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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.
“Much of the fiery magic of this book arises from Stuart’s ability to knit together her imaginative speculations with family research, secondary sources and the work of historians of the region. . . . Stuart spins this rich material into a colorful and complicated narrative . . . always attentive to the continuing repercussions of the plantation system in the United States and the Caribbean. . . . One of the many pleasures of Sugar in the Blood is its author’s evocation of everyday life on the plantation. . . . There is not a single boring page in this book, which – as a longtime reader of nonfiction and skipper of boring pages – I can attest is an achievement in itself. In every chapter of Sugar in the Blood, history, fact, analysis and personal reflection combine to move the narrative forward, both the grand story of slavery and sugar and the more mundane but always fascinating story of family and business. And beneath every banal moment of cooking or cleaning, of selling or buying, of dressing or undressing, the threat of uprising and rebellion beats loudly, as it must have done on the plantation.” —The New York Times
“[Sugar in the Blood] is a sparkling history of sugar and the slave trade. It fizzes with
life and is meticulously researched.” —The Daily Telegraph