A Family Tree That Includes Slaves — And Slave Owners
Part of our summer reading series Island Reads, highlighting authors from the Caribbean
Andrea Stuart was curious about her family's history in Barbados. And through years of careful research, she found that her bloodline includes both slave owners and slaves. She has written about her own family, as well as a detailed history of slavery in the Caribbean, in her book Sugar in the Blood. Guest host Celeste Headlee talks with Stuart about her family history, the moral complexity of slavery and finding roots in the past.
On the founder of a mixed-race dynasty
"When I read about George Ashby, or rather, wrote about him, I remember thinking, 'My goodness. What bravery it must have taken to take this huge step to leave England, in his case, to go to the New World.' I mean, in those days the journey itself was so traumatic and long, the chances of being killed by raiders or pirates — everything was so difficult about this journey, and then to kind of confront this untrampled land, where at least half of the early settlers died just because things were so difficult. It seemed to me that he was extraordinarily brave. But then his generation and the subsequent generations make this terrible mistake. They become slave owners, and therefore become part of the whole institution of slavery. So I am deeply ambivalent about him. I admire him on one hand, and I lament him on the other."
On the moral complexity of slavery
"In Britain, for example, there is a real kind of forgetting about this reality – which was that these two groups were enmeshed in each other's lives. They weren't separated entities, slaves and slave owners. They were actually so intertwined with each other that they couldn't really be separated. And that meant that you were dealing with a very morally complex world. And I think in some ways that's one of the things that I wanted to show — that everyone was implicated, and a lot of people implicated. And it was very difficult to decide on who was 'the goodie' and who was 'the baddie'. ... I can't really separate out that I am descended from these two things, just as I think that morally, the world can't really separate slave owners from slavery, and slaves from slave owning. Which is the moral complexity of the world of slavery, which doesn't make it any less terrible and awful, but it does make it a more complicated story."
On the silenced voices of history
"I think in some ways I anticipated that I would not be able to answer all the questions in this story because slavery ... remains a huge historical silence. Because, basically, if you're a product or a thing, you are not going to be recorded. Your stories are not going to be kept. The whole side of my family that emerges out of black slavery can't speak for itself. So I was kind of always aware of that there. And then we have the problem, of course, of very small men like George Ashby. He had nine acres. He wasn't really allowed to do anything much. He couldn't vote. He couldn't be a part of the government or any kind of establishment. So it's the poor and black people, both groups, being silenced. And so therefore I knew that there was no way I could tell the story in the details that historians would prefer. But I also knew that to not tell the story also falls into that terrible silencing of these complicated and wonderful stories."
CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee, Michel Martin is away. It's summer and if you're looking for something to pick up while you're on the beach, you're in luck. We are in the middle of our summer reading series. We're calling it "Island Reads," and we're speaking with authors of Caribbean descent. Last week, we traveled to Trinidad with Oonya Kempadoo's novel "All Decent Animals."
This week, we bring you a book of nonfiction. If you've ever been curious about your own family's genealogy, or maybe you just loved Alex Haley's novel "Roots," this book may also strike a chord with you. Andrea Stuart was curious about her family's history in Barbados and through years of careful research, she found her bloodline includes both slave owners and slaves. She's written about her own family and included a detailed history of slavery in the Caribbean in her new book "Sugar in the Blood." Andrea Stuart joins me now. Welcome.
ANDREA STUART: Thank you.
HEADLEE: How did you get started on this? You mention in the introduction, I think it is, this aha moment for you. Can you describe that to me?
STUART: Well, I think it started - the process of looking at my family was something that I think happened just like it does for many people - where they realize that, you know, their parents are getting older and they think to themselves, we might lose them, and then you lose that connection back to your own history. So that was what kind of made me think, oh, gosh, I've got to pursue it.
But I think for me, the aha moment was sitting in the library in Barbados and discovering my first known English ancestor - a man called George Ashby who was a young blacksmith, who arrived in the New World in the middle of the 17th century. And bless him, he was the founder of our dynasty. I can't imagine that he would've imagined how it evolved into a large and extensive multi-raced family.
HEADLEE: I wonder what your feelings were on researching George Ashby and those who came after - slave owners all, for quite a few generations. Was there sort of a bittersweet quality to it? I mean, you know, reading through the beginning where you're describing the plight of some of these very early planters - especially those like George who, you know, only had nine acres, so he didn't qualify as one of the really wealthy landed people there - and the terrible tribulations that they went through, how hard it was for them. You have that sympathy and empathy combined with, I assume, conflicted feelings over slave ownership.
STUART: Absolutely, because one of the things that happens when you read - when I read about George Ashby - or rather wrote about him - I remember thinking, my goodness, what bravery it must have taken to take this huge step to leave England, in his case, to go to the New World. I mean, in those days, the journey itself was so traumatic and long. The chances of being killed by raiders or pirates - everything was so difficult about this journey.
And then to kind of confront this untraveled land, where at least half of the early settlers died - just because things were so difficult - it seemed to me that he was extraordinarily brave. But then his generation and the subsequent generations make this terrible mistake. They become slave owners, and therefore, become part of the whole kind of creation of the institution of slavery. So I'm deeply ambivalent about him. I admire him on one hand, and I lament him on the other.
