Sir James Drax (d. 1662) was a Barbados plantation owner who accumulated extraordinary wealth as a pioneer of the sugar trade in the English colonies. The Caribbean sugar plantations established by James Drax and those who followed his example would be at the epicenter of the growing British and French empires, helping to fuel economic growth and imperial expansion.
Early life and migration
James Drax was the son of William Drax, a gentleman of the village of Finham, in the parish of Stoneleigh, Warwickshire. In the late 1620s, James Drax became one of the earliest English migrants to the island of Barbados: he and his companions arrived and lived for a time in a cave, hunting for provisions, and clearing land for the planting of tobacco, which soon became the staple crop of the island. Drax later claimed that he had arrived with a stock of no more than £300, and that he intended to stay on the island until he had parlayed that initial investment into a landed fortune worth £10,000 a year back home.
By the late 1630s, Drax had accumulated a substantial portion of land on Barbados, together with his brother William Drax. Owing to a slump in tobacco prices, the late 1630s saw considerable economic difficulty in England’s fledgling colonies in the Caribbean, and colonists began to turn to other crops. According to tradition, Drax was one of the pioneers of the introduction of sugar to the island, and was reportedly the first planter successfully to cultivate sugar cane on a large scale. Drax allegedly relied heavily on Dutch expertise, learning the craft of sugar production and refinement from a Dutch settler, and then importing equipment from Holland. While these reports were recorded much later, and while the contribution of the Dutch is disputed, it is likely that at least some of the capital and techniques of production deployed in the early Barbados sugar trade came from the Dutch, who in turn had acquired their know-how and experience in the trade from Portuguese Brazil (which had been partially seized by the Netherlands in 1630). Sources indicate that the early experiments of Drax and others Barbados settlers began c. 1640, and there was certainly sugar arriving in London from the island by 1643. Barbados quickly became a major supplier for Europe, and by the mid-1650s, sugar production had largely supplanted tobacco and all other crops as the dominant economic activity of the island.
Concurrent with the rise of sugar came large-scale and intensive exploitation of slave labor, and here too Drax was a notorious pioneer. Prior to 1640, the primary source of labor in Barbados had been European indentured servants. Although there were African slaves in Barbados before this point, it was only after 1640, and frequently in tandem with the cultivation of sugar, that slave labor began to supplant indentured servitude as the chief mode of production. Drax was deeply involved in this transition, acquiring 22 slaves in early 1642, just as he was getting involved in sugar. In 1644, he purchased another 34 slaves. By the early 1650s, his huge estate was manned by some 200 slaves of African descent. The model of intensive slave labor, organized into work gangs, and disciplined through ubiquitous violence, also quickly spread through the Caribbean, going hand-in-hand with sugar production.
Fortune and knighthood
Drax profited spectacularly from his sugar enterprise, allowing him to live “like a prince.” With wealth and power came political controversy. He emerged during the 1640s as a key supporter of parliament during the civil war raging in England, and became a colonel in the island’s militia. As a result, when a royalist faction seized control of Barbados in 1650, James and William Drax were exiled from the island, along with other prominent parliamentarians. They returned to London, where they lobbied the House of Commons to send an expedition to retake the island. In 1651, Drax sailed in the fleet designed to re-conquer Barbados, and he was part of the team that went ashore to negotiate the surrender of the island. Restored to his estates and power, Drax once again took up a leading role in the governance of the colony. It is thought that Drax Hall, the impressive seventeenth-century manor house in St. George parish Barbados, was built by him and his brother during the 1650s. He also played a role as patron of explorers of the North American coast, including Robert Sandford. In 1658, Drax was rewarded for his loyalty with a knighthood from the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell.
Return to England and death
By this point, Drax had returned to England, where he acquired a series of estates, pursuing his original ambition of setting himself up as a landed magnate at home, while continuing to profit from his vast properties in Barbados. He survived the transition of the Restoration, but died in early 1662, and was buried in the parish of St. John Zachary, London. After his death, his son Henry continued to own and manage the family estate in Barbados. T
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- "Henry Drax's Instructions on the Management of a Seventeenth-Century Barbadian Sugar Plantation," William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, 66 (2009), 565-604