Sugar in the Blood

Issue section: 
(372)

Andrea Stuart

Sugar in the Blood is not only a thought-provoking family history, but also a well-rounded account of the development of the Caribbean and the sugar industry over four centuries.

Underpinning the book is the author's ancestry. In the 1640s Andrea Stuart's earliest known ancestor George Ashby set sail to the colony of Barbados and began a lucrative life as a sugar plantation owner. Initially only a colony of white indentured labour, Barbados became the heart of the sugar industry - or the crop known at the time as "white gold". Stuart uses an intriguing blend of poetry, novels, newspaper articles and biographies with elements of guesswork and imagination to piece together past.

Sugar in the Blood is extremely well researched and brutally depicts the horrors of the industry and the drive to create profit. In fewer than 400 pages Stuart covers a huge number of major historical events and economic and social developments in the Caribbean. It never feels like the book is overwritten. Every event is described in detail, but we are left to make our own conclusions about motives and effects.

Nonetheless the specific choice of some words and phrases makes obvious the abhorrent nature of the slave trade itself. The various accounts of both slaves and slave owners are used and at times invoke a feeling of nausea. No human sacrifice or environmental consequence is too great.

Stuart details the stark separation in a society divided by class, race and gender. The desperation and alienation of the slaves are an obvious theme throughout. Although the form of exploitation on slave plantations was qualitatively different in nature to the exploitation in the workplace the similarities in terms of feelings of hopelessness are laid bare for all to see.

The main drawbacks to the book I largely expected. The authors own imagination has been used to fill the void which comes with the inevitable lack of information when studying family history so far into the past.

But one sad absence in the book is the missing stories of those who were themselves forced into slavery. The author's inability to locate their roots reinforces the inhumane nature of a system which sought to deprive the slaves of their cultural backgrounds and identities.

The extent of the initial and often sweeping generalisations and guesswork fade out as the book develops and edges closer towards the present day. Although the book, in a sense, becomes more complete as Stuart has much more knowledge of her nearest ancestors, the occasionally shallow political and economic analysis does begin to slightly irritate. Overall these failings do not detract too much from the captivating nature of the book.

Mary Prescott

Sugar in the Blood is published by Portobello £18.99