Sydney M. Williams
Burrowing into Books
Reviews of Selective Readings
March 7, 2017
“Sugar in the Blood”
“…at the root of it all was fear.”
Andrea Stuart (1962-)
Sugar in the Blood, 2012
This is a story of cane sugar, slavery and empire. Ms. Stuart was born in Jamaica, where her father was a doctor, but both her parents were Barbadians. She descends from both Black and White, from slaves, as well as plantation owners. She was raised and educated primarily in England. The book was originally published in England in 2012 and short-listed for the 2013 OCM Bocas Prize and the Spear’s Book Award.
The story is told through what Andrea Stuart could gleam from her British family – beginning with her eight-greats grandfather, George Ashbury, who sailed to Barbados in the early 1630s – and from available history of the island, along with records detailing the capture, transportation and life of slaves in the New World. She tells the story of the terrible effects slavery wrought – of the punishing work performed and the inhumane treatment slaves suffered as chattel, and the effects on those that owned them. She writes of sugar cane – “white gold,” as it was known – that enriched planters, merchants and traders, and which, in turn, increased the demand for slave labor.
The riches that cane brought – produced on the backs of slaves – were beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. They helped build the Tate Gallery in London and All Souls College at Oxford. (In the U.S., profits from slavery helped fund the Harvard Law School and ten of the twelve colleges at Yale.) We can hide from the consequences of slavery, as for years we have done, but we cannot expunge it from our history. Books such as this rightly make us confront its reality and legacy. But we should not let it subsume our lives. For it is the future – not the past – that is critical to all of us – white black or brown. Affirmative action has been around for 56 years and reparations are now being considered – complicated by miscegenation. However, and in my opinion, the best gift to offer descendants of slaves is to make available the best education possible. In public schools, that means offering choice, whether it is traditional public schools, charters, vouchers, religious schools or home-schooling. In colleges, it means providing scholarships based on meritocracy. As the Chinese say: it is better to teach a man to fish than to give him a fish.
Throughout her book, Ms. Stuart keeps the reader focused on the whole story. While the reader is left in no doubt as to the brutality of slavery and its tragic consequences, she writes not as a victim, but as a humane historian. She notes that the failure of the Busa Rebellion (1816 in Barbados) “proved a historical gift to the island when set alongside the terrible price Haiti paid for its successful revolution.”
History has a long arc. It is a continuum, with a beginning we do not know and with an end we cannot know. And there is no way to determine where we are on that trajectory. Sugar in the Blood is a reminder that history is not always pretty, but her story also leaves the reader with an optimistic sense that, in nations where the rule of law exists people and societies can and do evolve. Ms. Stuart writes beautifully. This is a book to read and to ponder. For one, you will be thankful you were born when and where you were.