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A Family's Story of Slavery and Empire

Written by Andrea StuartAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Andrea Stuart

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On Sale: January 22, 2013
Pages: 384 | ISBN: 978-0-307-96115-0
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

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.

Excerpt

1

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 shouting of the master and the sailors, all combined in a violent auditory assault. As the crew worked furiously in the bows, stern and dock, the passengers jostled to be as near the rails as possible.

Despite the noise and bustle of the ship, most of the migrants would have been as hushed as worshippers in a church, fearful of what the voyage might hold or trying to imagine what lay at the other end. They were aware that the journey was, in all probability, final. Some may have dreamt of returning to their homeland enriched, perhaps even ennobled, but most rightly sensed that they would not be coming back.

To truly grasp what this sea journey meant, what bravery and audacity it required, one must understand how the world was seen and known at that time. Though George Ashby and his contemporaries had been born in the Age of Discovery (1500–1700), most of the world was still terra incognita for Europeans. Maps were often sketchy and inaccurate. Two continents, Australia and Antarctica, had not been traced at all, and vast areas were still blank. The interiors of South America, Africa and Asia had scarcely been explored. Beyond the eastern fringe of North America, which George’s fellow pioneers had begun to document, were millions of square miles of uncharted wilderness.

Like many other countries in the Old World, England was poised between the medieval and the modern, where most people’s lives played out within a narrow radius around their birthplace, and their beliefs were characterized by superstition and ignorance. It was an age in which magic still played a large part in the lives of ordinary people and many firmly believed in witches and fairies, that butterflies were the souls of the dearly departed, and that churchyards swarmed with souls and spirits. In the absence of real information about far-off lands, fantasies abounded: that the east was populated with dog-headed men and basilisks, that Africa had tribes with no heads at all—just eyes and mouths in their breasts—and that the Caribbean was peopled by cannibals, amazons and giants. Some believed that the oceans were full of strange creatures such as mermaids and sea dragons. In 1583 Sir Henry Gilbert professed to have encountered a lion-like sea monster on his return from claiming St. John’s, Newfoundland, for England. In a world that was as yet so immeasurable, frightening and inexplicable, George and his fellow travellers must have feared that they were not just crossing the map, but falling off the edge of it.

Yet by the seventeenth century, many thousands of Britons, beguiled by the much-vaunted possibilities of the “New World” (which they saw as a tabula rasa on which they could write, despite the long history and complex cultures long implanted there), were willing to take that leap into the unknown, and left their homeland to start a fresh life in the Americas. The migration had begun as a trickle in 1607 with the settling of Jamestown, the first permanent colony in what is now the United States. It had increased to a recognizable stream by 1629 and became a veritable flood in the 1640s, when over 100,000 people left a country with a population of just under five million. (Between 1600 and 1700 over 700,000 people emigrated from England, about 17 per cent of the English population in 1600.) At the rate of one ship departing from England every day, these pioneers arrived to “settle the Americas,” fanning out from Newfoundland for three thousand miles, via Virginia and the Caribbean, to Guiana on the South American mainland. All the way they fought, worked and died to establish themselves in new and terrifying lands.

The English weren’t the only nation on the move. The Spanish were the pioneers of colonization of the Americas, and the Portuguese, French and Dutch swiftly became essential players in the region. But just over a century after Christopher Columbus’s discovery of the New World (which the historian Germán Arciniegas described as being “so momentous a development in human history that it was like the passing from the third to the fourth day in the first chapter of Genesis”), it was the small nation of England that emerged as Europe’s greatest colonizing power. This was particularly surprising for a people who were “wedded to their native Soile like a Snaile to his shell.” What motivated these patriotic and insular people to abandon the world as they knew it and move halfway across the globe?

The why of George Ashby’s departure is something I will never know; my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather was most likely typical of the men who settled much of the New World, a man of action, not reflection, who did not take time out to write letters or keep journals; nor was he important enough for others to write about him. But certainly some of the wider reasons that stirred migrants to risk the New World would have applied to him. Historians have summarized Europe’s motivation for the conquest of the Americas with the pithy phrase “God, gold and glory.” This formula is slightly reductive—and certainly doesn’t allow for the large number of migrants who had no say in their transfer—but it does convey the positive pull of the opportunities represented by the New World.

