The Guardian presents Andrea Stuart, speaking about what made her write Sugar in the Blood: A Family’s Story of Slavery and Empire (2012). Her story is prefaced by, “When [she] traced her family history, she uncovered a 400-year-old tale of slavery and oppression. How will she explain this to her children, one white and one mixed race?” Here are excerpts of her account:
My fascination with my family history was ignited by my Barbadian uncle, Trevor Ashby, a brown-skinned man with a perfectly topiaried afro, who was an executive with Coca-Cola on the island of Barbados. In my early teens, he began telling me stories of his and my mother’s plantation childhood. Fascinated by his anecdotes, I started searching archives all over the world for details of my ancestors’ births, deaths and marriages. [. . .] The story that emerged was almost four centuries old and replete with drama, tragedy and grief: the story of Atlantic slavery in microcosm.
In the late 1630s, my oldest identifiable ancestor, a young blacksmith called George Ashby, set sail from England to Barbados in search of a better life. The journey was difficult and dangerous; arrival no less so. Barbados was a wild land populated by a handful of unfettered young men with little to lose. Travelling across this small island meant hacking pathways through dense foliage in scorching heat, assailed by unfamiliar wildlife and bereft of familiar comforts. Life as a planter was exhausting and the crops he had hoped would make him rich – indigo, tobacco, cotton – barely allowed him to scrape a living.
But then he and his contemporaries turned to sugar, and their life was transformed. A few centuries before, sugar had erupted in popularity, becoming known as “white gold”. To meet demand, planters like George Ashby sought more cost-effective means of production, and replaced their indentured white servants with a more oppressed workforce: African slaves. The horrors these captives endured on their journey to the Americas – my African ancestors included – and the collateral damage of the trade, which cost millions of lives, has been numbered as one of history’s worst atrocities.
These “forced migrants” soon became more numerous than the white settlers who had initially colonised the island, a subjugated majority with every reason to hate their “masters”: in response, a paranoid and oppressive society evolved. White and black lived cheek by jowl on the plantations, and in this state of intimate terror, bloodlines inevitably intermingled. Over generations, Ashby’s family mutated from a traditionally English one, to a multi-hued one with white, brown and black faces. (His descendant, my great-great-great-great grandfather, had at least 15 slave children, all of whom lived and worked on his plantation.) Many of their descendants would, in their turn, migrate. Some, like my own family, ended up back in Ashby’s original homeland. I realised that being able to trace my ancestors back to the 17th century was a gift that would allow me to show how one family was shaped by centuries of slavery and settlement. But it put me in a quandary. How would I make sense of this disturbing story for my children, for whom Barbados is an occasional holiday destination, a place of relaxation and family fun?
My elder daughter, a blue-eyed, porcelain-skinned six-year-old, is at an age where she is asking questions, trying to make sense of her world and her family. She has great curiosity, but also a strong need to see the world as a safe and fair place. My younger child is a brown-skinned three-year-old who is just beginning to question why people have different colour skins, why she looks so different from her sister, and why it seems to matter to those around her. How do I explain that one branch of our family was enslaved by the other? How do I educate them about contemporary racism without distressing and dividing them? These are questions for every family of Caribbean descent, but equally pertinent for white British families, whose heritage is inextricably tied to the same history.
[Sugar in the Blood: A Family’s Story of Slavery and Empire by Andrea Stuart is published by Portobello Books, £18.99. To order a copy for £14.24, including free UK p&P, go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop]