Andrea Stuart: "Britain needs to confront its past"
The past creates the present. And this is as true for nations as it is for individuals. I began to appreciate this when I had completed my latest book, which is the story of my maternal line and how their fates were shaped by the forces of slavery and settlement.
The catalyst for my family’s epic was a young Englishman called George Ashby, who set sail for the island of Barbados in the 1630s in search of a better life. But his new career as a planter was both exhausting and agonizing, especially in these unfamiliar and torrid conditions. The crops he had hoped would make him rich – indigo, tobacco, cotton – barely allowed him to scrape a living.
Then Ashby and his contemporaries discovered sugar, and their lives were transformed. This commodity was swiftly growing in popularity. From Barbados, the island that was the catalyst for the ‘sugar revolution’, cultivation of the crop spread across the region, and so production stoked desire, and desire stoked production.
In order to meet the insatiable longing for the ‘white gold’, planters like my ancestor sought out a new source of labourers – and black slaves replaced white indentured servants as the dominant workforce in the region.
The horrors that these captives endured on their journey to the Americas – my African ancestors included – and the huge collateral damage of the trade, which cost millions of lives, would ultimately be numbered alongside the Gulag, the killing fields and the concentration camps as history’s most terrible atrocities.
These ‘forced migrants’ would soon become more numerous than the white settlers who had initially colonised these territories, and in response a uniquely paranoid and oppressive society evolved. But despite their fear and hatred of their black charges, white and black lived cheek by jowl on plantations, and in this state of intimate terror bloodlines inevitably intermingled.
And so, over the generations Ashby’s family mutated from a traditionally English one to a multi-hued rainbow with white, brown and black faces. His descendant, my great-great-great-great grandfather, had at least 15 slave children, all of whom lived and worked on his plantation. And one of these would be my first slave ancestor in the New World.
Almost three and a half centuries later my family and I reversed Ashby’s journey, travelling back to England in the summer of 1976. Our welcome was a chilly one. The Britain of that decade was in recession and unemployment was rising, and a vociferous minority was demanding that ‘coloured’ migrants be sent home.
Just in case we were in any doubt about how unwelcome we were, the ubiquitous slogans of the National Front, daubed on every available surface, were there to remind us. So despite having links back to Britain older than many people born in the ‘mother country’, I knew I was regarded as just another troublesome black face.
I realised that I had settled in a place where the epic forces that created my family went unacknowledged and unremarked, shifting and moving beneath the surface of daily life.
Despite this I know that sugar and the wealth it created surrounds me here, financing among so much else the glories of the Tate gallery. And yet we forget the history that shaped my family and brought our ancestors together from the opposite sides of the world.
We understate how these forces continue to shape our communities and our life chances, so that 150 years after slavery was abolished, those of us of African descent remain markedly disadvantaged compared to the descendants of those who promoted the trade against them. And I cannot help but believe that it is only when Britain confronts its past that we as a nation will be able to transcend it.
Andrea Stuart’s new book Sugar in The Blood (Portobello Books, £18.99) is out now in hardback