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Response to Review of The Sugar Barons: Family, Corruption, Empire and War

I am very grateful to Dr Everill for her careful and very generous review. In fact, she makes elegant conclusions from the book, particularly about empire, that I wish I had articulated myself!

Most of all, I am thrilled that she found The Sugar Barons ‘a strong case for the role of popular history in communicating academic history beyond the academy.’ This is, of course, exactly what most ‘popular’ or ‘narrative’ historians hope to achieve: to bring the richness of a subject’s scholarship as well as its stories to life, within the severe constraints of producing something that is acceptable to publishers, booksellers, and most of all, the very large number of leisure-time or ‘general’ readers that is required to make the project even remotely viable.

I accept the criticism that some of the detail, particularly of military campaigns, ‘seems to exist for its own sake without too much attention or analysis of why this matters’. But this also highlights one of the many fascinating differences between popular and academic history, a subject addressed by Dr Everill’s piece. Another academic reviewer, Professor Bridget Bereton of the UWI, wrote in the Caribbean Review of Books (in a matter-of-fact, rather than critical tone): ‘basically Parker aims to tell a series of interrelated stories as dramatically as possible’. Narrative and ‘drama’ – even ‘for their own sake’ – are, of course, essential elements of this style of history, but as part of a balancing act with other more reflective or analytical elements. Sometimes this balance tips too far in one direction or the other. The big challenge is to get it right as much as possible.

Maybe I did get carried away by the ‘excruciating detail’ of the English Civil War in Barbados. I just found it so surprising and strange, as some others did. (It was this section that I was asked to write about in a feature for History Today magazine). Other explanations (rather than excuses), although prosaic, highlight again how popular history is shaped differently to academic work. ‘Lay’ readers of early drafts found the focus on the English Civil War useful for anchoring events in the Caribbean to more familiar history and chronology; having, for approachability, structured the narrative around certain families and individuals, I had to make the relatively scant source material on James Drax work pretty hard to avoid too much imbalance; I felt that the ‘weight’ given to the importance of the events – concerning the Navigation Acts – required a compensatory weight of narrative; and so on…

Professor Everill is not the first reviewer to comment on the ‘somewhat cursory’ treatment of the history of abolition towards the end of the book. This is not only because I started work on the book in earnest in 2007, when there had been a large number – a glut, even – of excellent books published to tie in with the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade. It was also because the ‘heroes’ of Britain’s ‘slavery years’ – the Abolitionists – are much better known than the ‘villains’, which seems to me lopsided.

In conclusion, I would like to note the huge debt that books like The Sugar Barons owe to the work of the academy. This makes the appearance of this review here a special pleasure and honour.