World Sugar History Newsletter

Number 44, August 2013

In this issue:

  1. Review
  2. Recent Publications
  3. Conference


Andrea Stuart, Sugar in the Blood: A Family’s Story of Slavery and Empire (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012). 353 pp. $27.95. ISBN 978-0-3072-7283-6.

In this blend of history and family memoir, Andrea Stuart (The Rose of Martinique: A Biography of Napolean’s Josephine, 2004) tells the story of her family’s dynasty, one that was “built on sugar and forged by slavery.” In the archival records of the Barbados Museum, Stuart found her ancestor George Ashby, a middle-class English migrant and blacksmith by trade, who bought a small plot of land in Barbados around 1640. Like the thousands of other men and women who migrated to the Americas, George Ashby longed to leave the Old World, with its social and economic restrictions, for the New World, with its supposedly limitless opportunities for wealth and freedom. Stuart illustrates what early life in the colonies was like for a small farmer like Ashby in the transition from tobacco and cotton farming to sugar planting and its spectacular success. She traces the Ashby line through twelve generations and couches her family history in a well-researched account of early colonial life and slavery in Barbados.

Half a century after its settlement, Barbados had become the ‘jewel of the English crown,’ due to sugar –‘white gold’ – and the forced labour of millions of enslaved Africans. The ‘sugar revolution’ of the mid-seventeenth century demanded more labourers, which encouraged the replacement of English indentured servants with enslaved Africans. Although Africans were more expensive to purchase than indentured servants, their enslaved status was inheritable and they could be provided with less food, shelter, and clothing than their English counterparts. Thus, African labour was more beneficial for profit-hungry planters, including Ashby who by 1680 owned nine enslaved Africans.

Although Ashby himself never became part of the elite planter-class, he did profit from the purchase of slaves and more land. By the nineteenth century, Ashby’s great-great-great grandson, Robert, married a wealthy planter’s daughter and ascended into the upper plantocracy. Robert had seventeen children with five different women. Mary-Ann, his wife’s mixed-race maid, was Stuart’s great-great-great-great grandmother and bore Robert ten children. Soon after the slave uprising of 1816, Robert became a widower and lived openly with Mary-Ann. When his only legitimate son died, Robert and Mary-Ann’s children were manumitted and through generations became a highly educated family.

The Ashbys did not leave behind letters or diaries, and so Stuart relies on the scholarship on slavery and Barbados and slave narratives to elaborate on the possible motivations of particular family members. Due to the limitations of archival records, Stuart is driven to tell a ‘would-have’ kind of memoir: “That first night, when the sun had set and the light was fading from the sky, George Ashby would have pitched a tent and made a fire more for light than heat.” Stuart often relates her family’s documentations to the written lives of other planters and slaves to place her family in the larger historical context of sugar and slavery. Her book is just as much a family story as it is a universal one, about the transformative power of sugar and slavery on the world.

Some of the narrative provided by Stuart might frustrate scholars of slavery and the Caribbean for its over-simplification of historical nuances. Stuart unfortunately compares slavery and the slave trade to the Holocaust, a comparison that trivializes the evil of both histories and suggests that only when compared to the Holocaust does a person gain the appropriate moral sentiments regarding slavery. Still, Stuart’s book is a page-turner that includes thrilling tales of hurricanes, pirates, and rebellions. The author creatively draws together her own imaginative hypotheses with family research and secondary sources to tell a colourful and captivating tale of immigration and settlement, and the exploitation of slavery and sugar-making in Barbados.

Stefanie Kennedy
University of Toronto


Daniel Strum, The Sugar Trade: Brazil, Portugal, and the Netherlands, 1595-1630 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013), 288 pp. $75.00. ISBN 978-0-8047-8721-5.

Thomas D. Rogers and Christine Rufino Dabat, “‘A peculiarity of labor in this region’: Workers’ voices in the labor court archive at the Federal University of Pernambuco,” Latin American Research Review 47: Special Issue, 2012, pp. 163-178.


"Beyond Sweetness: New Histories of Sugar in the Early Atlantic World" at the John Carter Brown Library, October 24-27, 2013.

The John Carter Brown Library at Brown University is pleased to announce that registration is now open for “Beyond Sweetness: New Histories of Sugar in the Early Atlantic World” a multi-day conference, October 24-27, 2013.

The centrality of sugar to the development of the early Atlantic world is now well known. Sugar was the ‘green gold’ that planters across the Americas staked their fortunes on, and it was the commodity that became linked in bittersweet fashion to the rise of the Atlantic slave trade. Producing unprecedented quantities of sugar through their enforced labour, Africans on plantations helped transform life not only in the colonies but also in Europe, where consumers incorporated the luxury into their everyday rituals and routines. Given its importance, sugar as a topic still pervades scholarship on the Americas and has been treated in many recent works about the Caribbean, Brazil, and other regions.

Twenty-six speakers from the U.S., Canada, and the Caribbean will evaluate the current state of scholarship, consider alternative consumer cultures and economies, and assess new directions in the study of sugar. Stuart B. Schwartz (Yale University) will give the keynote address on Thursday, October 24, 5:30 p.m.

Funded in part by the Center for New World Comparative Studies (JCB), the Almeida Family Fund (JCB), and a generous pledge by a member of the JCB Board of Governors; co-sponsored by Brown University’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, and Departments of History, English, and History of Art and Architecture.

The conference will coincide with the JCB’s fall 2013 exhibition, “Sugar and the Visual Imagination in the Atlantic World, c 1650-1840” (K. Dian Kriz, Brown University, guest curator), and include an optional private tour to the John Brown House (Rhode Island Historical Society).

For full programme and registration information ($50 for faculty/$35 for students), please visit:

Registration deadline is October 1, 2013.

The World Sugar History Newsletter is compiled by Jock Galloway and Peter Blanchard. Correspondence should be sent to Peter Blanchard, Victoria College, University of Toronto, 73 Queen’s Park Crescent, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5S 1K7, or by e-mail to: or