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  • The Cultural Politics of Sugar: Caribbean Slavery and Narratives of Colonialism
  • Thomas W. Krise (bio)
The Cultural Politics of Sugar: Caribbean Slavery and Narratives of Colonialism. Keith A. Sandiford. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. v, 221 pp.

Literary studies of the early colonial Caribbean are still in their infancy. Key texts are being rediscovered and made available, courses are being taught, and literary analyses are beginning to appear. Keith A. Sandiford's The Cultural Politics of Sugaris a serious contribution to the field of Caribbean literary studies. Sandiford offers a postcolonial reading of six important texts: Richard Ligon's A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbados(1657), Charles de Rochefort's The Natural and Moral History of the Caribbean Islands(French 1658; English, 1666), James Grainger's The Sugar Cane: A Poem in Four Books(1764), Janet Schaw's Journal of a Lady of Quality(written 1774–76; published 1934), William Beckford's A Descriptive Account of the Island of Jamaica(1790), and "Monk" Lewis's Journal of a West-India Proprietor(written 1815–18; published 1834).

Sandiford's theoretical approach is based mostly on Michel de Certeau, especially in terms of his emphasis on heterology and idealized desire in colonial narratives, and on Michel Foucault and Orlando Patterson for his handling of the effects of slavery. The reader may be puzzled a bit by Sandiford's introduction, which opens by referencing the "first phrase of my title" which he says is "used on two separate occasions in Richard Ligon's History of Barbados(1657; 1673)" (1). As it seems unlikely that Ligon could have imagined the phrase "The Cultural Politics of Sugar," it eventually becomes apparent that the original title for the book was "Sweete Negotiation," [End Page 554]the subtitle for his chapter on Ligon and a phrase that Ligon does indeed employ (although in neither the 1657 edition nor the 1673 edition is it spelled "sweete," but rather "sweet"). His recurrent trope revolves around the term"negotiation," which he argues pits neg (literally "not," but which Sandiford makes stand for activity, trade, slavery, social disorder, and the making of sugar) against otium("ease" or "quiet"); so, in his analysis of each of the six texts, Sandiford focuses on the uneasy interaction between neg and otium. Here for instance is his treatment of Beckford's Descriptive Account:

The volume closes on a note accentuating the categorical ambivalence of its larger constructive framework: it shifts warily between the neg of an indirect commentary on the gathering clouds of political and social change in the colonies, and the otiumof Beckford's own optimism that the slavocrats' benevolence could arrest the threat of violent cataclysm.


This use of "negotiation" is effective in calling attention to the many contradictions and stresses present in most representations of the early colonial Caribbean. But Ligon's use of the term would seem to draw on an obsolete denotation of "negotiation" as "trade" or "business," which would be consistent with Ligon's argument in favor of increasing the sugar trade. On the other hand, Ligon's suggestion that the "sweet Negotiation of Sugar" might ensure that great estates in the West Indies could last until "the tenth Generation" does introduce the idea of negotiation as "bargaining" or "dealing" implicit in Sandiford's analysis ( Ligon 96). Ligon not only provides Sandiford with his controlling trope, but also sets up a baseline of an "optimistic frontier myth" and a "discursive space for the Creole desire of cultural legitimacy" against which the remaining five texts are measured (40).

The inclusion of Charles de Rochefort in an otherwise exclusively Anglophone study is surprising, but also helpful in suggesting what alternatives were available to the English vision of empire. The fact that Rochefort's Histoirewas translated into English within eight years of its Paris publication helps it fit into the scheme of this study. The French "unitary vision of culture sanctioned by monarch and state" couldn't be more at odds with the English approach to colonization (43); so, against the optimistic, colony-based arguments of Ligon, Rochefort offers a "metrocentric" alternative. [End Page 555]

Sandiford's treatment of Grainger's The...


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