As Andrea Stuart writes in the current issue of Granta magazine, her Barbadian heritage is a complicated one. Stuart was born and raised on the Caribbean island, but in 1976, when she was a teenager, her family moved to England. She says her new home wasn’t especially welcoming to newcomers from the Caribbean — even well-educated, affluent ones like the Stuarts.
In a sense, the Stuarts weren’t newcomers at all. More than three centuries earlier, some of her ancestors had made the reverse journey, travelling from England to settle in Barbados. Over time, those British ancestors mixed with Stuart’s other forebears — Africans who were forcibly taken to Barbados to work as slaves in the island’s lucrative sugar trade.
Stuart writes about her family’s history in Barbados, beginning with her earliest known ancestor, George Ashby, who made the journey to the New World from England in the 1630s. She talks with Marco Werman about the complexities of untangling her family tree, and of coming to terms with the idea of being descended from both slave owners and slaves.
Stuart’s Granta article is excerpted from her book, Sugar in the Blood, which will be published in the United States next January.
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Marco Werman: Here’s another writer in their own words. Andrea Stuart was born in Barbados. In 1976, when she was a teenager, her family moved to England. She says her new home wasn’t especially welcoming to newcomers from the Caribbean, even well-educated, affluent ones like the Stuarts. Although, in a sense, the Stuarts weren’t newcomers at all. Three and a half centuries earlier, some of her ancestors had gone from England to settle in Barbados. Over time, British ancestors mixed with Stuart’s other forebears – Africans who were forcibly taken to Barbados to work as slaves in the island’s lucrative sugar trade. Stuart writes about her family history in the current issue of Granta magazine. She begins with the story of her earliest known ancestor, George Ashby, who went to Barbados in the 1630s.
Andrea Stuart: I knew nothing about him. I didn’t even know he existed and I had no idea that I would be able to trace my family back that far. I first managed to get back to the eighteenth century and then, through luck and effort, we managed to go back to the seventeenth century. So there he was, this Englishman who moved, along with millions of other Englishmen, to the new world, and all the same time. Which is interesting because I think the American story of the American settlers has been much talked about in America and very much explored, while the British have kind of forgotten that settlers just didn’t go to mainland America. They went all the way up through South America, through the Caribbean, and up to Canada, and so there’s a wide stretch of people who have this story that I have . . .
Stuart: . . . of an Englishman or another European going over to make the new world and creating their families that are disparate racially, socially and so on.
Werman: Did you know in Barbados that you came from a mixed background – white and black?
Stuart: Yes, I did know that. I would say that that is probably the common denominator for many people.
Werman: What’s interesting in your case, Andrea, is that you’re the offspring of slave owners as well as those who were enslaved. I mean I guess that’s more . . .
Werman: . . . common than we realize, but has it been a tough one for you to reconcile? I mean you’ve found out about this recently, since doing this research.
Stuart: Yes, it’s been very interesting, realizing that you have, on the same plantation, both my slave owner ancestor and the slave from whom I’m evolved. It was an extraordinary sensation to feel that my planter forefather owned my other planter forefather and that they lived together through entire parts of their lives. So it’s an extraordinary kind of conundrum.
Stuart: I don’t know that I’ve really fully come to terms with that. How do you come to terms that your forefather owned your forefather? You know what I mean? It’s a very strange sensation because I have to be able to relate to both groups and understand how this extraordinary, dark scenario played out.
Werman: What a situation.
Stuart: Yeah, it is interesting.
Werman: Now, the main reason slaves were brought to Barbados was to work sugar plantations. Today, how prevalent is sugar in people’s lives in Barbados? Has it defined the fortunes, both great and nonexistent, of Barbadians, and even class?