It was not only the much-persecuted Puritans who went to settle New England for whom God was important. The vast majority of those who migrated to colonies south of Maryland were what the historian Carl Bridenbaugh has dubbed “non-separating puritans.” They may not have moved together as a religious community led by a minister, but they did share the Puritans’ profound unease with the old ways of worship and were questioning of the ancient, ceremonial doctrines of the established church. They too had looked on at the risible spectacle of “the typical Sunday service in England, where parishioners stared dumbly at a minister mumbling incomprehensible phrases from the Book of Common Prayer” and recognized “how far most people were from a true engagement with the word of God.” So while they had not been impassioned enough to make their faith the prime motivation for their migration, their religious leanings meant that they were that bit more likely to be disillusioned—and therefore to contemplate migration—than their fellow Englishmen.

The Bible was, in fact, a potent recruiter for colonization. In an age where the scriptures permeated everyday life, there were numerous passages that would have resonated with those tempted by the “Western Star.” Great orators such as the Anglican priest Robert Gray, or John Donne, the Dean of St. Paul’s, or the Puritan preachers Thomas Hooker and John Cotton thundered from Genesis: “Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee: And I will make of thee a great nation,” or from II Samuel 7:10: “I will appoint a place for my people Israel, and will plant them, that they may dwell in a place of their own, and move no more: neither shall the children of wickedness afflict them any more, as beforetime.”

The dream of building a City on the Hill for the perfection of the human spirit, so inspirational to the Puritans, was also an attractive one for many other migrants, as was the entire project of spreading the word. Captain John Smith, the era’s most famous adventurer turned planter, declared:

If hee have any graine of faith or zeale in Religion, what can he doe less hurtfull to any, or more agreeable to God, then to seeke to convert those poore Savages to know Christ and humanity, whose labours with discretion will triple requite thy charge and paine; what so truly sutes with honour and honesty, as the discovering things unknowne, erecting Townes, peopling Countries, informing the ignorant, reforming things unjust, teaching vertue and gaine to our native mother Country a Kingdome to attend her.

But rhetoric about taking Christianity and civilization to the heathen (so lavishly exploited by the Spanish conquistadors), or giving European creativity and imagination space to grow, was a smokescreen for the economic imperatives that drove the majority of migrants. They hungered for gold; or at least the chance to acquire land, their own little piece of paradise.

Most seventeenth-century English émigrés were in flight from terrible poverty. In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, rapid population growth and periodic agricultural depression, culminating in a series of terrible famines, caused genuine hardship. In the countryside large numbers of people had been deprived of their ancient rural security. The lack of land to cultivate frustrated many, while unemployment threatened agricultural labourers as well as village artisans. The rise in the cost of living and the simultaneous fall in the value of wages meant that many people were surviving on the very margins of existence. Housing was inadequate at best; in cold or wet weather fuel was scarce and expensive. Health scares were frequent, with regular outbreaks of tuberculosis and plague. Effective medical treatment was almost non-existent and so the mortality rate—already high—rose even higher.

Resentment against these conditions focused and crystallized on a lavish, self-indulgent monarch: Charles I. His resistance to parliamentary challenge meant that, from 1629, the people had been governed by arbitrary monarchical rule. His decision to levy various taxes to obtain revenue and his exploitation of press-gangs who forced unwilling souls into the navy, meant greater financial strain for his already beleaguered subjects and generated a real sense of bitterness. (“Thus was the king’s coffers filled with oppression,” concluded one pamphlet in 1649.) His popularity was eroded further by his religious affiliations: not only had he displayed a preference for the High Anglican worship that would so alienate the Puritans and others of that ilk, he had also married a Catholic queen, Henrietta Maria, and allowed her to observe her faith publicly.

The wider political situation also contributed to the depressed mood of the country and the general suffering endured during this period. The Thirty Years War (1618–48), which had seen warring Protestant and Catholic forces reduce much of Europe to a corpse-strewn battleground, further depleted the nation and contributed to profound collective dissatisfaction with the status quo. The decades from the 1630s through to the end of the 1650s were, according to the historian Peter Bowden, “probably amongst the most terrible years through which the country had ever passed.” He goes on: “It is probably no coincidence that the first real beginnings of the colonisation of America dated from this period.” Facing poverty, hunger and actual starvation at home, the populace were more than usually attentive to the pedlars of tales told in taverns of the lands across the sea, where everyone could have a full belly and their own property.

