Beach Books

Beautiful Island, Brutal History

The Beachcomber
By PERDITA BUCHAN | Jul 26, 2013


To me, the name has always spelled romance. My family once owned plantations there, places named Sunbury, Fisherpond and Golden Grove. My great-great grandmother, whose portrait hangs in my house, was born and grew up there. Although most of my family left the island in the mid-19th century, I always regretted the exotic world I imagined: golden light spilling through louvered shutters, verandahs rife with bougainvillea, gardens of frangipani and hibiscus, ginger lilies, mango and custard apple trees. I knew, of course, that my planter ancestors held slaves, but I glossed that over in my dreams of a tropical paradise.

Barbados is indeed a beautiful island but one with a terrible history. In this exhaustively researched book, Andrea Stuart charts the island’s troubled past through the story of her own mixed-race ancestry.

Sugar in the Blood (Alfred A. Knopf) begins with the author’s grandfather eight times removed, George Ashby, who made the crossing from England some time in the late 1630s. Like most of the early settlers, a lack of prospects caused him to leave home. He had to be made of stern stuff to choose such a journey in a time when “most of the world was still terra incognita to Europeans.” The passage took months under cramped and crowded conditions. He would have arrived at last at Bridgeton, then “the pivotal port in the entire region.” But as soon as Ashby tried to make his way to the few acres of land he had managed to buy, “the orderly vistas of Bridgeton gave way to a nightmarish jungle.”

Most of the immigrants of Ashby’s time planned to become planters, and the crop of the moment was tobacco, as it was in colonies like Virginia. His job was to clear the land and sow the crop with only one servant to help him. African slaves were, at this point, a minority of the work force. Most early Barbadian settlers had white indentured servants who might be volunteers, felons or prisoners of war. All this changed a decade or so after Ashby’s arrival, when sugar became king.

The cultivation of the sugar crop changed Barbados forever. It changed the topography of the island. The planting of vast fields of sugar cane devastated the indigenous flora and fauna. The greatest cost, however, was a human one:

Sugar demanded … a vast and steady stream of expendable labour to make the crop financially viable. The flow of indentured servants to the island was finite, and was drying up as time went on … the introduction of mass slavery to Barbados was driven largely by economics: acquiring an African labor force was more convenient and cost effective.

Barbados quickly became the first society in the British Americas to be organized around a slave system, becoming the model for the plantation system throughout the Americas, including, of course, the southern United States.

If work in the rice and cotton fields of our South was grueling, work in the cane fields was worse:

The physical dangers of cane cutting do not end with fatigue. There is the ever-present danger of the wrenched back, the twisted ankle, rat and insect bites, pierced ear drums or the eye stabbed by a sharp cane leaf. But most gory of all is the slip of the blade … labourers must find that delicate balance between being attentive lest they injure themselves, and allowing the mind to drift away lest they go mad with boredom.

And all of this under a broiling, tropical sun.

As the slave population grew, blacks soon outnumbering whites in the island population, appalling cruelty was used to keep slaves in line. Punishments ranged from beating to burning alive, making the work of the Ku Klux Klan look almost benign in comparison. One of the more astounding points Stuart makes is how quickly new European immigrants were corrupted by the system. Initially shocked by the brutality that established planters used to control their slaves, they were soon justifying it for themselves.

Much of Stuart’s tale of George Ashby is imaginative speculation based on the few facts she could unearth. Her grandfather seven times removed, George’s son Robert Cooper Ashby, was an easier task. His father had been moderately successful as a planter and his son inherited his property. Robert Ashby, however, made a considerable leap in the “upper echelons of Barbadian society” when, in 1794, he married Mary Burke and eventually became a “plantocrat,” the proprietor of Burkes, Mary’s family sugar plantation.

Burkes, like all plantations, was made up of two very different worlds, that of the white planters and that of their black slaves. And yet, Stuart herself is living proof of the way these worlds came together in the isolation of a small, tropical island. The white planters in Barbados were living in a world radically different from the Europe of their birth: climate, food, landscape, all completely new, and whatever their attitudes to their slaves, they lived in daily proximity to them.

Slavery did not exist just on Robert Cooper’s land; it permeated the intimacy of his home, his family and his bed.

Sexual relationships between planters and their female slaves were common. These relationships ran the gamut from coercion and rape, to casual encounters, to loving and relatively stable partnerships. These relationships, of course, produced numerous children. Planters like Robert Ashby often saw to it that their “coloured” offspring were given training in a skill like carpentry for boys or domestic duties for girls that would ensure them one of the more comfortable slave jobs.

Robert Cooper Ashby had several such liaisons, the last of which with a slave woman named Mary Anne, his wife’s personal maid, produced ten children. After the death of his wife, he and Mary Anne lived together openly and he bequeathed Burkes plantation to her and their children. This was, Stuart says, “unusual but not unique.”

A son of another of Robert Ashby’s briefer liaisons, John Stephen, was Andrea Stuart’s direct ancestor. Although he did not benefit directly from Robert Ashby’s will, he benefited from the known connection. By the time Stuart’s maternal grandfather was born, the family had acquired a plantation, Plumgrove, where Stuart would spend childhood holidays.

Stuart’s immediate family in many ways typifies the new Barbados. Her mother is the descendent of the Ashby plantocracy; her father’s family were successful shopkeepers. After emancipation (1834), black children gradually won greater opportunities for education. Her father was able to get scholarships to good schools and eventually college and medical school abroad, returning to teach at the University College of the West Indies in Jamaica.

In Sugar in the Blood, Stuart’s family history plays out against a turbulent backdrop: devastating hurricanes, international strife, the abolitionist movement, slave rebellions on other islands like Haiti and Jamaica, and, eventually, in 1816, on Barbados, too. If sugar once changed the island’s topography, its emergence as a major tourist destination is changing it again, with development crowding those white sand beaches by the turquoise sea.

Stuart’s presentation of Barbadian history is very thorough. She explores the island’s relationship to England, the “mother country.” She brings in the history of other British colonies and makes frequent references to the plantation system in the United States. Her own immediate family, including a grandfather who fled to New York during the Harlem Renaissance, yet returning reluctantly to Barbados to run Plumgrove plantation, is fascinating. I wish that she hadn’t crowded their story into the last few pages of the book.

Perdita Buchan is a freelance writer who lives in Ocean Grove. Her book Utopia, New Jersey, about utopian communities in early 20th century, is published by Rutgers University Press.

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