Zack O'Neill

Sugar in the Blood – Andrea Stuart

Sugar in the Blood – Andrea Stuart

My interest in this book can be traced to Colin Woodard’s “American Nations,” a 2011 text in which Woodard argues (as others have before) that America has always been a battleground of competing tribes. One element of his text is to characterize the American South’s system of chattel slavery as essentially forged in Barbados; Woodard marks this type of slavery as highly racialized, brutal in its imposition of violence on the enslaved, characterized by sexual relationships between masters and female slaves, and a lack of concern for the well-being of people who would literally be worked to death in the fields (or sugar houses, as the case is in Stuart’s text), and made all the more grotesque by not only ostentatious displays of wealth and power by masters, but biblical justifications for the prevailing order by ministers and other spiritual leaders. Before I get into Stuart’s text, let me say that another book which focuses extensively on the history of Barbados is Scottish historian Simon Newman’s “A New World of Labor,” which I also review. That book goes into much further depth on slavery in Africa, particularly the Gold Coast (modern day Ghana), in the early 1600s.
Stuart, a native Barbadian born in 1962, has put together a nonfiction text that is part memoir, part historical narrative, and part imagined history. In the book’s opening pages she tells us she wanted to trace the roots of her family history and was able to date her lineage back to 1620, and a man named George Ashby, who left poverty in England for the promise of a better life in the tropics. This was a time of overpopulation in the British Isles (a topic covered more extensively in books like Nancy Isenberg’s “White Trash” which I also review), and forced servitude for the poorest English, Irish, and Scottish citizens, who were either pressed into apprenticeship or literally rounded up and put on boats bound for the New World. As we see early in the book, the slave population in the early days of Barbados was predominately white.

As I mention above, Stuart blends memoir and archival research to create an imagined history layered on top of what she uncovers. Throughout the narrative she tries to empathize, based on the historical record she has, and convey what it “must have been like.” She renders the extreme poverty and servitude of poor whites in Britain, imagining the conditions that would drive one out; she also renders how enticing the (mostly false) promise of a better life abroad was. “Depictions of the New World tended towards the hyperbolic” (16), she writes, and proved too promising for George, particularly given the crushing poverty where he lived.

When George gets to Barbados, Stuart begins to meticulously detail the physicality of Barbadian life; in the book we learn what people wore and ate, their daily activities, the architecture and feel of living spaces, and perhaps most vividly the geography of the island. She writes extensive passages on the topography of Barbados, which “feels like two islands rolled into one. The eastern coast, which borders the Atlantic… is wild and steep, dotted with huge, sculptural limestone outcrops, (and) the Caribbean coast is as tame and smooth as a turquoise rug” (28). She writes of humidity so strong it rusts metal, the wet summers from May to December, the hurricane season of September and October (37), how fish was popular but rarely fresh; how sweet potatoes and plantains were dietary staples and how the former was used to make an alcoholic drink called “mobby”; she also writes of the giant lizards, snakes and scorpions in the fields (38); and of the cosmopolitan population George surely would have encountered upon setting foot in the capital Bridgetown, or “The Bridge” for short.

Once in Barbados, George’s first act of business was to buy a plot of land, and then go about the arduous task of clearing it. At the time, tobacco and cotton were Barbados’ primary agricultural products, and for the most part considered inferior versions of the same crops grown in the Americas. Nonetheless, these crops are what George would initially plant.

The switch to sugar changed the island. In the early 1600s, sugar was like a rare spice throughout the world; only the wealthiest people had even small amounts of it. Some sugar plantations in Brazil were known to be productive, but were not operating on a large scale. As Barbados changed to this crop, and indeed places around the Americas, sugar as a dietary staple was beginning to explode, and mills could not satisfy the demand. By the 1660s, the whole island was growing sugar cane, and planters were making fortunes. There arose a caste of prominent planters (many of whom bought cheap furniture because they saw themselves as temporary residents and wanted to return home as quickly as possible), and the epicenter of political life was St. Philip’s parish, where George lived. His success on his property would lead him to take on slaves of his own.

What followed soon after the massive increase in sugar mills was another significant change that would quite literally set the tone for slavery in the New World: the conversion of the slave population to Africans. Stuart here does not shy away from a subject that is at the center of the book: the brutal treatment of slaves. One of many jarring passages comes from a slave who, in discussing life on the island, claims to have seen people “hung, drowned, crucified, buried alive, thrown into boiling cauldrons of cane syrup, put in barrels filled with spikes and rolled down hills” (142). Stuart writes that suicide was so common, masters began decapitating dead bodies as a deterrent (many slaves believed one couldn’t go on to the next life without their head) (75). Stuart also includes passages recounting a typical journey of someone captured in rural Africa and sent to the New World, which often took several years. Conditions on the boats were so poor that “many claimed that the stench of the slave ship was such that it could be smelled five miles away downwind” (80). Additionally, Stuart writes of the trauma that came not just from capture, relocation, auction and the subjection to plantation life, and what it is like to be taken from one’s homeland and denied a connection to one’s lineage; she quotes the historian Orlando Patterson, who says slaves “were not allowed freely to integrate the experience of their ancestors into their lives, or to inform their understanding of social reality with the inherited meanings of their natural forebears, or to anchor the living present in any conscious community of memory” (91). She writes of how this reality was made acceptable in part by missionaries who “preached that slavery was ordained by God” and how “even the island’s Quakers frequently owned slaves” and argued that “it provided black pagans with the exposure to Christianity’s civilizing influence” (139).

