Sugar in the Blood

“Too much sugar is bitter,” an old Nepalese proverb warns, and Andrea Stuart proves it so in her epic and deeply felt Sugar in the Blood: A Family’s Story of Slavery and Empire. The Caribbean-born author uses her own complex family tree to anchor a vivid exploration of the terrible costs of sugar cultivation on the island of Barbados and far beyond.

Stuart, author of The Rose of Martinique: A Life of Napoleon’s Josephine, begins her tale with her earliest known ancestor, George Ashby, her maternal grandfather eight times removed, who left England to set sail for Barbados sometime in the 1630s. Barbados, lush and uninhabited, was a popular choice for English settlers, and Ashby acquired a nine-acre plot of land on which he initially harvested tobacco, with the help of a white indentured servant.

The cruel saga of the sugar economy has been told before, most recently in Elizabeth Abbott’s Sugar: A Bittersweet History. Stuart provides a succinct summary of sugar’s rise as a global commodity — it “drove the geopolitics of the era, just as oil does today” — and its portentous arrival in the New World. She also explains sugar’s tricky and dangerous cultivation process, which involved “a unique combination of farm and factory, where brute strength was combined with a chemist’s precision and judgment.” It took time to perfect the system, but by the mid-1650s the sugar industry was booming in Barbados. Settlers like George Ashby promptly switched over to sugar, while boatloads of new migrants arrived from England hoping to cash in.

What sugar most required, though, was “a vast and steady stream of expendable labor to make the crop commercially viable.” While there had been small numbers of African slaves in Barbados up to that point, the demands of sugar drove the shift from indentured servitude to mass slavery. According to Stuart, Barbados was “the first society that was entirely organized around its slave system and, as such, it would become the model for the plantation system throughout the Americas.” But life for slaves in Barbados was even more brutal than in the American South, rife with violent abuse, dehumanizing neglect, and myriad dangers lurking in both the cane fields and the sugar mills.

By the time of his death, George Ashby had expanded his holdings from a modest nine acres to twenty-one; he was also the owner of nine slaves. But it would take several generations for the family to join the island’s elite. Robert Cooper Ashby, born in 1776, married into a wealthy family, a match that eventually made him head of a large plantation and master to 200 slaves. Of the children Robert had with his wife, only one would survive to adulthood, nevertheless dying young and childless. But Robert had sexual relationships with at least five of his slaves — one of whom he lived with openly following the death of his wife — and with them he produced at least seventeen children. One of those, John Stephen, is the author’s great-great-great-grandfather, a slave for the first half of his life, until emancipation in 1834. (The first time she found a property record listing him as one of the plantation’s slaves, she writes, the “sight of his name took my breath away.”) Ashby apprenticed John Stephen to a carpenter on the plantation, thereby sparing him hard labor in the fields; Stuart notes that such gestures were not uncommon among planters who wished to improve the prospects of their illegitimate children without actually acknowledging them.

Robert Cooper Ashby’s will left his estate to those offspring born to the two slaves with whom he’d had long-term relationships. While John Stephen was not among them, as a skilled carpenter he managed to live a middle-class life following emancipation; so, eventually, did his descendants. The closing chapters of the book chronicle the end of slavery in Barbados, its 1966 independence from Great Britain, and, with the sugar beet overtaking cane as the primary source of sugar production, the island’s shift to a tourism-based economy. Stuart was raised in Jamaica, where her father worked as a doctor, though she grew up visiting relatives who had remained in Barbados and still lived on Ashby land. As Jamaica experienced violent unrest in the 1970s, her family performed the reverse migration of her earliest known ancestor, relocating to England.

The move was disorienting for the teenage Stuart; she was the only black student in her exclusive school, yet her well-off family had little in common with the masses of Caribbean people who’d journeyed to England in a desperate search for jobs. She became acutely aware of her race for the first time and was left with a “perpetual sense of displacement.” That feeling surely inspired this book and her quest to understand her forebears, from the wealthy white slaveholders to the forever anonymous slaves like John Stephen’s mother. “Somewhere in all of our family stories is a ‘George Ashby,’ ” the author says of the ancestor whose migration started her on her own journey. How gratifying for Stuart, and for us as readers, that she was able to find hers.