Latest Information:
Author Interviews
12:44 pm
Mon February 4, 2013

A Barbados Family Tree With 'Sugar In The Blood'

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."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. I want to thank Dave Davies for filling in for me last week while I took the week off. My guest, Andrea Stuart, is the descendent of a slave owner and one of that man's slaves. She has a bloodline that she describes as blending the history of both oppressed and oppressor. She suspects this is true of many families, which, like hers, are mixed-race on both sides.

Stewart has written a new book called "Sugar in the Blood," which traces her family tree beginning with her white ancestor who left Ireland for Barbados in the late 1630s. His great-great-grandson owned a plantation in Barbados and fathered children with several of his slaves, including the woman who became Stuart's forebear.

Stuart's book also describes the history of slavery in the Caribbean, where she was born and raised. Her father became dean of the medical school at the University College of the West Indies in Jamaica. As a child, she spent her summers with her extended family in Barbados, where her grandparents owned a plantation.

Andrea Stuart, welcome to FRESH AIR. When did you start thinking about the fact that one of your ancestors was owned by another one of your ancestors?

ANDREA STUART: I don't think I actually thought about that until quite late in the process of writing my book. It was really one of those things that kind of hits you sort of later on. I mean, it very much began as a process of being interested in my family history. So it wasn't until quite late in the day that I had this moment of clarity, maybe four years into the research, that I realized that this was the truth of it, that was the reality of my life, of my family's story, that we - you know, one side of my family had owned another.

GROSS: And what did that mean to you?

STUART: I think I found that a real kind of one of those aha moments, you know, where you sort of think that is the quintessence of the hideousness of slavery, isn't it, that a family member could own their child and - or you know what I mean, or own series of children and live with that and remain - and keep them in continued slavery. And it made me understand slavery or see it in a very, very personal, intense way.

GROSS: In trying to find documentation of your slave-owning ancestors and of your ancestors who were slaves, one of the things you found was that there was documentation of your white ancestors, but for the slave the only documentation you found was what?

STUART: Well, the irony of slavery is that - and I think it's true whether it's on mainland America or in the Caribbean or South America, is that the system is such that you only know what the white planter who owns you has recorded about you. So it's always through the conduit of this other person.

So what I could know about my slave ancestors were the things that were recorded by their owner, and in the case of my ancestors, their father, in his inventories and mentions of slaves for sale or documents that he'd created, which are usually about transactions and/or money in relation to them as stock.

GROSS: So I'm going to open to the page now of the family tree.

STUART: Yes.

GROSS: So here it is. There's Robert Cooper Ashby, who is your great-great-great-great grandfather.

STUART: Yes.

GROSS: And then there's women on either side of him in this family tree. There's Mary Ann Ashby, who is a slave, who became kind of like his wife after Robert Cooper's wife died, although they couldn't marry because she had been a slave, and that would have been illegal at that time.

STUART: Yes, that's right, yes.

GROSS: But they had how many children together?

STUART: Eleven.

GROSS: That's a lot.

STUART: It is a lot, especially since many of the children were born concurrent with his legitimate white wife, who had only one child, and also with other relationships with slave women on the plantation. So, he was a very busy man.

GROSS: How many slave women were you able to document that he had either sexual relations with or children with?

STUART: Well, I think we kind of came down to about four or five groups. I suspect, of course, that there would have been more, it's just a question of what you can work out historically. And apparently, this was completely common in the Caribbean for planters to have, you know, kind of quite a large number of family groups.

A contemporary of Robert Cooper's had six separate little family groups. And there are rumors of plantation owners on the other islands who - one French planter declared that up to a third of his slave stock came from his "own loins," was the quote. So it was quite common, this very profligate sexual behavior with slaves.

GROSS: That's just kind of chilling, what you just said. It almost sounds like you're breeding your own slaves to work the plantation.

STUART: I think there is certainly a degree of feeling like that. It's sort of, you know, you are kind of producing your own workforce. But also I think it's that sort of sense of claiming you're in total power over everybody in the plantation world over which you preside. Your - his legitimate wife would have had very little redress. There was no chance, really, of her leaving him, as all the money that she had previously brought to the marriage was now in his name.

