Book Review: Sugar in the Blood – A Family’s Story of Slavery and Empire by Andrea Stuart

Sugar in the Blood HBAbout the Book

In the late 1630s, lured by the promise of the New World, Andrea Stuart’s earliest known maternal ancestor, George Ashby, set sail from England to settle in Barbados. He fell into the life of a sugar plantation owner by mere chance, but by the time he harvested his first crop, a revolution was fully under way: the farming of sugar cane, and the swiftly increasing demands for sugar worldwide, would not only lift George Ashby from abject poverty and shape the lives of his descendants, but it would also bind together ambitious white entrepreneurs and enslaved black workers in a strangling embrace. Stuart uses her own family story – from the seventeenth century through the present – as the pivot for this epic tale of migration, settlement, survival, slavery and the making of the Americas.

As it grew, the sugar trade enriched Europe as never before, financing the Industrial Revolution and fueling the Enlightenment. And, as well, it became the basis of many economies in South America, played an important part in the evolution of the United States as a world power and transformed the Caribbean into an archipelago of riches. But this sweet and hugely profitable trade – “white gold,” as it was known – had profoundly less palatable consequences in its precipitation of the enslavement of Africans to work the fields on the islands and, ultimately, throughout the American continents.

Interspersing the tectonic shifts of colonial history with her family’s experience, Stuart explores the interconnected themes of settlement, sugar and slavery with extraordinary subtlety and sensitivity. In examining how these forces shaped her own family – its genealogy, intimate relationships, circumstances of birth, varying hues of skin – she illuminates how her family, among millions of others like it, in turn transformed the society in which they lived, and how that interchange continues to this day. Shifting between personal and global history, Stuart gives us a deepened understanding of the connections between continents, between black and white, between men and women, between the free and the enslaved. It is a story brought to life with riveting and unparalleled immediacy, a story of fundamental importance to the making of our world.

Format: Hardcover (336 pp.)    Publisher: Portobello
Published: 7th June 2012    Genre: Nonfiction, History

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My Review

Because of the dearth of documentary evidence, much of the early part of the book concerning the journey of the author’s maternal ancestor, George Ashby, to Barbados, his arrival on the island and his daily life has by necessity to be speculation or generalisation based on the limited contemporary accounts of other settlers.  The author paints a detailed picture of what it must have been like for settlers arriving on the island, coming to terms with the change in environment – new sights and smells, unfamiliar weather and seasonal variations, strange insects, exotic fruits and vegetables.  All adding up to what the author pithily describes as ‘an assault of newness’.

The first workforce included ‘indentured servants’, often deportees from Ireland or Civil War prisoners, who worked alongside black slaves on terms akin to slavery.  The author notes George Ashby’s good fortune in finding himself a wife given the few white women on the island at that time and his appearance in the first census on the island in 1650. Since African labour was regarded as essential for production of sugar – the so-called ‘white gold’- Stuart notes the shift in make-up of the population of Barbados from predominantly white to black.   She makes the point that society was entirely organized around the slave system and that a legal system prevailed in which racism was ‘encoded’ because slaves were regarded as the property of their owners.  In fact, she contends that Barbadians helped to invent the concept of ‘whiteness’ and the privileges and social superiority that went with it, and ‘blackness’ with its associated disadvantages.  The consequences of this, the author contends, was to make Barbados ‘a place riven by inequality and teetering permanently on the brink of violence’.

The author charts the growing unrest amongst the slave population, including suicide by those who could see no other option.  Small acts of defiance and sabotage resulted in grotesque and ferocious punishment.   Stuart describes how the ‘tinderbox’ that was Barbados slave society ignited on 14th April 1816 when half the island went up in flames in a rebellion led by a slave known as Bussa.  (A statue believed to be a model of him is situated on one of the island’s most prominent roundabout; many visitors to Barbados may have glimpsed it on their journey from the airport to the West Coast resorts.)

In the remaining part of the book, the author traces the fortunes of her family as successful plantation owners.  The departure of her grandfather and his wife for the United States during a period of increased migration, their eventual return to Barbados and the first meeting of her father, Kenneth, and mother, Barbara, sees a new chapter in the family’s history.  Although the family moved to Jamaica, the author recalls family holidays spent in Barbados.  Later, settled in Britain, Stuart recalls becoming for the first time ‘acutely aware of her colour and all the stereotypes associated with it’.   She also acknowledges how sugar and the slave trade have contributed to British life.

As someone who has spent a number of holidays in Barbados and grown to love the island and its people – so much so that my husband and I were married there (at Hunte’s Garden, since you ask) – I was naturally drawn to this book and found it full of fascinating information about the island’s history.  However, it also raised moral questions for me about the legacy of the slave trade even as I, like other tourists, visit former plantation houses (‘commercially buffed and burnished’ in the words of the author) or drive through fields of sugar cane where slaves once toiled in harsh conditions.

Andrea Stuart writes: ‘In the Caribbean, the legacy of the sugar boom and the slave trade is not so easily ignored or forgotten… Sugar has transformed the landscape and the changed the region’s ecosystem.  It has shaped our economies, traditions and national identities.’  And for the author, it’s personal as well. ‘Many families like my own are mixed-race on both sides, blending the histories of both oppressor and oppressed.’  I appreciated the author’s honesty about the ambivalence she feels about her family’s history.

You can find a list of other (fiction and non-fiction) books about or set in Barbados here.

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In three words: Detailed, thought-provoking, informative

Try something similar…Sugar Money by Jane Harris (read my review here)

Andrea StuartAbout the Author

Andrea Stuart was born in Barbados in 1962. She spent many of her early years in Jamaica, where her father, Kenneth, was Dean of the medical school at the University College of the West Indies – the first university in the Caribbean.

In 1976, when she was a teenager, she moved with her family to England. She studied English at the University of East Anglia and French at the Sorbonne. Her book The Rose of Martinique: A Biography of Napoleon’s Josephine, was published in the United States in 2004, has been translated into three languages, and won the Enid McLeod Literary Prize. Stuart’s work has been published in numerous anthologies, newspapers, and magazines, and she regularly reviews books for The Independent. She has also worked as a TV producer. (Photo credit: Goodreads author page)

Connect with Andrea

Website  ǀ  Goodreads

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