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Sugar in the Blood

by Louise Adams
Monday Aug 5, 2013
Sugar in the Blood

"Sugar in the Blood: A Family's Story of Slavery and Empire" is Andrea Stuart's searing document of British-Caribbean colonialism, peppered with interstitial quotes from historical notables like Frederick Douglass and William Shakespeare, the institutionalization of what still today could be called a "color-coded society."

She follows her ancestor George Ashby from 1620s England to the leg of mutton-shaped coral island of Barbados (the only outside country that George Washington visited) and traces the history of voluntary and forced settlement via the "white gold" of sugar and the "black gold" of the slave trade.

Stuart skillfully covers the region's natural history, including terrestrial flora and fauna and the unfamiliar constellations above, plus politics, clothing, weather and the island's idiosyncrasies. Every aspect of migration and miscegenation is illuminated too, including her English forefathers, native Amerindians, roving buccaneers, indentured servants, and the horrific middle passage (and even more dreadful life in chains) of enslaved Africans. Stacked like cord wood, many died during the two-month Atlantic crossing, and those who survived rarely lasted their first year due to disease, starvation and monstrous torture because "the whip was the soul of the colonies."

Sugar was an import as well, and required enormous resources to plant, harvest, refine and export, ratcheting up and sustaining the slave trade for centuries to meet labor demands. The island became a "laboratory for the plantation system and slave management," techniques which were adopted in the nascent States.

Barbados became a "laboratory for the plantation system and slave management," techniques which were adopted in the nascent States.

Although the wind in the cane was a "song that never ceased," the cries of those in bondage - the "saltwater slaves" and those born on the island, the women raped on a daily basis and the families torn apart - are still heard today. Despite the manumitting of the slave population in the 1830s, the modern plague of "deadbeat dads," a "rape culture" (see Steubenville), and institutionalized racism can be traced back to the plantation system created in Barbados and neighbors. Even today's standard-bearers of high culture, like London's Tate Gallery, were built on cane profits (Henry Tate was a fin de si├Ęcle sugar magnate) and on broken black backs, which, despite fathomless agony, also carried indefatigable defiance. As he was being burned alive for some petty infraction, a slave named Tony proclaimed, "If you roast me today, you cannot roast me tomorrow."

Even in today's UK, the author notes that "my color enters the room before I do" (but, unfortunately, the audiobook narrator doesn't have an appropriate British dialect or Caribbean patois, and her over-enunciation is a distraction). Yet Stuart's astounding family memoir should be required reading lest we forget what humans did to fellow humans a few short years ago. Perhaps this bloody history is getting some recompense in the form of sugar-generated modern obesity, but nothing could even the score that a global sweet tooth exacted.

"Sugar in the Blood"
CD Set Audio Book

Louise Adams is a Chicago freelance writer at www.treefalls.com (and a nom de guerre).


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