The tortuous, unsweetened story of the author’s English forebear as he migrated to Barbados to grow rich from sugar and slavery.
Caribbean-born, English-educated Stuart (The Rose of Martinique: A Biography of Napoleon’s Josephine, 2004) examines the narrative of her ancestor George Ashby, a middling-born English migrant who bought a small plot in Barbados around 1640 and thrived from the bumper crop of sugar. Like many migrants of the time, Ashby was young, enterprising and possibly down on his luck, but determined to apply his “plantation skills” (he was a blacksmith by trade) to make a go in the wilds of the New World. Stuart adeptly re-creates the early life of a small farmer like Ashby, just as Barbados, a small island muscled out in the growing of tobacco by larger colonies like Virginia, took up the planting of sugar to spectacular success by the end of the 1640s, requiring more laborers and thereby prompting the replacement of indentured servants and natives with hardier, cheaper African slaves. The European migrants set aside any repugnance to slavery to make a profit, and Stuart effectively demonstrates how the organization of this “first slave society” in Barbados defined all aspects of the institution of slavery, setting the model for the rest of the British Americas. Ashby prospered by the purchase of slaves and more land, and Stuart traces over many generations and mixed parentages between master and slaves and shows how this uneasy relationship essentially created the complicated, rich, tragic legacy of the modern Caribbean.
An intractable, unwieldy story both intimate and universal, handled expertly by Stuart.