The best books about the West Indies sugar and slave trade in the 17th century

Who am I?

Nancy Blanton is an American author of Irish descent. A former journalist, she’s written four award-winning novels rooted in 17th century Irish history. Her first novel, Sharavogue, takes place in the lawless West Indies on the island of Montserrat, where the protagonist struggles to survive the slavery, disease, kindness, and brutality of an Irish-owned sugar plantation.


I wrote...

Sharavogue: A Novel of Ireland and the West Indies

By Nancy Blanton,

Book cover of Sharavogue: A Novel of Ireland and the West Indies

What is my book about?

It is December of 1649 as England’s uncrowned king, Oliver Cromwell, leads his new model army across Ireland to crush a violent rebellion. As the relentless cavalry approaches, Elvy Burke knows she will not give up easily. When Cromwell cruelly beheads a village boy, Elvy vows to destroy him. After escaping from his soldiers, she aligns with a Scottish outlaw whose schemes send them headlong into a tumultuous journey across the sea to the West Indies, where she learns to survive under impossible conditions and discovers the depth of her own strengths and emotions. Sharavogue is the compelling story of one girl’s journey and unwavering belief in destiny.

The books I picked & why

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A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbados

By Richard Ligon,

Book cover of A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbados

Why this book?

If you want to know exactly what things looked like and what living in Barbados felt like in the 17th century, this is the book. Originally published in 1657, this is like a travelogue of the Island that became a prosperous English colony known for its sugar plantations, rum, and slave trade. Ligon was a royalist in exile during the English civil war.

A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbados

By Richard Ligon,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbados as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Ligon's True and Exact History of the Island of Barbados is the most significant book-length English text written about the Caribbean in the seventeenth century. [It] allows one to see the contested process behind the making of the Caribbean sugar/African slavery complex. Kupperman is one of the leading scholars of the early modern Atlantic world. . . . I cannot think of any scholar better prepared to write an Introduction that places Ligon, his text, and Barbados in an Atlantic historical context. The Introduction is quite thorough, readable, and accurate; the notes [are] exemplary! --Susan Parrish, University of Michigan


If the Irish Ran the World: Montserrat, 1630-1730

By Donald Harman Akenson,

Book cover of If the Irish Ran the World: Montserrat, 1630-1730

Why this book?

Akenson’s book opened my eyes to the small island of Montserrat and the Irish colony that became the setting of my first novel, Sharavogue. Mostly overlooked by the English, the island became a haven for Irish settlers who established sugar and tobacco plantations. In addition to descriptions of the location and industry, this book explores whether the Irish, given the opportunity to control an empire, would be more humane than the English.

If the Irish Ran the World: Montserrat, 1630-1730

By Donald Harman Akenson,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked If the Irish Ran the World as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Montserrat, although part of England's empire, was settled largely by the Irish and provides an opportunity to view the interaction of Irish emigrants with English imperialism in a situation where the Irish were not a small minority among white settlers. Within this context Akenson explores whether Irish imperialism on Montserrat differed from English imperialism in other colonies. Akenson reveals that the Irish proved to be as effective and as unfeeling colonists as the English and the Scottish, despite the long history of oppression in Ireland. He debunks the myth of the "nice" slave holder and the view that indentured labour…


Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624-1713

By Richard S. Dunn,

Book cover of Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624-1713

Why this book?

My copy is loaded with underlines, dogears, and stickies to signify the wealth of information provided, particularly on the West Indies slave trade. From the geography of the islands to architecture, planting schedules, clothing fabrics, political corruption, and the slave market, Dunn covers everything in an interesting and illuminating way.

Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624-1713

By Richard S. Dunn,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Sugar and Slaves as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

First published by UNC Press in 1972, Sugar and Slaves presents a vivid portrait of English life in the Caribbean more than three centuries ago. Using a host of contemporary primary sources, Richard Dunn traces the development of plantation slave society in the region. He examines sugar production techniques, the vicious character of the slave trade, the problems of adapting English ways to the tropics, and the appalling mortality rates for both blacks and whites that made these colonies the richest, but in human terms the least successful, in English America.


Testimony of an Irish Slave Girl

By Kate McCafferty,

Book cover of Testimony of an Irish Slave Girl

Why this book?

This novel, set in the time of Oliver Cromwell, is about a girl kidnapped from her Galway home and shipped to Barbados to be sold as an indentured servant to work alongside African slaves. We learn of her life as she gives testimony to an English officer after a failed rebellion. Well researched and powerfully written, one can feel the anger and bitterness of her oppressed existence, and her fierce passion for her African rebel husband. It brings history to life.

Testimony of an Irish Slave Girl

By Kate McCafferty,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Testimony of an Irish Slave Girl as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Kidnapped from Galway, Ireland, as a young girl, shipped to Barbados, and forced to work the land alongside African slaves, Cot Daley's life has been shaped by injustice. In this stunning debut novel, Kate McCafferty re-creates, through Cot's story, the history of the more than fifty thousand Irish who were sold as indentured servants to Caribbean plantation owners during the seventeenth century. As Cot tells her story-the brutal journey to Barbados, the harrowing years of fieldwork on the sugarcane plantations, her marriage to an African slave and rebel leader, and the fate of her children—her testimony reveals an exceptional woman's…


Sugar Barons

By Matthew Parker,

Book cover of Sugar Barons

Why this book?

For perhaps 200 years after 1650, sugar became such a valuable commodity it became known as “white gold.” This book gives the broad and sweeping history of the conflicts over control of the sugar trade, the slave trade, and the wealth that ultimately led to the Industrial Revolution. It also provides intimate details of the families whose fortunes depended on sugar.

Sugar Barons

By Matthew Parker,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Sugar Barons as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

For 200 years after 1650 the West Indies were the most fought-over colonies in the world, as Europeans made and lost immense fortunes growing and trading in sugar - a commodity so lucrative that it was known as white gold.

Young men, beset by death and disease, an ocean away from the moral anchors of life in Britain, created immense dynastic wealth but produced a society poisoned by war, sickness, cruelty and corruption.

The Sugar Barons explores the lives and experiences of those whose fortunes rose and fell with the West Indian empire. From the ambitious and brilliant entrepreneurs, to…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in sugar, the West Indies, and the history of slavery?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about sugar, the West Indies, and the history of slavery.

Sugar Explore 14 books about sugar
The West Indies Explore 16 books about the West Indies
The History Of Slavery Explore 9 books about the history of slavery

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Empires of the Atlantic World, A Small Place, and The Coldest Harbour in the Land if you like this list.