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A Barbados Family Tree With 'Sugar In The Blood'

By NPR Staff | 02/04/2013

In her new book, Sugar in the Blood, Andrea Stuart weaves her family story around the history of slavery and sugar in Barbados. Stuart's great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather landed on the island in the 1630s. He had been a blacksmith in England, but became a sugar planter in Barbados, at a time when demand for the crop was exploding worldwide. Stuart is descended from a slave owner who, several generations after the family landed in Barbados, had relations with an unknown slave.

Stuart was well into her research and writing of the book before she fully accepted the reality of her family's story. It was, she tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross, "not until maybe four years into the research that I realized that this was the truth of it ... of my family's story that ... one side of my family had owned another, and that that was as bleak and as straightforward as it got. ... That is the quintessence of the hideousness of slavery, isn't it? That a family member could own their child ... or own a series of children and live with that, and ... keep them in continued slavery and live comfortably with that. It made me understand slavery or see it in a very, very personal, intense way."

Stuart says that it was "completely common in the Caribbean" for planters to have many different family groups, meaning that a planter would have his legitimate, white family and then father children with enslaved women.

The thinking behind this practice was, in one sense, that the planter was breeding his own slaves to work the plantation after Britain outlawed the trans-Atlantic slave trade in 1807. More psychologically speaking, however, Stuart says, the practice also provided a "sense of claiming your ... total power over everybody in the plantation world over which you preside."


Interview Highlights

On when planters would baptize the slave women they had sex with

"That was often something that planters did if they were going to be in a slightly longer-term relationship with a new, individual female slave. While they have kind of one-off ... relations with a slave that they ... just sort of ... picked randomly on the plantation, usually if ... the relationship was going to last, it was quite common for them to get ... the slave woman baptized, which is an ironic thing because, obviously, they felt that that was ... a rather virtuous gesture, which is extraordinary when, in fact, they were basically raping underage girls."

On how, after some of her ancestors worked as slaves on a plantation, her grandparents bought and farmed a sugar plantation in Barbados

"It always seems to me an extraordinary irony that ... my grandfather would decide — or rather his father would decide — that it was a good idea to go back into sugar, after the history — the torrid history — that our family had had with that particular crop, but I think, you know, even at the turn of the [20th] century ... it must have felt like sugar was still the biggest game in town, still the historic crop of the island. To be a planter was to be at the absolute top of the social tree and so, in some ways, you can see that for successful businessmen — even those who came from a slave line — that becoming a planter must have felt like real success, and I think that is why my great-grandfather decided to buy and also start to farm a plantation again."

On how, after moving to England from Barbados in 1976 with her family, the color of her skin meant something different

"Whereas in the Caribbean my slightly lighter skin marked me out as being perhaps potentially a little more privileged, in Britain there was none of that subtlety or ideas ... about race. It was very much: I was a black person and that was that, and one was very much reduced to a series of stereotypes — and rather dull stereotypes at that — about what it was to be a black person."

On the current prospect of her family's Barbados plantation being sold for real estate

"I can remember and spent so much of my youth being at my grandmother's and grandfather's plantation and listening to the ... sound of the cane and running around ... this little magic world of beautiful gardens that surround the plantation house. ... It was all for me a very idyllic adventure, and so the idea of it being over is both painful, because it represents to me very much my Caribbean childhood, my past, my family, and then another part of me thinks that it's time ... for me — as well as the island — to close the door on the plantation story and walk into the future."

On how her research and knowledge of her family's past has changed her thinking about sugar

"It was not until I was reading some of the work by the abolitionists, and ... one of their big ... campaigns was that it was 'blood-stained sugar,' ... that it carried the blood of slaves, and I remember actually at that point putting some sugar into something and thinking, 'Ah, it's this!' And ... I thought again about the way that commodities — in my case it was sugar; in America the parallels would be, as I say, cotton or tobacco — how these ... commodities have such real, visceral impacts on the way our lives unfold and how extraordinary that is."
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