Fleshing the Bones of Caribbean Slavery

November 2013

Andrea Stuart, Sugar in the Blood: A Family’s Story of Slavery and Empire (New York: Knopf, 2013); 384 pages; ISBN: 9780307272836 (hardcover).

Dave St. Aubyn Gosse, Abolition and Plantation Management in Jamaica, 1807–1838 (Kingston: University of the West Indies Press, 2012); 248 pages; ISBN: 9789766402693 (paperback).

The OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature, a relatively new literary contest, has categories for poetry, fiction, and literary nonfiction. This review explores two works included in the final category: Andrea Stuart’s sweeping family history of the impact of the Barbadian sugar industry, Sugar in the Blood: A Family’s Story of Slavery and Empire, which was longlisted in this category, and Dave St. Aubyn Gosse’s discussion of plantation management in Jamaica after the 1807 Abolition Act, Abolition and Plantation Management in Jamaica, 1807–1838, which received special mention. (The 2013 literary nonfiction category winner was The Sky’s Wild Noise by Rupert Roopnaraine.)

This curious third category enters murky waters. Bootstrapping nonfiction to poetry and fiction may be a way to increase audience for this underappreciated form of writing. Also, it reflects the current blurriness of categories as Caribbean writers increasingly explore combinations of fiction and nonfiction. However, the addition of the label literary to nonfiction has yet to be tested and defined in the context of this competition. As it stands, none of the overall winners for the first three years have been from this category, perhaps reflecting an element of genre confusion. Though time may tell a different story, this contest may be judging these works by rules inappropriate to their field. While both Stuart and Gosse have written detailed, thorough works on Caribbean slavery, the designation of literary is more fitting to the former than the latter.  

Sugar in the Blood follows the story of the Ashby family from England to Barbados and beyond, starting with the birth, circa 1620, of George Ashby, Stuart’s maternal grandfather, eight times removed, and tracing her family tree through the rise and fall of the sugar plantation economy to the present. Her decision to examine this particular relative is from necessity and not without concern: as a white European male, George Ashby possesses the paper trail that many of her relatives of African descent lack. “Genealogical research has its limitations,” she cautions. “It yields only the skeleton, not the body” (3).

Her cautiousness highlights an important aspect of her scholarship: she knows what she does not know and admits as much. There are disclaimers throughout; we cannot know, for example, the specific reasons George Ashby leaves England for Barbados, but Stuart can make an educated guess based on who he was as an Englishman of a certain class at a certain time. In “The Pioneer,” she generally writes in a speculative register, situating herself as one who knows much but not all; this, along with occasional rhetorical questions, maintains her position of curiosity and wonder.

Stuart approaches her subject with a generosity of spirit that extends in surprising ways: after detailing Middle Passage horrors, she ends with a brief discussion of the travails of the white sailors on board slave ships, many of whom were trapped into serving and punished to stay in line. While it would have been reasonable for Stuart to dismiss the relatively minor troubles of those who assaulted her ancestors, she includes their difficulties as well, revealing yet another facet of slave trade iniquities.

This open-handedness continues in “The Plantocrat” when she discusses the intriguing Robert Cooper Ashby (1776–1839). He possesses no fewer than five branches in his family tree: a colonially “legitimate” one with his white wife, another with a free woman of color, and three more with black slave women. This allows us to see, within one family, the extent of slavery’s legacy. Upon his death, each branch is given varying material rewards and recognition, property or position, manumission or nothing at all, revealing the contingent position of women of color in relation to powerful white men. Stuart captures the many sides of this complex man, giving both credit and critique where each is due. For example, a baptismal certificate for young Sukey Ann could have been misconstrued as a Christian kindness on her master’s part, but the author informs us otherwise: many planters baptized slave girls before initiating sexual liaisons with them. As Stuart bitingly states, “Men like Robert Cooper were quite happy to seduce a girl barely out of childhood but were not willing to have sex with a heathen” (189).

