Barbados

La côte au vent, face à l’Atlantique – l’autre est sur la mer des Caraïbes -, vagues et surf d’un côté, ports et abris de l’autre. Ici, depuis l’hotel restaurant Atlantis à Bathsheba, un endroit magnifique, une cuisine succulente. Ce sont encore les Portugais qui sont arrivés les premiers, en 1536, donnant son nom à l’île, Os Barbudos, les barbus (des arbres avec des feuilles tombantes qui sont apparus aux navigateurs).

La Barbade évoque le XVIIe, les plantations et les esclaves*, les corsaires et les pirates, les conflits des grandes puissances, les galions espagnols et les cargaisons d’or. Les barons* du sucre aussi. Un peu à l’écart de l’arc des Antilles, une centaine de milles à l’est, elle est la plus proche quand on arrive du Cap Vert, la première terre après quinze jours de mer. Aujourd’hui, ce sont les luxueux « resorts » fermés et les propriétés et séjours de « people » qui caractérisent surtout La Barbade.

                 

* The Sugar Barons: Family, Corruption, Empire, and War in the West Indies, de Matthew Parker, 2011

The colonists grew rich but lived in a state of perpetual anxiety. Their slaves were their closest companions and their greatest enemies. An elaborate series of slave laws evolved in order to manage this ungovernable element. These had the dual purpose of controlling the slaves and justifying the treatment meted out to them. In order to do so the planters of the West Indies instituted a regime of unprecedented brutality.

The slaves nonetheless continued to agitate for their freedom, with a range of tactics from the small to the spectacular. Their efforts were boosted by the rise of the abolitionists, whose agitation in Britain provided a fillip to their dreams of freedom. If I have any quibble with Parker’s compelling, wonderful history, it is the lack of these voices. God knows there are few enough of them. Sufficient that even after centuries of silencing, those who want to listen can hear. But this aside, The Sugar Barons is an exemplary book; history as it should be written.

Mr. Parker focuses on three families over the course of two centuries, from the establishment of West Indian sugar colonies in the 1630s to the British abolition of slavery in 1833. He begins with James Drax, the son of an Anglican vicar, who went to Barbados in 1627, probably at the age of 18. Drax was among the first to experiment with sugar planting, using technology and skills recently arrived from Brazil. Soon he was importing African slaves, making money by the barrelful and building stately mansions. His son Henry carried on in this tradition, as did the other successful planter families featured in « The Sugar Barons »: the Codringtons of St. Kitts and the Beckfords of Jamaica.

Each family had a patriarch who was ambitious, lucky, unscrupulous, resistant to malaria and yellow fever, and casually violent toward fellow Europeans. Peter Beckford, when still in his 20s and recently returned to Jamaica from his studies at Oxford, murdered a minor judicial official during a quarrel in 1697. His younger brother, Thomas, killed a fellow member of the Jamaican assembly in 1712. Neither Beckford was punished; the family was already too influential for that. Christopher Codrington probably had a hand in the murder of two lieutenant governors who apparently stood in the way of his efforts to acquire further plantations. Sugar was a ruthless business. (All planters were deliberately violent and cruel toward their African slaves, a subject on which Mr. Parker provides considerable, indeed excruciating, detail.

For a few generations, slave labor, good soils and robust British demand for sugar sustained lavish lifestyles. The most successful planters stood among the richest Englishmen anywhere in the world by the early 18th century, although in England old money looked down upon them as upstarts, even those such as Christopher Codrington III, who distinguished himself in his studies at Oxford and at war in Europe, or William Beckford, whose influence and money made him Lord Mayor of London, only to be mocked as « negro-whipping Beckford. »

George III, the story goes, was peeved to encounter a West Indian in the seaside resort of Weymouth whose coach was more resplendent than his own. « Sugar, sugar, hey? – all that sugar! » the king complained loudly**.

In this racy, well-researched history, Parker concentrates on such egregiously cruel sugar barons as Thomas Thistlewood, who ran a slave plantation in west Jamaica between 1750 and 1786. By his own precise account, Thistlewood had sexual intercourse on 3,852 occasions throughout his 40-year-long Caribbean rampage. His strenuous licentiousness, chronicled in schoolboy Latin in a diary he kept (« About 2am, cum Negro girls »), makes it clear that sex was important to Britain’s imperial project: the empire gave planters like Thistlewood the licence to abuse their captive women and indulge a predatory nature.

Barbados society was notably created from slavery; Barbadian customs and culture were fashioned by slavery. The effects of slavery are moreover plain to see in the island’s class and racial divides today. Though African complicity in the British slave trade can hardly be ignored, Parker makes nothing of it. The African side of transatlantic slavery was exemplified by the slave castles the British operated along the Gold Coast until the slave trade’s abolition in 1807, and which served as holding centres for Africans captured by and sold into servitude by fellow Africans. Conceivably, the forebears of British Jamaicans today passed through these warehouse-dungeons. The Sugar Barons provides eloquent testimony to the mercantile greed of a few and the manifest misery endured by millions in the pursuit of sweetness.

Voir aussi compte rendu dans The Economist.

** L’histoire rappelle exactement la rencontre d’Henri VIII avec un commerçant, au XVIe siècle : This Jack of Newbury is richer than I! De son vrai nom John Winchcombe, la fortune de ce marchand de laine est restée légendaire en Angleterre.

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Une Réponse to “Barbados”

  1. JB Says:

    La Barbade dans le Figaro.

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