Slavery, Family and Empire, some reflections on Andrea Stuart’s Sugar in the Blood: A Family’s Story of Slavery and Empire (Portobello, 2012).

Andrea Stuart’s Sugar in the Blood: A Family’s Story of Slavery and Empire takes the reader on a fascinating journey through many of the key issues we’ve been thinking about in this network: the interconnectedness between issues of empire and issues of family; families which span the globe; slippages between domestic politics and global international relations; local histories embedded in the economic, psychological and social structures of empire; family history and genealogical research; uneven power dimensions within families; and unequal inheritance.

sugar in the blood

I had the pleasure of hearing Andrea Stuart, a biographer and critic, along with Alison Light, an historian and scholar of English literature and culture, talking about their experiences researching family histories and their efforts to bridge what is often thought of as a ‘gap’ between ‘family history’ and ‘academic history’ at a conference on Emancipation, slave-ownership and the remaking of the British imperial world. Stuart had traced her family back to George Ashby, an English migrant who, in settling in seventeenth-century Barbados, planted the seeds of a plantation economy that would become dependent on slave-labour, and a family that would grow to encompass both slave-owners and the enslaved. Alison Light was researching her family of ‘ordinary people’, which, whilst mostly confined within the British Isles, was nonetheless one structured around migration, movement and rupture. Both writers spoke of the complex work needed to unravel layers of familial, personal, national and transatlantic histories; asked questions about how better to understand the interconnectedness of British History and its imperial past; the new questions posed if we take migration as the norm whether that be intra-national or transnational rather than the exception; and the need to move beyond the limitations of bloodline and build inclusive conceptions of family. The questions raised in this session have remained with me over the months that have followed and, having just finished Sugar in the Blood, I’ll take the opportunity to reflect on them here.

Discovering the name of George Ashby, Stuart’s great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather in the Barbados Museum, intrigued Stuart and sharpened her interested in genealogy. Her experience of tracing family tree, characterised sometimes by ‘elation’ and sometimes by ‘sorrow’ and ‘fury’, was one filled with the emotions described by many family historians. So too, one imagines, was her experience that, having built up an unbroken family tree reaching back to 1620, her initial sense of triumph soon faded into one of anticlimax. ‘What did my neatly formatted family tree really mean?’, she asks in the opening pages of Sugar in the Blood. ‘It was, after all, just names on a page.’ In fleshing out the skeleton of this family tree, Stuart opened up, at a highly personal level, questions that link disparate continents and experiences, conjoin ‘black’ and ‘white’, and histories of the enslaved and the free.

Whilst encompassing the lives of eight generations, the book is organised around three main periods. The first section, ‘The Pioneer’, traces the life of the aforementioned English settler,  George Ashby, his decision to emigrate, the perilous journey into the unknown it entailed, and his arrival in an island that was largely uncultivated and, whilst promising profits, was slow to deliver them. She then moves to explore the life of ‘The Plantocrat’, Robert Cooper Ashby (George’s great-great-great-grandson), who transformed the family fortunes by marrying upward into the upper echelons of Barbadian society; managed a brutal and successful plantation regime during the turbulent years of abolition; and whose relationships with enslaved women (how coercive or abusive it is difficult to determine) created new generations of Ashbys. Finally, Stuart focuses on ‘The Legacy’ of slavery, the continued economic inequality and racial hierarchies that characterise both Barbadian society and its relationship with Britain, and the lives of slavery’s descendents, from her grandfather Edward Everton Ashby, who like many of his generation left Barbados for the states, to her own Transatlantic career.

In each chapter Stuart weaves what can be found about the specific experiences of her own ancestors into a broader historical context. The undocumented lives of her early black ancestors, for whom often only names and prices remain documented, are brought to life with vivid accounts of the Middle Passage and life on slave plantations, generated through wider research. The arduous processes of sowing and harvesting sugar cane, and the mechanics of sugar refinement within inferno-like distilleries, for example, are powerfully brought to life. Stuart is sensitive to the methodological challenges of this kind of work, not least the uneven holdings of the colonial archive in which white ancestors are easy to find and black ancestors all too often hidden. ‘I have been very aware’, she writes in her preface, ‘of the tensions between letting stories to be told, without abusing the limitations of historical record, and allowing myself to interpret and comment while acknowledging the silences of the undocumented past’ (xviii).

The_Barbadoes_Mulatto Girl

The Barbadoes Mulatto Girl, 1764, by Agostino Brunias.

Stuart raises the difficult question as to what constitutes a family which I have discussed on this blog before. Writing of her great-great grandfather, John Stephen, a man whose father was a rich white plantation owner and his mother an enslaved black woman, she writes:

John Stephen had a number of other half-brothers and half sisters. But it is unlikely that they considered themselves a family. The very concept of family had been so fractured and debased by plantation culture that one slave noted: “Brothers and sisters we were by blood; but slavery had made us strangers. I heard the words brother and sister, and knew they must mean something, but slavery had robbed these terms of their true meaning.” Many slaves found it hard to generate any positive feelings for their siblings and fell instead into bickering and open competition.’ (248)

Perhaps one of the starkest manifestations of these unrecognised siblings (also present in Stuart’s own family) occurs when siblinghood crossed the divide between enslaved and free, placing brothers and sisters in positions of legal, economic and social servitude and mastery. How might such relationships shape the way in which we explore what it means to be a colonial family? A family with rights as colonisers? A family exploited by the dynamics of colonialism? A family only in existence, only even conceivable, because of the structures generated by colonialism?

Writing the history of rape, abuse, enslavement into the history of the family may be troubling, but it is also essential. Stuart captivates the intimacy of the lived experience of slavery, ‘Slavery did not exist just on Robert Cooper’s land’, she writes, ‘it permeated the intimacy of his home, his family and his bed’ (227). The history of the family is intimate but its concerns are global. The family could both harbour and generate the complicated and exploitative power dynamics of colonialism itself.

But there is also something hopeful about Stuart’s findings. When speaking at the conference on Emancipation, slave-ownership and the remaking of the British imperial world, last March, Andrea Stuart discussed the way in which she has used her own family history to challenge the idea that families were themselves ‘abolished’ by slavery – she argued that although her family is very complex, this is still a sense of family, a constant recreating of the family and a desire to create familial networks, despite all the pressures.

Whilst this is a highly personal account of one individual family, the stories Stuart tells have far wider resonances. As she writes in her introduction, her family ‘is just one of millions across the globe that were forged by sugar and slavery’ (xvii). In thinking about the history of the colonial family, and all that that slippery concept may entail, we can perhaps take this further to use the superficially ‘unusual’ dynamic of families structured around migration and slavery to think more widely about how we disaggregate what we mean by family, how we can use family history to alter the stories we tell about national history, and the radical potential of family to remind us of the fluid constitution of identity.

Esme Cleall, University of Sheffield, January 2013.

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