White gold and black gold – the two are diabolically linked, fuelling Britain’s industrial revolution off the back of its colonial wealth.
But when Leicester blacksmith George Ashby arrived in what was to become its richest colony in the 1630s, Barbados had neither sugar nor slaves.
That came a few years later when settlers decided to try their luck on the tricky and labour-intensive sugar cane plant.
Very quickly it became the biggest game in town and by 1650 almost 50,000 African slaves had been forcibly transported to the tiny Caribbean island, some of them owned by Ashby himself.
And so the stage is set for Andrea Stuart’s book, Sugar in the Blood, a gripping literary Who Do You Think You Are? intertwined with a meticulously researched history of Barbados and its slave economy.
For George Ashby is Stuart’s earliest known ancestor, a once poor adventurer who began a family tree that includes both slave owners and slaves.
A central figure in her narrative is the ambitious Robert Cooper Ashby, whose flinty-eyed portrait reveals the “soul corroding effect of absolute power”.
A colonel and a magistrate, his vast Burkes plantation was worked by more than 200 slaves in the 1830s, among them five slave mistresses who together produced 17 children for him.
But Stuart, who was born in Barbados in 1962 and came to the UK in her early teens, wasn’t particularly surprised at what she uncovered about her maternal family line. The light-skinned Ashbys remained prominent in Barbados’ sugar industry, with another plantation, Plumgrove, dominating the family fortunes.
“I dedicated the book to my uncle Trevor Ashby because he used to tell me endless stories about our family and the plantation community in which he and my mother’s family lived,” she tells me. “It was this that sparked my interest in writing about my family history – and it was this interest that motivated me to write the book.”
She recalls the exhilaration at finding George Ashby’s name in a 17th century census in the Barbados Museum. But it was an unpleasant shock to discover one of her descendants on a slave register listed alongside the livestock. Sorrow and fury were tempered by the gratitude that she, a free descendant, had found him.
“As to my white ancestor Robert Cooper – who was a very traditional planter, with very conservative ideas – I have had to learn how to accept him just as I accept my enslaved ancestors. But it wasn’t always easy!”
Stuart, who now lives in Surrey and is writer in residence at Kingston University, argues that her story is far from unique. Slave owners had the power of life and death over their slaves and lived in such close proximity to them that illicit sexual relations were inevitable: “My family was typical of millions of others who were shaped by the epic forces of sugar production, slavery and colonial settlement.”
Nowadays tourism has replaced sugar as Barbados’ mainstay and many plantation houses have become boutique hotels or ‘heritage’ attractions, their gruesome history sanitised.
Nevertheless, she says, the island, along with the rest of the Caribbean, bears the handprint of of its history, with the politics of colour, light skinned good, dark skinned bad, lingering on: “Sugar has shaped our economies, traditions and national identities. Indeed, it is written across our very faces.”
Sugar in the Blood: A Family’s Story of Slavery and Empire by Andrea Stuart is published in paperback by Portobello Books, price £9.99.
First published in West End Extra, October 24, 2014