So everyone - from his wife, his legitimate white wife, to his various other liaisons really had very little say in what happened to them in the world that he presided over and created.

GROSS: One thing you speculate about, you speculate that your great-great-great-great grandmother, who had been a slave, was probably baptized before the slave owner had sexual relations with her because you say that most of the slave owners had no compunctions about sleeping with a young teenager, but they were reluctant to have sexual relations with somebody who hadn't been baptized and was therefore a heathen.

STUART: Yes, I mean, with one of his groups' of children, Suki Ann(ph), he baptized her at 14, and that was often something that planters did if they were going to be in a slightly longer-term relationship with the individual female slave. While they may have, you know, kind of one-off relations with a slave that they had just picked, 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 felt that that was a, you know, a rather virtuous gesture, which is extraordinary, when in fact that they were, you know, basically raping underage girls. But that was - thus are the ironies slavery, I think.

GROSS: So the first documented slave ancestor is John Stephen(ph). He's the son of the plantation owner, Robert Cooper...

STUART: Yes.

GROSS: ...and the unknown slave...

STUART: Yes.

GROSS: ...who gave birth to John Stephen.

What's the first documentation you were able - the earliest documentation you were able to find for John Stephen?

STUART: The first moment I discovered John Stephen was in an old inventory, and he was described as being 14 years old, colored, which was the term the West Indian planters used for - certainly the Barbadian planters for those who were mixed-race, and a laborer.

I was looking for him because the good thing about Barbados, it's a very small place, and a lot of the lore or family lore does get passed down. So we had - I had a sense that I was going to find this person. You know, people had - we knew that he was Robert Cooper's because even in my generation, there has always been talk of Robert Cooper because he was such a large and affluent planter.

His reputation and his - the stories of him has kind of lingered in the community. So that's how - but all of it, I have to say, is hearsay. I mean, we as a family assume that all of the - I think we're talking about 18 children of mixed descent that he in some way prioritized, at no point does he ever admit, even when he was living with them - he doesn't describe him as his children in that way.

So we know this because of what the family knows, if you see what I mean, what's been passed on and what we know for sure.

GROSS: And the early documentation of John Stephen that you found is in what was called a slave return that was kept by Robert Cooper, the plantation owner, and that was required. A slave owner at that time in Barbados had to keep a registry of their slaves. What was the reason for that?

STUART: It was the end of the slave trade. One of the important decisions after the end of the slave trade in 1807 was in order to prevent illicit slave trading in the region, planters had to submit a yearly list of slaves on their plantation just to show that they couldn't sneak on slaves who had been illicitly sold in the region.

So, they started documenting their slaves very carefully. And then later on, of course, they would then become compensated when slavery was itself abolished because they were compensated per head of slave. So it was to their advantage to make sure that all the slaves on their plantation were indeed recorded so that they would get the maximum amount of money.

GROSS: And just to clarify here that, you know, in Barbados, the slave trade was ended before slavery was ended. So you couldn't, like, import slaves from Africa, but you could still own slaves.

STUART: Absolutely, that's right.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Andrea Stuart. We're talking about her new book that's part memoir and part history. It's called "Sugar in the Blood: A Family's Story of Slavery and Empire." Let's talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Andrea Stuart, and she's the author of the new book "Sugar in the Blood: A Family's Story of Slavery and Empire." And it's the story of her family tree in Barbados, where her great grandfather eight times removed first came to Barbados, and her great grandfather four times removed was a slave owner who had relations with an unknown slave, and that's where her family tree really starts. And her book is also basically a history of slavery in Barbados, and that history is a little different from the history of slavery in the U.S.

So let's get back to your family tree, which you've traced back to a slave owner, your great grandfather four times removed, and an unknown woman slave who he had relations with. Their son, John Stephen, spent three decades in slavery before slavery was ended in Barbados. What did he do after he was freed?

