Useful Knowledge, Improvement, and the Logic of Capital in Richard Ligon’s True and Exact History of Barbados
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Useful Knowledge, Improvement, and the Logic of Capital in Richard Ligon’s True and Exact History of Barbados

Richard Ligon’s True and Exact History of Barbados has been recognized as a major source of information on the emergence of planter society and slavery in the English Caribbean. Curiously, however, the centrality of the text’s discussion of business has been overlooked. Yet Ligon presents the History as a how-to manual on building and managing a sugar fortune. In doing so, Ligon self-consciously connects his work to Baconian ideas of improvement and useful knowledge to legitimize the position of the planters over others, and lend respectability to commercial accumulation.


Richard Ligon, Barbados, Atlantic world, Francis Bacon, science, slavery, business, improvement, useful knowledge, capitalism

To such as only seek their benefit,You do infallibly discover it: You shew therein, £3000 will clearAnd that not in a jugling Chymick sense,But drawn from reason and experience.1

So rings the promise of enrichment that begins Richard Ligon’s True and Exact History of Barbados (1657, 1673), his description of his travels in the Atlantic world and sojourn on the island from 1647 to 1650. Even as the History entertained its readers with some of the standard fare of early modern travel writing—the strange fauna and flora, and alien customs—the text also included Ligon’s account of the Barbadian “sugar revolution” and [End Page 549] the emergence of a planter society of great wealth founded on slavery and brutality. These observations about nature and people have made the History a valuable source of material for historians to examine the complexity of gender relations, proto-racist ideas, and the political anxieties of the early modern Atlantic.2 Their studies have exposed Ligon’s sometimes ambivalent, occasionally contradictory attitudes towards the violence he encountered as civil war and commercial revolution transformed the English Atlantic.3 Reflecting on this problem, Susan Scott Parrish has recently proposed that the text is a subtle allegory that utilizes Christian humanism to address the brutality and political disharmony of England’s embryonic Caribbean empire. As she writes, the History is “not only a practical manual but also a Christian humanist how-to directive for conscientious plantation.”4 Curiously, however, despite such renewed interest in the History, the function of the text as a “practical manual” to make the reader rich by presenting strategies “drawn from reason and experience” has not attracted sustained study on its own terms.5 Yet this perspective reveals the thorough-going influence of seventeenth-century ideas about improvement on the History, and yields insights into the emerging intellectual culture of business in the English Atlantic.

The press of business and possibilities of improvement were familiar to Ligon from personal experience. His entrepreneurial character was in evidence throughout his life, even if it ultimately brought him little financial [End Page 550] success.6 Though the Lygons were an established West Country family, Ligon was not heir to a substantial fortune. He was instead the younger son of a younger son, Thomas of Elstone farm, Wiltshire, which was worth £75 yearly rent in 1625.7 In the History, however, Ligon assumes a gentlemanly air of refinement, claiming skill in the arts of painting and hawking, among others, an education that would have helped him build useful connections with social superiors as he clambered after money. Ligon was a man of business who helped along and managed the affairs of richer men, and in this capacity he participated in investment schemes in fen drainage in eastern England. But when civil war (1642) erupted and provided cover for locals to destroy the projectors’ works, Ligon was left “destitute of subsistence.”8 He joined the royalist side in the civil wars and was captured at Exeter in 1646. By that time Ligon was an aging and impoverished figure.9 Either resourceful or desperate, he turned to the opportunities of exile in the Atlantic world, a path his older brother Thomas had already taken in 1642 by immigrating to Virginia.10 Ligon was employed to protect the interests of Thomas Kendall, a shrewd London merchant with East India dealings who now...