The resultant population explosion arising from this complicated family tree makes the final section, “Legacy,” more confusing and less substantial. It is logical to tell as many stories as are available, but lacking a singular focus, readers have difficulty investing in those remaining about more contemporary migrations from Barbados across the Caribbean and to Harlem, Canada, and England, many of which feel too close or too common to be significant.

The difficulty attaching to individual players at the end of Sugar in the Blood is similar to the problem readers may find with Dave St. Aubyn Gosse’s Abolition and Plantation Management in Jamaica, 1807–1838. Certainly, it does not lack focus in terms of scope. Gosse has a clear project of place (specific Jamaican plantations), time (the period between the abolition of the slave trade and the end of slavery itself), and thesis (mismanagement of these plantations, rather than slave trade abolition, is the leading cause of plantation decline). In the introduction, he situates himself plainly in relation to other historians and his work in relation to other genres of plantation management literature.

The problem is a lack of focus on individuals within the wider system. Again, this may be a problem of examining this work by the terms of literary nonfiction rather than nonfiction in general, but without a point of concentration, it is difficult to grasp the real relevance of the author’s claim. This may be a function of the matter at hand, reinforcing Gosse’s point that the “ambiguous management structure” (178) he describes leads to declines in Jamaican plantation production. There are layers upon layers of plantation managers, both residential and absentee, each with his own selfish desires for money and power that trump the well-being of the plantation and, by extension, that of the slaves who work below. Gosse provides a fascinating and thorough look at the competing desires that entrench these managers and owners in the past while the future hovers on the horizon.

The chapter titled “Worthy Park: Example of Management for Survival” discusses how the perceived success of this plantation, attributed to a more humane approach toward its slaves, was actually smoke and mirrors in the form of overextended credit and shuffling weakened workers to disguise an unhealthy labor force and an unproductive and unprofitable plantation. This example does not achieve the power that its meticulously researched data might indicate because the human factor has been flattened into charts and graphs. All is defined in terms of hogsheads of sugar and puncheons of rum, but we as readers do not understand what this means for the slaves. Gosse’s decision to use the term enslaved Africans throughout is a gesture respectful of their personhood, and he details their hardships, the backbreaking labor of holing (digging cane holes) and being forced to produce their own sustenance, but inevitably, when we discuss these individuals in terms of “increase” and “decrease,” it is difficult to recognize their humanity.

A fuller discussion of reproduction would have made this humanity more explicit. Given the end of the slave trade, reproduction of enslaved Africans was a clear way to address labor shortages, yet the idea that reproduction was yet another factor to be managed points to the callousness of the plantation system. Treatment of this important topic is abbreviated: just five and a half pages in thirty-three of the chapter “Health and Reproduction.” In particular, the virtual erasure of abortion in this context is disheartening. It is mentioned in passing (notably, not in “Health and Reproduction”) that no cases of abortion or miscarriage on that plantation “could be fairly imported to ill usage or excessive labour” (79), but these causes are not defined. In the epilogue, briefly mentioned is the importance for plantation managers “to reduce abortions among their population” (185). If it is imperative that abortions be reduced, why is this topic mentioned only in passing? Even if Gosse’s style is to not give us the story of any one particular enslaved woman choosing to abort rather than to bring a child into a life of slavery, exploring the reasons why such women may have chosen this act of resistance would have rounded out the picture, adding flesh to the skeleton of his research, to use Stuart’s metaphor, and revealing the body of Jamaican slavery’s twilight years.

Writing about the past always has its challenges. Authors must find a way to make modern readers feel the importance of these lives that are so distant from our own. Andrea Stuart’s choice to focus on specific ancestors to illustrate Barbadian plantation life provides a fuller view than Dave St. Aubyn Gosse’s comprehensive, yet disembodied, facts and figures of that life in Jamaica; in literary nonfiction, it is by developing specific narratives of distinct and tangible personalities that an author allows readers to invest in these intriguing accounts of the Caribbean past.


Suzanne Uzzilia is a PhD candidate in English at the CUNY Graduate Center and an adjunct lecturer in English at LaGuardia Community College, CUNY. Her research explores contemporary Caribbean women’s writing with a particular focus on race, gender, and the body in literature.