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

A Barbados Reading List


I may be on holiday at the fabulous Mango Bay in Barbados but my blog isn’t, so here are ten books about or set in this wonderful island. Full disclosure: I’ve only read two of them but several more are on my wishlist or in my TBR pile. List compiled with help from the fantastic TripFiction and the Around the World in 80 Books Goodreads Group.


downloadGrowing Up Stupid Under the Union Jack by Austin Clarke

From the award-winning author of “The Polished Hoe” comes this delightful memoir. Alive with the warmth and colour of the Caribbean, singing with the lilting cadence of Barbadian speech, this is renowned author Austin Clarke’s own story of the trials, joys, and ultimate disillusionment of a small Barbadian boy experiencing British colonialism in the 1940’s. Authentic and vivid, “Growing Up Stupid Under the Union Jack” details the life of a boy whose mother struggled against insurmountable odds, yet succeeded in giving her son the best available education. It is a dazzling account of a slow, dogged climb upward in a society whose rigid customs, rules and expectations were imported from England and accepted almost without question by the islanders. It is the story of a boy bent on making his mark in that society, despite the cruelty of British schoolmasters and the incongruity of studying for his Senior Cambridge examinations in a mango tree–his improvised study–in a vast field of sugar cane. Throughout this first volume of Clarke’s autobiography courses his irrepressible exhilaration with life itself, his deep delight in the antic humour of people who populated his childhood, and his unshakable pride in his heritage.

517cNVFGkSL._SY346_Sugar in the Blood: A Family’s Story of Slavery and Empire by Andrea Stuart

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.

51x96wcG-5LThe Sugar Barons by Matthew Parker

The contemporary image of the West Indies as paradise islands conceals a turbulent, dramatic and shocking history. For 200 years after 1650, the West Indies witnessed one of the greatest power struggles of the age, as Europeans made and lost immense fortunes growing and trading in sugar – a commodity so lucrative that it was known as white gold. This compelling book tells how the islands became by far most valuable and important colonies in the British Empire. How Barbados, scene of the sugar revolution that made the English a nation of voracious consumers, was transformed from a backward outpost into England’s richest colony, powered by the human misery of tens of thousands of enslaved Africans. How this model of coercion and exploitation was exported around the region, producing huge wealth for a few, but creating a society poisoned by war, disease, cruelty and corruption.


513WmhL7uBL._SX333_BO1,204,203,200_Caribbee by Thomas Hoover

Caribee is the untold story of the first American revolution, as English colonists pen a Declaration of Defiance (“liberty” or “death”) against Parliament and fight a full-scale war for freedom against an English fleet – with cannon, militia, many lives lost – over a century before 1776. The powerful story line, based on actual events, puts the reader in the midst of the first major English slave auction in the Americas, and the first slave revolt.

Plantation slavery, introduced into the English colonies, set a cruel model for North America a few decades later, and unleashed the greed of early Puritans who burned unruly slaves alive, a far different truth from that presented in sanitized history books.  Buccaneers, one-time cattle hunters who banded together to revenge a bloody Spanish attack on their home, soon became the most feared marauders in the New World.

51p30U0ygTLThe Turtle Run by Marie Evelyn

She went in search of history and found her own future.

Becky has lost her job and her direction in life so is thrilled when she gets the chance to go to Barbados and research the exiled Monmouth rebels. But the Caribbean paradise isn’t all that it seems. The old plantation house is beautiful but lonely, and the locals are unfriendly. As her research becomes an obsession, one of the rebel descendants, who still works the same land as his ancestors, begins to get a hold on her mind. Is she living in a fantasy, or is this really an island of long memories? She soon finds that she is not the only one being led by the past…

61c64yJM1nL._SY346_The King’s Exile (Thomas Hill 2) by Andrew Swanston

Thomas Hill is arrested on charges invented by his old enemy Tobias Rush, whom he thought had been executed for treason. He is deported to Barbados where he is indentured to Rush’s business partners. When news of the King’s execution arrives, political stability on the island is threatened. Also in danger is Thomas’s sister and nieces back in England, and he knows he must return home to them. However when a fleet commanded by Admiral Sir George Ayscue arrives to take control of the island for Cromwell, his departure is blocked.  A coded message from Ayscue to a sympathiser on the island is intercepted, and Thomas is asked to decipher it. A potentially disastrous battle seems inevitable, and Thomas volunteers for the dangerous role of envoy to Ayscue. But with his sworn enemy hot on his heels, will Thomas ever find safety and make it home to his family alive?

51AGL4J41lLRedlegs by Chris Dolan

Elspeth, a young Scottish actress, is selected by the elusive impresario Lord Coak for an acting career on the Caribbean Island of Barbados. She is briefly feted by the island community, but a tempest kills her lover and destroys the theatre in which she was to star. She is obliged to take on a supposedly temporary and fairly ambiguous role at Lord Coak’s plantation home. The closed environment of the estate is stifling, but it institutionalizes her and gives her a degree of status.  Clearly Lord Coak’s grand plan to modernize the estate cannot be implemented without social reform but a catastrophic event breaks the spell and divides the community.

51-SnIl13RL._SX318_BO1,204,203,200_No Man in the House by Cecil Foster

It is 1964. Howard lives a hand-to-mouth existence in the small island protectorate of Barbados with his brothers, two aunts, and his grandmother. He is waiting for his parents, who left for England long ago, to send for him. And as the sparks of independence crackle all around them, Howard’s life changes forever when Mr. Bradshaw, a black headmaster, is hired for his school. Howard begins to blossom under Bradshaw’s guidance, and learns that neither freedom nor knowledge comes without sacrifice, and that even battles won leave victims. In this beautiful, poignant, and ultimately hopeful novel, the fate of one Bajan family rests in the hands of change–change that only liberation and learning can bring.

51zCUg9GX8L._SY346_It So Happen by Timothy Callender

A collection of West Indian stories which features such characters as Saga-Boy and Jasper, preparing for a grand stick-fight; Big Joe, who will do anything to marry the girl he loves; Pa John, who is foiled by his own wicked spell; and all the men who try to beat Marie in a rum-drinking contest.

starside2.inddThe Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson

After their mother can no longer care for them, young Phaedra and her older sister, Dionne, are exiled from Brooklyn to Bird Hill in Barbados to live with their grandmother Hyacinth, a midwife and practitioner of the local spiritual practice of obeah. Dionne spends the summer in search of love, testing her grandmother’s limits, and wanting to go home. Phaedra explores Bird Hill, where her family has lived for generations, accompanies her grandmother in her role as a midwife, and investigates their mother’s mysterious life. When the father they barely know comes to Bird Hill to reclaim his daughters, and both Phaedra and Dionne must choose between the Brooklyn they once knew and loved or the Barbados of their family.