My Family and Other Slaves; SOCIAL HISTORY

Article excerpt

Byline: JANE SHILLING

SUGAR IN THE BLOOD: A FAMILY'S STORY OF SLAVERY AND EMPIRE

by Andrea Stuart (Portobello [pounds sterling]18.99 [pounds sterling]16.99)

JANE SHILLING

TO BE the descendant of Barbadian slaves and white British sugar plantation owners is an extraordinary legacy, for it means that one side of your family once owned the other.

But that is the strange inheritance that Andrea Stuart discovered when she began to investigate her family history.

Andrea was born in 1962 and grew up mainly in Jamaica, where her father, Kenneth, was Dean of the medical school at the University College of the West Indies -- the first university in the Caribbean.

She spent part of her childhood -- and had her first sight of snow -- in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Kenneth had a research fellowship at Harvard.

In 1976, when Andrea was 14, her family left Jamaica for Britain.

Her father had been awarded a knighthood for his services to medicine, but Andrea felt bewildered by the family's social isolation.

SHE explains: 'We were the sort of black family that did not then exist in the British imagination. 'Affluent, professional, relatively cultured. In our leisure time our mother would take us to the opera or ballet or piano recitals at the South Bank. And every day I set off for my exclusive private girls' school, where I was the only pupil of Afro-Caribbean descent.'

Painful and lingering though it was, her perpetual sense of displacement inspired her with a curiosity about her past, and when she began to research her origins, she discovered an extraordinary story.

Her earliest known ancestor was a migrant, too. But he had travelled in the opposite direction to the one Andrea had taken -- almost three and a half centuries earlier.

Some time in the 1630s, a young teenage blacksmith called George Ashby prepared to leave home, family and everything that was most familiar to undertake a hazardous journey to an unknown destination.

For reasons that remain unknown -- he could have been fleeing religious or political persecution, or he might just have wanted to seek his fortune -- George decided to sail to the Caribbean.

It was a popular destination for adventurous migrants from Britain and America in the 17th century, but the life was hard. One pamphlet offering advice to travellers warned, 'When you are once parted with England you shall meet neither with ... butchers nor grocers nor apothecaries' shops or markets or fairs to help [provide] what things you need in the midst of the great ocean, nor when you come to land ... Therefore be sure to furnish yourself with things fitting to be had before you come'.

Undeterred, George endured a six-week sea voyage and settled on Barbados, then the most popular choice for English migrants, where he purchased a nine-acre plot in the parish of St Philip.

It is a beautiful spot today, but when George set to work it was covered in dense forest, which he had to clear before he could begin to realise his dream of setting up as a planter.

Women were in short supply on the island -- very few travelled as migrants -- but sometime in the 1640s George found a wife. Her name, Deborah, is the only piece of firm information we have, but she was probably born in England, and like him made the gruelling sea journey from Britain in the vile conditions of steerage class. The couple had three children, George, William and Deborah. …