STUART: We have traces of him as, you know, doing kind of a number of - kind of finding a place in the community. He became a shoemaker. I assume he also went on being a carpenter because that was the trade he was given on the plantation. And he married a woman of a similar caste, also a mixed-race slave of a very prominent planter.

They had - I think it - I'm trying to remember now, I think it's six or eight children. And he - he kind of managed to have a certain genuine quality of life, really, in that the privileges that were set up by being this son of a planter carried on through his life. To some degree that meant that he had - he had advantages that ordinary slaves just didn't.

GROSS: After some of your ancestors worked as slaves on a plantation, how did your grandparents come to own a sugar plantation in Barbados?

STUART: Well, 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 century - and we're talking about the turn of the 20th century - it must have felt like sugar was still the biggest game in town. It was still the historical 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, the idea of becoming a planter must have felt like real success. And I think that was why my great grandfather decided to buy and also start to farm a plantation again.

GROSS: So we're talking about grandparents who were what they would describe as mulatto, they were mixed-race. They were the descendents of the slave who had children through the slave owner. So who were their workers when they owned a plantation?

STUART: Well, yes, I mean, as I said, I was thinking about this when I was writing the book. And when I was a little girl going up to see my family's plantation, the workers were people who were darker skinned than us and who came - who were basically people who remained - who would have been the sort of bulwark of the kind of slave world the century before.

They were the ones who didn't marry or work - you know, when I say marry, they didn't become involved racially with the planters - or quite so much. So they tended to be the poorer and blacker Barbadians. So it was ironic that we had this juxtaposition of a family like mine who were given a certain degree of privilege, not least the color of their slightly lighter skin, because of their interrelationships with planters and their world being farmed by and cared for by workers who hadn't had that same history.

GROSS: How did your grandparents and great grandparents treat the workers?

STUART: I think that my grandfather was an eccentric, I would say is the nice way of putting it. And I think that he, he very much cast himself in the role of planter. Of course, times had changed enough that one - the kind of horrible extremities of being a planter with - along with violence, and - was no longer possibly legally or even, you know, in a social sense.

But he was, I think, rather overbearing. He very much cast himself in the role of planter, drank too much, gambled too much, womanized too much and, you know, was very much - it was a role that he couldn't quite shed.

GROSS: So knowing that your family is a result of, you know, quote, "illegitimate children" that a slave owner had with an unknown slave, how does it make you feel knowing that your, you know, your mixed-race grandfather and great grandfather had illegitimate children, too? It's not really a word I like to use, illegitimate children, but, you know, children out of marriage.

STUART: Well, I suppose, to be honest, it was completely so much a part of plantation culture and carried on being part of plantation culture all the way through up until the present day, really, that it feels - I wasn't at all surprised. I mean, when I discovered that my grandfather had four additional outside-of-marriage children, that's what they were called in Barbados, I was surprised that I didn't know because it's a small island, but I was not very surprised.

And I was - you know, my uncle, I remember my uncle telling me a story about how he found out about one of his illegitimate brothers and sisters because one guy in his class said to him, oh, you see that guy over there, he's your brother. And my uncle turned around and met this man, and he was indeed his brother by another woman who worked the plantation.

It's amazing how powerful the kind of - the kind of archetype of the plantation was, and I think this is true on mainland America and in the Caribbean, about how the behavior of the plantation carried on after slavery ended. It was an archetypal way of living that just has enormous power and resonance and just went on long after officially slavery was over.

GROSS: Your father is a doctor, and he was the dean at the medical school at the University College of the West Indies in Jamaica. He was knighted for his contributions to medical education. So I presume that when you were growing up, you had a pretty high status in the islands, you know, your grandparents owned a plantation, your father was dean of the medical school. So can you talk a little bit about your status in the islands and how race and the color of your skin did or didn't figure into that.

STUART: Yes, I mean, I had a very lucky upbringing as a child in that sense that I was - my father was a doctor, and we were - we had a very comfortable, pleasant life, really. I think I sort of mentioned in the book that we were the first generation of black children who, really, who could enjoy the fruits of a tropical Caribbean childhood without slavery, you know, kind of yawning over us, really.