Stuart: Well, I think traditionally sugar was the crop that made Barbados work as a colony because at the point where the colonists discovered sugar, they realized that they had finally found a crop that was lucrative. Before that, there was thought of abandoning it as a kind of failed experiment. And so sugar the island. Today, of course, sugar has been eclipsed by tourism and cane sugar has been eclipsed by the production of sugar beet in Europe, so it’s no longer the white gold, as it was described in the past. But I think when you go there you realize how much sugar kind of haunts the island and for the majority of inhabitants of the island who were slaves, I would say that they probably suffered a great deal for sugar. It was a bitter pill in many ways rather than a sweet one.
Werman: So with that personal baggage, the descendant both of slave owner and of slaves, coming from an island which furnished the sugar which enriched many British businessmen, your family moves to England in 1976. Many Brits, you write, considered you a foreigner. Did you find yourself getting defensive ever, having to tell people that, in fact, your British roots went back hundreds of years?
Stuart: Well, I think, at the time, I kind of bought the story that was prevalent in Britain which was that the AfriCaribbean, African colonial people in the country were sort of newcomers and that we were sort of there of sufferance and it was a sort of kind of act of kindness on the part of the British government. So there was that sense of feeling not quite worthy and not quite belonging. I think the wonderful thing about having written the book and explored this whole complex web of sugar slavery and settlement, I feel much more certain about my place in Britain because I can actually trace my English ancestors back much further than any Caucasian people can.
Stuart: And also because I realize how profoundly my slave ancestors suffered and worked in order to enrich the country that I now live in. So it has given me a much stronger, more solid base to live in this country and to negotiate it.
Werman: How is the history of slavery in the British Empire dealt with generally in England today?
Stuart: It’s interesting. I think that in Britain there’s still a degree of denial or an unwillingness to really confront the back story of British slavery and so on. So there’s a sense of it being something that happened sometime a long time ago in some far away place, rather than realizing that the British colonies were, at that point, Britain, that they were British territories and the connection between the colonies and Britain is incredibly intimate. Not something that happened far away and a long time ago, but something that happened in Britain in the world of British life and something that still has repercussion today, and I think that’s the thing that, as a culture, Britain hasn’t quite come to terms with.
Werman: Andrea, you write that in Britain your color enters the room before you do, but you also point out that it’s not color, but shade as well, shade of color . . .
Werman: . . . that is something that people in Britain, as well as Barbados, pay attention to. Talk about that and how for you that’s affected your life.
Stuart: Well, I think in the context of Britain, the shade issue is probably less of interest because in Britain one is either black or white and there’s very little sense of understanding about the shades and so on. That is more of an interest or discussion in the context of the Caribbean where people like me who are slightly lighter skinned, they’re clearly linked to a white ancestor and that therefore connects me to a past, rather tragically in fact, that is considered more privileged because what happened during slavery was the mixed race people had certain privileges associated with their white forebears and a lot of of that lingers in the Caribbean. So that sort of that thing matters there. And I think in Britain what happens is a different feeling which is that there’s an assumption in Britain about what all black people’s back story is, vis-Ã -vis class and social privilege and so on, and they assume a back story for me that has very little to do with my real experience.
Werman: Finally, as to Barbados, you say you visit home every year or so, but you put the word “home” in quote marks. What does Barbados mean to you now?
Stuart: I think my relationship to Barbados and the Caribbean generally is a sort of a curious love affair. I have a very sensual and very passionate attachment to the Caribbean, particularly Barbados, where where ever we’ve lived, we’ve always returned to this place where I have relatives and so on. It’s hard to think of it as home entirely because I haven’t lived there for a very long time and I am, to a very large degree, anglicized and I get teased by my cousins about my accents and the things that I say and do. So I know I’m aware of myself as a foreigner there, but it is also, simultaneously, the place that I feel most happy and at peace. So I suppose it’s the closest that I have come to as the place to call home. I just know that I am sort of, like so many people, displaced.
Werman: Andrea Stuart’s article “Sugar in the Blood” is in the current issue of Granta magazine. It’s an excerpt from her forthcoming book which will be out in January. She joined us from London. Andrea, thank you so much.
Stuart: Thank you, Marco. That was lovely.
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