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Sugar in the Blood
Cover of Sugar in the Blood
Sugar in the Blood
A Family's Story of Slavery and Empire
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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 fuelling 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.

From the Hardcover edition.

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 fuelling 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.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Excerpts-
  • Chapter One

    There was a wind over England, and it blew.

    (Have you heard the news of Virginia?)

    A west wind blowing, the wind of a western star,

    To gather men's lives like pollen and cast them forth,

    Blowing in hedge and highway and seaport town,

    Whirling dead leaf and living but always blowing,

    A salt wind, a sea wind, a wind from the world's end,

    From the coasts that have new wild names, from the huge unknown.

    --stephen vincent benét, "western star"

    george ashby's story began as all migrants' stories do: with a journey.

    Some time in the late 1630s, when George Ashby was finally given notification that his ship was ready to sail, he must have been afraid. He was a blacksmith, a young man in his late teens, about to leave behind everything he had ever known. Though the voyage carried the seeds of his dreams he, like most of the population, had probably never undergone a long sea journey before and had no real idea of what to expect when he arrived in the Americas.

    Those who chose to undertake the fearsome Atlantic crossing in search of a new life were generally tough--or else dangerously foolish. But what else can we know about George Ashby, my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather? Was he fleeing from a family or seeking a new one? Did he dream of religious freedom or of wealth? Was he ambivalent about leaving his homeland or were his life experiences so bitter that he believed nothing in the Americas could be worse? As he set sail for the adventuresome world of the Caribbean he would have had no idea how heavily the odds were stacked against him. (According to one historian, men like him were "pursuing a will-o'-the-wisp," since very few of them ever achieved the better life they longed for.) He could not know that he would be one of the lucky ones: that he would not just survive but found a dynasty that endures to this day, built on sugar and forged by slavery.

    The first sight of the ship would have done nothing to allay his trepidation. The typical merchant vessel that plied the route between the Caribbean and Britain was rated at around 200 tons (meaning that it could accommodate 200 casks or tuns of wine). Trussed against the stone walls of the dock, the ship looked like a gigantic gutted carcass afloat upon the water. The gaunt ribs of the wooden hull curved menacingly into the sky and the base was coated with a shaggy pelt of seaweed and barnacles. It would have been hard for George to countenance that he would be confined in the belly of this behemoth for almost two months, with the real possibility that his journey would end, like that of so many before him, in massacre by pirates or drowning at sea.

    After unpacking and settling in, the passengers were summoned on deck to present their documents to the "searchers." These officials administered the oath of allegiance to the king, stamped each traveller's ticket with the crucial "Licences under their hands and seals to pass the seas," and then cleared the vessel for departure. Since every passenger had to undergo this process, no matter what their individual circumstances or where they came from, it represented their first rite of passage, one that made their new status as migrants starkly real.

    Still gathered on the bridge, the passengers chatted among themselves or waved to family and friends gathered portside to wish them bon voyage. Then, all of a sudden, a flurry of activity: the sailors scrambling across the deck, busying themselves with a series of tasks that were inexplicable to most of the passengers, the screeching of the anchor as it was winched aboard, the screaming of the hoisted sails, the...

About the Author-
  • ANDREA STUART was born and raised in the Caribbean. 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.

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from November 26, 2012
    Doing research in the air-conditioned Barbados Museum, acclaimed writer Stuart (The Rose of Martinique) stumbles upon her maternal grandfather eight times removed, George Ashby, who migrated to the island from England in the late 1630s. Brilliantly weaving together threads of family history, political history, social history, and agricultural history into a vivid quilt covering the evolution of sugar—"white gold"—and slavery and sugar's impact on the development of Barbados as well as on her own family. Stuart recreates her ancestors' lives vividly as she tries to imagine how arduous and challenging life would have been for them, especially in Ashby's case, and as the island grew as the lust for sugar developed. Sugar cane first came to the island in 1620, but it was only around 20 years later that the first sugar factory was built. Since the process of cultivating sugar was more arduous and expensive and required more labor than growing tobacco, planters soon started buying slaves to bolster their labor forces and very quickly the black population of Barbados outnumbered the white. Stuart imagines the uneasiness that would have existed in the Ashbys' household between whites and blacks, slaves and free, just as it did in other farms on the island. Stuart powerfully concludes that the legacy of sugar boom and the slave trade in the Caribbean are not so easily forgotten, for sugar "has shaped our economies and national identities, and by pulling together the unique racial mix of the islands," the transformation wrought by sugar and slavery is "written across our very faces" and the politics of color.

  • Kirkus

    December 1, 2012
    The tortuous, unsweetened story of the author's English forebear as he migrated to Barbados to grow rich from sugar and slavery. Caribbean-born, English-educated Stuart (The Rose of Martinique: A Biography of Napoleon's Josephine, 2004) examines the narrative of her ancestor George Ashby, a middling-born English migrant who bought a small plot in Barbados around 1640 and thrived from the bumper crop of sugar. Like many migrants of the time, Ashby was young, enterprising and possibly down on his luck, but determined to apply his "plantation skills" (he was a blacksmith by trade) to make a go in the wilds of the New World. Stuart adeptly re-creates the early life of a small farmer like Ashby, just as Barbados, a small island muscled out in the growing of tobacco by larger colonies like Virginia, took up the planting of sugar to spectacular success by the end of the 1640s, requiring more laborers and thereby prompting the replacement of indentured servants and natives with hardier, cheaper African slaves. The European migrants set aside any repugnance to slavery to make a profit, and Stuart effectively demonstrates how the organization of this "first slave society" in Barbados defined all aspects of the institution of slavery, setting the model for the rest of the British Americas. Ashby prospered by the purchase of slaves and more land, and Stuart traces over many generations and mixed parentages between master and slaves and shows how this uneasy relationship essentially created the complicated, rich, tragic legacy of the modern Caribbean. An intractable, unwieldy story both intimate and universal, handled expertly by Stuart.

    COPYRIGHT(2012) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Library Journal

    August 1, 2012

    The Caribbean-born Stuart, who won the Enid McLeod Literary Prize for The Rose of Martinique: A Biography of Napoleon's Josephine, goes broader in a book that should attract significant readership. Drawing on her family history, she shows how sugar, slavery, and New World colonization are intimately linked, then brings the story up to today. Amazing how a single crop can change everything.

    Copyright 2012 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

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A Family's Story of Slavery and Empire
Andrea Stuart
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