After finding success as a planter and even starting a family (no small feat given the scarce availability of women on the island), George becomes less a focal point, and the book switches to a focus on his son, Robert Cooper Ashby. This biography dominates the middle section, and indeed most of the book. Robert, after growing up, married a woman named Mary Burke, who came from a well-established family. This marriage propelled Robert and the Ashby family “into the upper echelons of Barbadian society” (149). Stuart speculates on the reasons why such a prominent family would agree to the match, and concludes a likely reason was a physical attraction to Robert by Mary. Perhaps Robert’s capabilities growing up on a modest plantation was another factor; after the marriage, he took over the Burke family plantation, and this is where Stuart begins to take the reader inside a sugar plantation from the perspective of a master (side note: Valerie Martin’s novella “Property” is an excellent dramatic rendering on life on a sugar plantation from the perspective of the master’s wife – that story is set in Louisiana in the 1820s and 1830s).

As we read this section on Robert, we learn (as we do in Martin’s text) that sugar was, essentially, everyone’s master. The plantations were under constant pressure to be productive, while compromised by piracy on the open seas, catastrophic weather, food shortages, famine, and rebellions (Stuart writes of how when smoke rose somewhere on the island it was a sure sign of rebellion, and subsequently all slaves knew discipline everywhere was about to become more severe). In this section we also learn of the “three gang” system, the first “gang” being that which took on the hardest physical jobs; the second gang was for less demanding work and dominated by women, older men and children, and the third gang was made up of the elderly and infirmed. Stuart writes of how slaves would work eighteen hour days and when they became exhausted the risk of injuries increased, especially in the boiling rooms. At Robert’s plantation, in the boiling room an “axe was kept handy to sever the limbs that got trapped in the machinery” (165). We also see how the Ashby family was rising in the ranks as “one of only 120 families who dominated the island’s political, financial and military institutions” (235). At this time Robert’s stature continued to rise; in addition to his appointment as a colonial magistrate, he joined the island’s militia, a rite of passage for young wealthy men, and “At their regular monthly meetings, where they drilled and practised their marksmanship, Robert Cooper made some of his closest friendships and most important contacts” (171).

By the 1820s, slavery was slowly being undone in the Caribbean, primarily because of rebellions. We learn of little rebellions that constantly occurred on Robert’s property, like “throwing away cutlery, sewing garments incorrectly, planting crops in shallow soils, breaking their tools, poisoning food” and more serious offenses, like letting livestock loose, maiming livestock, committing arson, or attacking slavers (176-7). There was also the power of healers, which was social not supernatural; these people had “a huge influence on the slave population and often played a prominent role in rebellions and subversion” (216). During this time, Robert took a mixed race mistress named Mary Anne, who served as his wife’s body servant (someone who would constantly attend to her), an affirmation of the patriarchal power he enjoyed, having an affair with the woman who was essentially his wife’s personal assistant. A different woman, who Stuart was not able to identify, gave birth to Robert’s son, John Stephen Ashby, who would be Stuart’s “first identifiable slave forbear” (196). John was born in 1803, and would be a carpenter on the property, a relatively privileged (yet not free) position.

Ultimately, constant rebellion, more than competition in America, bad weather, and pirates, destroyed slavery in the Caribbean islands. An 1816 rebellion devastated Barbados, and from that point on, revolts battered the institution’s standing, and viability in the island, as safety was an increasingly large concern (the exhausted soil, at this time, was also producing less viable cane). In 1833 slavery was abolished in Barbados, and by the time Robert died in 1839, the heyday of sugar was a thing of the past.

In the beginning of the book’s third section, titled “The Legacy” Stuart writes how at the beginning of the 20th century Barbados, unable to establish alternative revenue to support the national economy, was in a state of economic depression, and suffering from food shortages and famine. Stuart’s grandparents left for New York and lived there awhile during the time of the Harlem Renaissance, but her grandmother never was comfortable there, and after a few years they returned to Barbados. When her parents married and Stuart was born, her family moved to Jamaica where her father worked as a medical registrar. The family regularly returned to Barbados, including when Stuart was four, to celebrate the country’s independence in 1966. Ten years later, political violence in Jamaica sent the Stuart family back to the island. In her epilogue, Stuart writes about what the island looks like now. She describes how sugar cane is still grown, how the landscape is littered with old windmills that are some of the last remaining structures connected to the old days, how and how no slave dwellings remain hardly anywhere. Some of the plantation houses, she writes, are now boutique hotels, including the Sugar Cane Club Hotel and Spa.

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