Masters and Slaves: Amy Wilentz Reviews Andrea Stuart’s “Sugar in the Blood”


In The New York Times Sunday Book Review (March 31, 2013) Amy Wilentz (author of Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter from Haiti) reviews Andrea Stuart’s Sugar in the Blood: A Family’s Story of Slavery and Empire (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013). Here are excerpts with a link to the full review below:

On a trip to Paris, I recently had the same shocked realization that Andrea Stuart describes in her astounding new book, “Sugar in the Blood.” Slaves built this, I thought as I wandered from one grand 18th-century monument to the next. How rarely we acknowledge that Europe’s great cities were built on profits from the labor and blood of slaves cutting sugarcane half a world away.

Stuart, a London-based author of Barbadian ancestry, writes of contemporary England: “Sugar surrounds me here.” The majestic Harewood House in Leeds was built with money from Caribbean sugar plantations, she points out, as was the Codrington Library of All Souls College in Oxford and Bristol’s mansions. The slaves of the West Indies built this wealth while unaware of its existence, or of their own connection to it. Without them, the vast empire that gave the world Victoria and Dickens might never have existed.

In this multigenerational, minutely researched history, Stuart teases out these connections. She sets out to understand her family’s genealogy, hoping to explain the mysteries that often surround Caribbean family histories and to elucidate more important cultural and historic themes and events: the psychological after­effects of slavery and the long relationship between sugar — “white gold” — and forced labor. “Sugar in the Blood” begins in the late 1630s with Stuart’s maternal ancestor George Ashby, a young blacksmith in England, preparing for his voyage to the Americas. He 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,” Stuart writes, and she relies on historians and other personal accounts to flesh out his motivations, his reasons for migration and the “assault of newness” that was Barbados.

[. . .] 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, including C. L. R. James and Adam Hoch­schild. Stuart spins this rich material into a colorful and complicated narrative from Ashby’s arrival in Barbados in the 1630s up to 1835, a year after Britain abolished slavery, always attentive to the continuing repercussions of the plantation system in the United States and the Caribbean. The book is full of wonderful characters. The early islands were awash with pirates, buccaneers, reprobates, criminals and the dissolute, depraved, discarded refuse of the motherland. [. . .]

One of the many pleasures of “Sugar in the Blood” is its author’s evocation of everyday life on the plantation. In one section, Stuart describes a day on the Ashby holdings (called Burkes, because most of Robert Cooper’s land came to him through his wife). This day is presented first from the detailed perspective of the planter and his family and then from the more broadly painted point of view of the slaves, who left little historical record of their presence, except when they were bought or sold.

[. . .] But the book’s importance consists not only in such vivid and specific retellings but in how it explains the mentality of the masters alongside the predicament of the slaves. Stuart feels complicit in both sides of the story she is telling. If Robert Cooper Ashby was her forebear, so was his concubine, the “unknown female (slave)” who gave birth to John Stephen Ashby, Stuart’s mother’s great-great-grandfather, of whom almost no record exists. She understands the white master and his cruelties, she understands the slave in her misery, and she understands the thwarted attempts of both to recapture their humanity. As Frederick Douglass said, “No man puts a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck.” Stuart also illustrates how the exigencies of the sugar trade stand squarely in the middle of the suffering and moral confusion.

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.

[. . .] “Sugar in the Blood” brings us into the present day. [. . .] There may be liberty, equality and condominiums now, but slavery’s legacies continue. In many places in the Caribbean, skin color still counts, and the lighter — or brighter, as it is said — the better. Darker-skinned people, descendants of the slaves, still toil in unrewarding work, as chambermaids in tourist hotels along the beaches of Barbados, say, or in garment factories in Haiti — when they are lucky. And the lighter-skinned elite, descendants of master and slave, still function as a kind of aristocracy. Stuart is one of them, and with this powerful book she explains how she herself arrived in the complicated Caribbean, and she analyzes and, crucially, humanizes its conflicted, confounding legacy.

[Many thanks to David Labiosa for bringing this item to our attention.]

For full review, see

One thought on “Masters and Slaves: Amy Wilentz Reviews Andrea Stuart’s “Sugar in the Blood”

  1. i wish mathew,or andrea would lead, or host a carribean cruise, really check out some of this stuff, with the pros. william cavaney, anchorage, alaska. i have no email.

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