economic efficiency is one, the racial exclusiveness of chattel slavery in the Americas is another, and the origin of sugar cultivation in the Caribbean is a third. This short book, while certainly concerned with the single island of Barbados, is about all three of these broad issues. Brazil, of course, had sent slave-grown sugar to Europe for the better part of a century before the sugar complex reached the eastern Caribbean, but the Portuguese system could at first not keep pace with the new sugar areas. In other words, plantation slavery was scarcely novel in the 1640s, but its North American variant apparently differed from what had gone before, at least initially.

A new monograph on early Barbados has appeared every decade or so since the 1960s as though to punctuate the ongoing discussions of these issues in the periodical literature. Sweet Negotiations is the shortest of the series, but also the best to date. In the first three chapters Menard tracks the origins of the Caribbean sugar complex via a careful exploration of Barbados’ Recopied Deed Books which allow him to show the emergence of large estates as well as throw light on the switch to slave labor (because estates were often sold together with servants and livestock). He argues against the idea of a “sugar revolution” because plantation agriculture and slavery were well established on the island of Barbados before sugar became the dominant crop. Tobacco and cotton had already generated the basic elements of a plantation complex, and had cleared the way (literally given the dense indigenous flora of the island) for sugar cane’s subsequent takeover. Large numbers of slaves were already arriving on the island to work on tobacco and cotton in the early 1640s. Far from sugar saving the island from impoverishment, the prosperity generated by these earlier staples made it possible for planters to embrace sugar more quickly. Thus, Menard prefers the term “sugar boom” to “sugar revolution.” The deed books also allow Menard to argue that the capital to finance the boom was English, not Dutch. There is no evidence of Dutch involvement with plantations, but abundant signs of links with London families and capital. This nicely complements the finding of Wim Klooster (Illicit Riches: Dutch Trade in the Caribbean, 1648-1795 (Leiden, 1998)) that Dutch merchants in the Caribbean advanced a lot of credit to French planters and very little to the English.

Menard then describes technological change, broadly defined, in the century or so after the establishment of sugar in a single chapter. There was no such thing as decline in Barbados because planters maintained their innovative approach and produced better sugar and sugar by-products in response to competition and changes in European markets. In a penultimate chapter Menard returns to the question of what was new about the system. He singles out four institutions as accounting for the sugar complex following a different path in Barbados (and by implication the Caribbean). These are first, the integrated plantation — or the concentration of the growing and the processing of the cane in the hands of one owner; second, the gang-labor system; third, the provision ground system; and fourth, the commission system which allowed planters to sell their own sugar in Europe. In a final chapter Menard examines the links between Barbados and the wider world, and argues that what happened on the island had a large impact on the Americas as a whole. In effect, the system that developed in Barbados, including an “ideology of whiteness,” spread because Barbados became a “cultural hearth” for the English Americas. Throughout, Menard’s arguments are rooted in careful scholarship, much of it necessarily quantitative, but the discussion is lively, and historical actors are constantly given their voice. In short, it is a very good read.

Which is not to say that all Menard’s positions are completely defensible. The origins of the gang-labor system and the provision ground system (two of the four features that made Barbados different according to the author) are obscure and, as Menard himself concedes, are perhaps eighteenth rather than seventeenth century innovations. Also the attack on the idea of a sugar revolution seems unnecessary in that its advocates would have no difficulty in incorporating Menard’s new evidence into their position. Finally, Menard’s argument on the existence of large cotton and tobacco plantations prior to sugar’s appearance is somewhat stronger than the argument that extensive slavery predated sugar’s arrival. Indeed, his discussion of the size of the very early slave population might mislead readers into thinking that evidence of the early slave trade is stronger than it really is. Attempts to compensate for lack of documentation about immigration tend to use demographic data to derive estimates of arrivals, but for Barbados such an approach founders on the fact that population counts and information on vital rates scarcely exist before the 1670s. But these are minor problems in what is a first-rate scholarly work.

David Eltis is Professor of History, Emory University, and is author of The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas (Cambridge University Press, 2000).

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):Latin America, incl. Mexico and the Caribbean
Time Period(s):17th Century