And yes, I think I was very, very lucky. I think the idea of race and status in the Caribbean has changed - not entirely changed. I think that there's still a kind of recognition that people who have lighter skins, therefore who are obviously descendent from both planter and slave, do tend to still have certain amounts of privileges. And it's not an accident that up until say my mother's generation, people were very actively making sure that they married other light-skinned people. And I think there's very, very many sort of parallels with America in this regard so that people could maintain the privileges associated with those realities.

But I think now I think that's much less significant in that way. I think now certain Barbados and many of the islands are much more of a meritocracy, and there's a much stronger emergence of kind of, you know, my father being very typical of, quote-unquote, "darker skinned" but, you know, very dynamic men who have come forward and kind of dominate the middle classes.

So I think it's a privilege that now is kind of not as important.

GROSS: Andrea Stuart will be back in the second half of the show. Her new book is called "Sugar in the Blood: A Family's Story of Slavery and Empire." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Andrea Stuart, author of the new book "Sugar in the Blood," which traces her family tree. Her great grandfather four times removed owned a sugar plantation in the Caribbean island Barbados, and fathered children with at least three of his slaves, including the woman who became Stuart's forbear. Those children became his slaves, too. Stuart describes her bloodline as blending the history of both oppressed and oppressor. Her book also describes the history of slavery in Barbados.

The history of slavery in Barbados is significantly different than the history of slavery in the United States, so I'd like to talk a little bit about that slavery. You describe Barbados as the first slave society in the British Americas and the first society entirely organized around its slave system. And you say it became the model for the plantation system throughout the Americas. What made Barbados the model?

STUART: I think that Barbados became the model, because it was the place in the British colonies where they found their cash crop - which was sugar, in their case, but on mainland America, we could discuss tobacco or cotton later. They found their mainland. They had found their crop, and they worked out how to create a working system which involves the importation of slaves from Africa, how to organize gangs and groups, how to organize it in a kind of working - as a workforce, how to create laws that would police it, how to create a kind of racial story that would justify it. They did all those things and created that model which then became - and you can see its links in kind of mainland America and, indeed, across the Americas generally.

I mean, we must remember that, for example, the Carolinas were settled by - the very early Carolinas were - at least half of their early governors were from Barbados. So - and you had a vast kind of backwards and forwarding between - I mean, now we think of America - mainland America and the Caribbean and South America as somehow very distinct, different places, but certainly, the Caribbean and mainland America in those days were described as the Americas by the British, particularly colonists. And many people who had great plantations on mainland America also owned plantations in the Caribbean, and vice versa. You had enormous trade links between the groups. They were, in the historical sense, the same place, which I know that we find to imagine now, but it was. And so those interactions meant that what happened in the Caribbean had enormous influence on what happened in mainland America.

GROSS: And you're saying that it was in the Caribbean, specifically in Barbados, that slavery was codified, that there were laws. They were practices that were written down and codified. There was a law in 1661 that was passed called For the Better Ordering and Governing of Negroes.

STUART: Yes.

GROSS: And I think one of the things that this law did - correct me if I'm wrong - was that it clarified the differences between slaves and indentured servants. So there were also indentured servants in Barbados. What were the differences?

STUART: Yes, it's quite fascinating because, of course, we forget now that on mainland America and in the Caribbean, the first servants were indentured white laborers who worked a term. They were given - in exchange for their passage to the Americas, they were given - they worked for five years, or it could be six or seven, depending on the agreement they had with their owners. And then they were free, and they were given a certain amount in the hope that they could then start a new life in the New World.

So it was - Barbados, like much of the Americas, was actually, initially a European world, the dominant workforce being white and the owners also being white, were - you know. And so therefore, you had - it was only after the kind of realization that sugar was going to be able to - potentially - to make the money it was going to that they realized that they simply didn't have the same stock available of white indentured servants that they would need, and hence, shift over to slavery.

