I mention this because I have just finished listening to Matthew Parker's The Sugar Barons: Family, Corruption, Empire, and War in the West Indies (2011). This is a quite readable history of the British colonies in the Caribbean, from the first settlements on Barbados around 1620 to the abolition of slavery and the collapse of the plantations. Parker's focus is on a handful of the great sugar families -- Drax, Codrington, Beckford, etc. -- but along the way he gives an entertaining narrative of political and military events in the islands, a good economic history of the sugar plantations and their place in the world economy, and a useful introduction to the social history of the plantations, with enough material on slavery to convey the peculiar brutality of the system.
Parker also has a good eye for documentary sources that bring out the weirdness of the West Indies. He has the diary of a plantation overseer who kept a minutely detailed record of his life, including every time he had sex with a slave, and a firsthand account of the 1694 earthquake in Port Royal, Jamaica, a town built on sand that turned liquid during the quake, so that hundreds of people sank into it like water, only to be trapped when the shaking ceased and the ground turned solid again.
Yet people kept leaving Europe and sailing toward these lands of death, drawn by the dream of great riches and pushed out by the grinding poverty and rigid social hierarchy of the home islands. A few of the survivors did get fabulously rich, and a few more earned respectable livings. But efficient sugar production required large plantations and a great investment in machinery and especially labor, so after the chaos of the first pioneering years very few poor men were able to become sugar planters. I was impressed by how many of Jamaica's great families were founded by men who came in the very first shiploads of British soldiers and settlers. Once the great plantations were up and running, sugar was a rich man's game.
Given the prominent place of the sugar trade in the rise of the modern world, it is worth thinking a little about the horrors that lay behind it. And about this whole side of human life, the vicious struggle for survival, riches and mastery that we mask with talk of glory and civilization. We are animals, predatory animals, and though we like to speak of the violence and cruelty of wolves or lions or hyenas, we are the true masters in those departments.