One such economic migrant was Richard Ligon. A cultured, educated gentleman of “above sixty years” who had served at Charles I’s court, he sailed for Barbados in 1647. Ligon was untypical of most migrants to the Caribbean by virtue of his age and class. But his reasons for migrating—essentially economic—would have resonated with most of his contemporaries. Though in the “last scene of my life,” he had “lost (by a Barbarous Riot) all I had gotten by the painful travels and cares of my youth . . . and left destitute of a subsistence.” In this desperate condition he looked about for friends to support him, found none, and therefore considered himself “a stranger in my own Countrey.” As a result, he “resolv’d to lay on the first opportunity that might convey me to any other part of the World, how far distant soever, rather than abide here.”
Andrea Stuart|Author Q&A

About Andrea Stuart

Andrea Stuart - Sugar in the Blood

Photo © Clara Molden/Camera Press/Redu

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 Life 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.

Author Q&A

Q: What inspired you to write Sugar in the Blood? Is there a specific moment you can point to as the impetus for mapping the intertwined histories of your family and the sugar trade in Barbados?
 
A: I always wanted to write about my maternal family – largely thanks to my Uncle Trevor who was a real raconteur. He told me wonderful stories about my family’s plantation background, replete with hilarious anecdotes about local characters and tragic, dramatic family members. But in the context of writing the book, it took me a long time to really intuit what the wider story was; that is, that my family was typical of millions of others who were shaped by the epic forces of sugar production, slavery and colonial settlement.  Once I realized this I knew how I wanted to proceed, that I wanted to intertwine my family’s very intimate, very particular narrative with the wider story of how the sugar trade evolved in the Americas.
 
Q: The narrative of the book is determined by a long genealogical chain linking you all the way back to the seventeenth century and a man named George Ashby, who was among the first settlers to arrive in Barbados. Did you unearth your family’s connection to the early history of Barbados by digging in the archives or is this something that you were aware of from a young age?
 
A: As a child, like most people, I knew next to nothing about my family history, and was far too busy with the job of being young to care about it. But as I grew up and realized that the older generation of my family would not be around forever, I started to pay more attention to my family’s past. Like most people who become interested in genealogy, I started by questioning my relatives and family friends, and tried to collect family memorabilia. In the process of badgering relatives I had a stroke of luck; I discovered that a distant cousin had begun putting together a family tree. When we met he presented me with a family tree that went back to the eighteenth century. Of course I was elated. His efforts gave me something to build on and eventually I managed –with the help of a professional genealogist  - to trace my family on the island back to the middle of the seventeenth century. When a blacksmith called George Ashby, set sail from England, along with thousands of others to make a new life in the New World.
 
Q: What was the most surprising personal discovery you made while writing this book?
 
A: There were so many surprises in writing the book. The most exhilarating one was when I managed to identify my first slave ancestor, John Stephen Ashby. I found him on a slave return, listed as ‘14 years old’, ‘colored’ and ‘a laborer’.  I was so thrilled I burst into spontaneous tears. By identifying him and bringing his story to life, I felt that I had managed to defy the slave system, which makes it almost impossible to track and name slave ancestors. Of course there were other surprises. The discovery that John Stephen was one of 17 slave offspring born to his planter father, alongside his legitimate white family, was also a shock.
 
In a wider context I was also surprised by some of the realities of Atlantic slavery. I had thought I was well informed about the slave trade itself, but I discovered that the capture and shipment of slaves to the Americas was altogether more arduous and terrible than I had previously imagined. Indeed I realized that the infamous ‘Middle Passage’, which documents the horrors of the sea journey to the New World, was only the last part of the process for captured slaves. Most would have spent many months trekking across the African continent, after their capture, only to arrive at slave forts, where they were imprisoned for a further few months, before they were even put aboard a slave ship.
 
I had also thought that I was aware of how terrible plantation slavery was. But again I realized that I had underestimated its horrors. The average plantation had at least 60 punishments a day, ranging from ad hoc beatings to torture and amputations. So the sound of screams and groans was the soundtrack of the plantation. It is a mark of how barbaric the New World planter’s were, that the resurrected the ancient punishment of burning ‘by slow fire’ to punish their slaves.
 
Q: Was it difficult to come to terms with the understanding that you are descended both from slaves and from slave owners?
 