So the white indentured servants worked in parallel in the early days with black slaves. And there was an enormous sense that it was important that these two groups didn't become close. There were a number of rebellions where the two groups worked together, and - because they were actually, of course, suffering the same - much of the same terrible ill-treatment and abuse and neglect. So the laws of 1661 made a real effort to give certain privileges to white indentured servants that were not given to the black workers in order that the two groups would not feel that they had common cause, so that they would not get together. And mainly, they made a lot of - there was a lot of racial significance put on the separation between these two groups.

It's fascinating to see how racism is clearly invented at this point. There's a letter by one planter being sent home, saying: We describe ourselves here as the term whites, he said, is how we describe Europeans here. And they really used created that term whites, in order to separate themselves from blacks, who were, therefore, became the kind of complete opposite and so on. It was a very, very canny move to create - to make sure that these two groups didn't come together.

GROSS: You write that in Barbados, as slavery grew, whites in Barbados were afraid they'd be outnumbered by slaves. Was that more of a fear on the island of Barbados then it was, say, in mainland America, in the American South?

STUART: Yes. I think this is one of the acute differences between the two, and I think of the two countries - or the two sets of conditions, the Caribbean and indeed a lot of South America. There was this real, you know - Barbados, for example, was four - the slaves were four times the size of the white population by the 18th century. So there was a real reality that slaves outnumbered the white population, which created a kind of siege mentality that was extraordinary. This never happened in mainland America.

So the same population never had the same level of threat for the white population, which is not to say that they were not horribly and brutally maltreated. Of course they were. But it was not the slave owners of the Caribbean, and I think, you know, that some of them were of English descent, some French, some Dutch, Spanish - all lived in a state of extraordinary paranoia in relation to the number of slaves that they were surrounded by, hence the particularly draconian and disgraceful treatment of the slaves in the Caribbean and those parts of the Americas.

GROSS: Slavery in the United States ended with a Civil War. But several decades before that, in 1833, the slaves in Barbados were freed. What brought about that emancipation?

STUART: Well, I think one of the things I feel very passionately about was that in Britain, where I live, the story is very much around the importance of the abolitionist movement in Britain and, you know, all the various people who were associated with it and very much put this down to the abolitionists movement.

But the reality was, I think, that the slaves worked as hard for their freedom as the abolitionists did for them on their behalf. Because I think that what was happening more and more, particularly in the Caribbean - because that's where my story is set - was that more and more people, more and more slave revolts were happening. It was becoming so fractious and difficult that it was almost the point where the British authorities were feeling this is impossible for us to contain.

The great specter of Haiti was, of course, the great turning point. The 12-year struggle on that extraordinarily island, in which the black slaves of the island managed to defeat both the British Army and the great French Republic and create the first slave-free slate in the Americas, is one of the kind of biggest unforgotten stories of our age, and I think of that of the whole Americas. It's an extraordinary tale.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Andrea Stuart. We're talking about her new book "Sugar in the Blood: A Family's Story of Slavery and Empire." And it's about her family tree in Barbados, and also about the history of slavery in Barbados. She traces her family tree to a slave owner and one of his slaves.

Let's take a short break, here. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Andrea Stuart, and we're talking about her new book "Sugar in the Blood: A Family's Story of Slavery and Empire." And it's part family history and part history. It's the story of her family tree. She is from Barbados, where her ancestry traces back to a slave owner who impregnated one of his slaves, and those two people, the slave and the slave owner, are her ancestors. Her book is also a history of slavery in Barbados.

So slavery ends in Barbados in 1833.

STUART: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: You've said that you were part of the first generation that grew up more out of the shadow of slavery.

STUART: Yes.

GROSS: So what was different, do you think, for your generation? What's the point of demarcation there?

STUART: Well, I suppose I think that my father's generation, for example, the kind of the whole world of the plantation, its ethos, its ideas about what was not valuable and who was valuable really still overshadowed the life of - on the island. And I think, you know, very much, American - African-Americans will probably sympathize with that.

I remember my mother was rather beautiful and entered a beauty contest when she was - in the '50s. And, of course, she knew - she said she knew she just wouldn't win, because there had never been a black beauty queen in all the beauty contests, and that didn't happen until, I think, the '70s. So that there was - and, you know, my father, I remember, joined a club in Barbados when I was - where my grandfather worked, and it didn't allow black members until 1975.