HEADLEE: One of the things that I really love about this book is the sense of collective history. So often, especially, you know, when you were sitting in class, we learn about white history, which is pretty much just history, and then you learn about black history, right. And at least in the United States, that's about slavery, that's about civil rights. But in your book, there is no dividing line. There is a collective history going well back hundreds of years. That there was - they were inextricably linked and inseparable. What's been the reaction to that particular aspect of your book?
STUART: Well, I think to me that was incredibly important because I think often in Britain, for example, there's a real kind of forgetting about this reality, which was that these two groups were enmeshed in each other's lives. They weren't separated entities.
Slavers and slave owners were actually so intertwined with each other that they couldn't really be separated and that meant that you were dealing with a very morally complex world. And I think, in some ways, that's one of the things I wanted to show, that everyone was implicated - and a lot of people are implicated - and it was very difficult to decide on who was the goody and who was the baddy.
Because, particularly in my story, where the slave owner from whom I've descended - George Ashby's fourth great grandson - was the progenitor of our family.
But he was also a man who protected us in certain ways because his black offspring were protected by getting good jobs and so on and so forth.
And so we have this kind of complicated world where I can't separate out that I'm descended from these two things, just as I think that, morally, the world can't really separate slave owners from slavery and slaves from slave owning, which is the moral complexity of the world of slavery - which doesn't make it any less terrible and awful, but it does make it a more complicated story.
HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Andrea Stuart about her book "Sugar in the Blood." Your ancestors didn't all keep diaries, most of them did not. So there were many questions you didn't get answered.
There's one point where you sort of step away from the facts and your research and you just ask the question of whether or not these two ancestors loved each other. What was it like for you after years and years of all this research to come away from this project and still have unanswered questions?
STUART: I think, in some ways, I anticipated that I would not be able to answer all the questions in this story because slavery is still and remains a huge historical silence. Because, basically, if you're a product or a thing, you are not going to be recorded. Your stories are not going to be kept. So the whole side of my family that emerges out of black slavery can't speak for itself. And so I was also kind of always aware that there were going to be big silences there.
And then we had the problem, of course, of very small men, like George Ashby, who - he had nine acres. He wasn't really allowed to do anything much. He couldn't vote. He couldn't be part of the government or any kind of establishment. So it's the poor and black people, both groups being silenced. And so, therefore, it was kind of - I knew that there was no way I could tell the story in the details that historians would prefer. But I also knew that to not tell the story also falls into that terrible silencing of these complicated and wonderful stories.
HEADLEE: You've selected a passage to read. Can you tell me what it is?
STUART: I'm going to read just the beginning of the book when George Ashby sets sail, bless him, into the New World, probably realizing that he will never come back to his homeland, England. George Ashby's story began, as all migrant stories do, with a journey. Sometime in the late 1630s, when George Ashby was finally given notification that a ship was ready to sail, he must have been afraid. He was a blacksmith, a young man in his late teens, about to leave behind everything he had ever known. Though the voyage carried the seeds of his dreams, he, like most of the population, had probably never undergone a long sea journey before and had no real idea of what to expect when he arrived in the Americas.
Those who chose to undertake the fearsome Atlantic crossing in search of a new life were generally tough - or dangerously foolish. But what else can we know about George Ashby? Was he fleeing from a family or seeking a new one? Did he dream of religious freedom or of wealth? Was he ambivalent about leaving England, or were his life experiences so bitter that he believed nothing in the Americas could be worse? As he set sail for the adventuresome world of the Caribbean, he would have had no idea how heavily the odds were stacked against him. According to one historian, men like him were pursuing a will-o'-the-wisp since very few of them ever achieved the better life they longed for. He could not know that he would be one of the lucky ones - that he would not just survive, but follow a dynasty that endures to this day - built on sugar and forged by slavery.
HEADLEE: I had one last question for you...
HEADLEE: ...As you've taken this close look at the lives of your ancestors going back into the great, great, great, great, greats, I wonder what this makes you think about - what you'll leave for the generations that come after you? What questions do you want to make sure you answer for them and what do you want to keep private?
STUART: Gosh, that's a very interesting question. I think what I want my descendants to feel that I've given them is the solidity of a real back story. One of the problems of slavery is that we don't necessarily know or are able to connect the dots in our slave past. And I think that having that ability to somehow, kind of visualize this past, their past - and their past a long way back - I think, gives people a kind of - sense of rootedness and a groundedness about who they are in the world.
In the context of British life, where I think there's a real denial about this history, this story, I really think it's enormously important that my descendants know how incredibly, intrinsically linked we were as black people in the kind of, you know, emergent power of Britain. How much we enriched its wealth and its status, and how much we are a part of that huge story.
So I think in that sense, those are the things I'd like them to hold onto. I suppose the things that are private, I guess, are, you know, kind of - I can't give them entirely the kind of inner stories of all my characters. I can speculate about what they could have felt and what they could've known, but I can't give them the details of that. But, hopefully, I give them enough to have the imaginative power to build it for themselves.
HEADLEE: Andrea Stuart is the author of "Sugar in the Blood." She was kind enough to join us from the BBC studios in London. Thank you so much.
STUART: Thank you so much, Celeste. Nice meeting you.
HEADLEE: Next week, we finish up our series with author Julia Alvarez. She'll talk about her latest book "A Wedding in Haiti." That book began with a promise to a young Haitian man, but little did Alvarez know that keeping that promise would involve illegal border crossings, navigating challenging roads and a journey to a remote area of Haiti that would eventually change her life. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.