A: Initially the realization that my white planter ancestor had no compunction about enslaving his own offspring was shocking. But once I understand how warped the mores of the slave system were, I began to understand. Plantation life was a kind of intimate terrorism, where oppressor and oppressed lived cheek by jowl; where the exploitation of slave women was endemic, and the children they bore were seen merely as an extension of the planters ‘human property.’  I understood that my family’s story was shared by many, and that Atlantic slavery debased and corrupted slave owners as much as it did slaves. 
 
Q: In the book you write “[b]y the middle of the eighteenth century the Caribbean sugar islands were more than valuable to their colonial masters: they were priceless.” Can you say a little about the dramatic change Barbados underwent once the focus shifted from farming tobacco to producing sugar? What drove the value of sugar? What impact did this value have on the slave trade?
 
A: The history of Barbados is s a fascinating one. Settled by the British in the 1627, the first generations of planters tried a number of crops: tobacco, indigo and cotton to make a living. But the tobacco crop didn’t work there and neither did the others. Fearful that they would have to abandon this colonial experiment, the desperate planter experimented with sugar. Their timing was perfect; since the sugar production in Brazil and Cuba was faltering. Once the production of sugar on the island got underway, the market would grow exponentially. And the planters of Barbados, who had previously relied largely on white indentured servants, now were looking for a bigger pool of workers; hence the stepping up of the African slave trade. As a result of the world’s insatiable desire for sugar, by the 1670’s the planters of Barbados were the richest men in all of colonial America; and they were outnumbered by their black slaves four to one.
 
Q: Would slavery in the future United States would have developed differently if it weren’t for the experience of settlers coming to the colonies from the Caribbean?
 
A: I think that the evolution of slavery in mainland America would very likely have been very different, where it not for what unfolded in the Caribbean. We must remember that the island of Barbados was once described as the ‘nursery for planting other places’; that is, it was the place where the plantation system was first pioneered and shaped. And it was the planters of the English Caribbean who created the legal model that would later be adapted by the mainland planters, thereby providing the blueprint on how to manage and police a slave society.  
 
Q: You address the pervasive sexual exploitation of female slaves and we meet a number of planters who even catalogue their behavior in journals and diaries. How were the children who came about as a result of this abuse treated on the plantations? How did they think of themselves in relation to each other?
 
A: As a result of the pervasive exploitation of slave women, many children were born to planters and their slaves. But their treatment was often ambivalent. Some slave owners acknowledged them, others ignored them; a tiny minority were even given real privileges and protection. Even more complicated is how slave children related to each other. Since many planters encouraged slaves to reproduce but didn’t encourage men to be involved in raising their offspring, or women to remain with their partners, many slave children, were alienated from their fathers and didn’t feel connected to their siblings. As the American ex-slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass concluded sadly: ‘slavery abolished families’.
 
Q: With the lives of the majority of people in the West Indies linked to the sugar trade it seems that there would be fewer people willing to speak out against the atrocity of slavery and weight of Empire. What form did the abolition movement in the Caribbean take? Was it driven primarily by violent revolts?
 
A: In Britain where I now live, the abolitionist movement is largely presented as an initiative shaped in the drawing rooms of the mother country and pushed through by a handful of now famous men, like William Wilberforce and Granville Sharpe. But the reality was that the slaves of the New World worked constantly for their own emancipation. They never stopped resisting their own enslavement, and by the latter part of the eighteenth century, slave rebellions were so frequent that the authority’s never had a chance to catch their breath. The most impressive of these of course, was the 12 year old rebellion in Haiti, in which the much denigrated slaves, managed to eventually defeat both the British and French forces; to create the first free society in plantation America.
 
Q: You’ve also written a biography examining the life of Napoleon’s first wife Joséphine. Was Sugar in the Blood a different experience for you as a writer? Does writing about history change when you know that you are, in some way, writing about yourself?
 
A: Sugar in the Blood was a very different experience from writing my previous book, which was a biography of Napoleon’s Empress Josephine. The intensely personal nature of Sugar in the Blood, made it an altogether more emotional, upsetting journey than any previous other writing projects. Though I believe that all my books are in some way, working through themes that are significant to me; with Sugar in The Blood I was in the eyes of the storm. When the history that you are exploring is the history, that made your family, and the history that shaped their beliefs and attitudes, it is inevitable that its impact was very profound.
 
Q: What’s next for you now?
 
A: I’m working on two projects at the moment. One is a non-fiction project that explores the repercussions of Atlantic slavery; the other is a fiction set in the eighteenth century.
 


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