So the kind of ethos of the plantation - the racism, the attitudes to, you know, kind of workers and people and so on - really cast a very long shadow, a shadow that was very, very evident for a very long time. And I think this, as I say, this is something that, you know, the African-American experience kind of echoes. Once slavery was over, it took a long time for it to really go away.

GROSS: So when you moved to England - which was back when you were a teenager - what year are we talking?

STUART: Seventy-six, I think it was.

GROSS: OK. And you moved with your family, because your father accepted a position there.

STUART: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Yeah.

GROSS: Did the color of your skin - and you're, you know, you're a light-skinned black.

STUART: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: To the color of your skin mean something in England that it didn't mean in Barbados or Jamaica, where you lived the previous part of your life?

STUART: The color of my skin did mean something different when I moved to Britain, 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.

GROSS: Do you think that in England, there's a different understanding of slavery and of the racial aftereffects of slavery, because the slavery wasn't in England? You know, the English colonies had slaves, but - I mean, some of the English colonies had slaves, but that wasn't happening in England itself.

STUART: Yes. I think that - I think it's generally true that one of the reasons there is a difference between Britain and mainland America was that there is that sense in Britain that it was something that happened a long time ago and far away, while in America, the slave experience very, very much existed, coexisted on the same piece of ground. And I think that that reality has made it irretrievable in America's history to be something that was dealt with.

What I think is fascinating in Britain is how little memory contemporary Britons have of the reality of the fact that when that my family's family story first started, Britain was not very far away at all. I'm not talking geographically, but culturally. It was, you know, people like my first ancestor, who was an Englishman, were absolutely - called themselves and described themselves as Englishmen transplanted. They were still English. They still had the same mores, attitudes, behaviors, and they believed themselves to be English.

And I think - so there's a real difference in how these two groups have dealt with slavery. And I also think that the fact that America had such a strong population of - number population of black people has made it incredibly important to come to terms with this extraordinary history, while in Britain we're a relatively small minority. I think it's been easier for Britain to ignore the history of their slave past than it has been for the mainland America.

GROSS: Is the Plum Grove sugar plantation still owned by your family?

STUART: Yes. I mean, it's no longer a working plantation and I think they're going to sell it and it's going to become real estate which is now much more, sort of, lucrative than sugar plantation space is, if you see what I mean.

GROSS: Will you be glad when that chapter of your family history is over, the plantation chapter?

STUART: That's an - it's an extraordinary feeling. I have an enormous - and this is the irony of it all - is that I can remember and spent so much of my youth being at my grandmother's and grandfather's plantation and listening to the swaying sound of the cane. And running around, you know, this little magic world of beautiful gardens that surround the plantation house, then were bracketed all around by all the sugar cane and knowing the workers.

And, you know, generally 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 maybe it's time. For the island just - for me as well as the island to close the door on the plantation story and to walk into the future.

GROSS: I'm wondering, finally, if because of this book about the history of sugar and sugar plantations and slavery in Barbados, where you're from, and also your book is a history of your family tree, if eating sugar has a different meaning for you than it does for me. Like, if you think about all of that every time you put sugar in your coffee or, you know, eat something that has sugar sprinkled on it.

STUART: That's a fascinating question. Originally, when I started, oddly enough, doing the book I didn't have - it didn't particularly click. And it was not until I was reading some of the work by the abolitionists and one of their big, kind of, campaigns was that it was blood-stained sugar. That was what they described it, 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.

You know? And realizing that his commodity just is, you know, 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 simple - these commodities have such real visceral impact on the way our lives unfold and how extraordinary that is. That we don't consume them with any of those realizations, but that's the truth of it.

GROSS: Well, Andrea Stuart, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

STUART: It's been delightful. Thank you.

GROSS: Andrea Stuart is the author of the new book "Sugar in the Blood: A Family's Story of Slavery and Empire." You can read an excerpt on our website freshair.npr.org. Coming up, Milo Miles reviews the new Yo La Tengo album "Fade." This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Related Program