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Blood sugar: spectres of empire

Sugar storage barbados

Many of the cultural assets of Britain were paid for by slave labour on the plantations of Barbados

I have settled in a country where the epic forces that created my family – settlement, sugar production and slavery – are still shaping English life, unacknowledged and unremarked, shifting and moving beneath the surface of daily life. Sugar surrounds me here. Each year, thousands of locals and tourists visit the grand Tate galleries without remembering that the collections were funded by the voracious sugar company Tate & Lyle. They wander through the grandeur of All Souls College, Oxford, without being aware that it was paid for by the profits generated by the slaves who toiled and died at the Codrington estate in Barbados. Sugar built the magnificent Harewood House in Leeds and many of the lovely mansions in Bristol’s majestic Queen Square, while much of the wealth that the West Indian proprietors collected in compensation for their ‘losses’ at emancipation fed back to the City of London, shoring it up and helping to make it the dynamic, global business centre it has become. 

‘Sugar has transformed the landscape and changed the region’s ecosystem. It has shaped our economies, traditions and our national identities’

Sugar, the ‘noble condiment’, which had been virtually unknown in the West before the Crusades, became by the 15th century as valuable as pearls and as sought after as musk. Over the next century it became accessible to the merely wealthy, and hunger for it grew exponentially. From the 16th century it was evident that the soil and temperature of the New World were perfect for the crop. 

My earliest identifiable ancestor, George Ashby, was one of the many thousands of Englishmen who ‘took ship’ for the New World in the first half of the 17th century. His destination, Barbados, was in those days the most popular colony in the region, a magnet for swashbucklers and other restless hopefuls who considered mainland America prosaic in comparison. And when sugar production began in Barbados, it was a machine that could not be turned off. Availability of sugar stoked desire and desire stoked production; soon sugar was known as the ‘white gold’ and the planters grew desperate for a workforce large enough and strong enough to harvest it. 

Empire Marketing Board poster

Empire Marketing Board poster

Source: Manchester Art Gallery, UK / Bridgeman Images

This poster by Frank Newbould, 1929, was part of the Empire Marketing Board’s series promoting food from the British colonies. The slaves in this scene are misrepresented as common agricultural workers

And so another migration took place, this time a forced one. The trade in slaves had begun as a trickle when the first colonists settled in America, but soon became a flood, once the financial potential of sugar became apparent. I picture my forefather here, manacled and starved in this purgatory, with death all around him. And yet he survived, though his head was filled with memories of the bodies abandoned along the journey to the coast, the shame of his body being displayed on the auction block, and the shit-smeared holds below decks. 

The island’s colonial past is evident everywhere in Barbados. To wander through the streets of the capital Bridgetown is in many ways to walk through a reproduction of an English town, except the heat is shimmering off the buildings and market women sit on crates selling fish sandwiches and snow ice. Here is the crescent-shaped harbour that welcomed George Ashby when he arrived more than three and a half centuries ago. Here are the parliament buildings, constructed during his lifetime, which, along with the town’s other official establishments – courts, police headquarters and banks – are so reminiscent of those in the mother country. It even has a statue of Nelson, which was erected before the more famous one, now in Trafalgar Square. 

‘For me, this land is haunted. It is a place that harbours restless souls for whom not even death has proved a release’

In Barbados, as with the rest of the Caribbean, the legacy of the sugar boom and the slave trade is not easily ignored or forgotten. Although sugar is no longer the vibrant industry it once was, it is still cultivated and the vista of endless fields of cane remains emblematic of the region, as is the sweet syrupy smell of the fields as they are fired and razed. Sugar has transformed the landscape and changed the region’s ecosystem. It has shaped our economies, traditions and our national identities. Indeed, by pulling together the unique racial mix of the islands – black, white, Amerindian, East Indian, Syrian, Chinese – it is written across our very faces. The continuing politics of colour – the association of lighter complexions with status and influence, and darker skins with poverty and powerlessness – persists, particularly among older people who remember the plantations with both horror and nostalgia. Many families like my own are mixed race on both sides, blending the histories of both oppressor and oppressed. 

Just as it is easy to forget that the ‘white gold’ of sugar paid for the bricks that built many of the grand buildings, homes and museums that make up England’s cultural heritage, and enabled its cities to flourish, so too we ignore the impact of the trade in ‘black ivory’, despite the many-hued faces that throng these streets. We allow ourselves, and each other, to remain ignorant of or resistant to understanding the forces that brought our ancestors together from opposite ends of the world. We understate how these forces continue to shape our communities and our life chances to this day. Over 150 years after slavery was abolished, Africans and the descendants of Africans remain markedly disadvantaged compared with the descendants of those who promoted the trade against them. 

Empire Marketing Board Gill MacDonald

Empire Marketing Board Gill MacDonald

Source: Hirachivum Press / Alamy

British propaganda aimed to nurture a sense of responsibility to overseas residents of Empire, and to encourage the British public to become ‘responsible consumers’ at home, to choose Caribbean over, for example, Californian produce. Gill MacDonald, Empire Marketing Board, Highways of Empire (1926-1939)

Slavery is a ghost that keeps haunting modern Britain, because we have never fully exorcised it from our past. Like any nation, Britain is what the academic Benedict Anderson described as an ‘imagined community’, its self-image determined by what it decides to recall and what it decides to disregard. Abolition is warmly remembered and commemorated as the heroic action of a civilised society and the hundreds of years of barbaric slavery that preceded it are conveniently forgotten.   

When I return to Plumgrove, the family plantation in Barbados, there is no trace of Waterland Hall, the sugar plantation from which Plumgrove was carved. Because real estate is now more valuable than cane land, its endless fields of sugar cane have largely been replaced by residential districts. The plantation, too, is a different place. Within the span of a few decades, most of its acreage has been converted from the cultivation of sugar to a modern housing development built for middle-income Barbadians; the little wooden houses that once perched so precariously on their coral blocks have now been replaced by sturdy stone dwellings. The land hums with the incessant noise of engines starting, tractors rolling, nails hitting plywood as houses are constructed. This burble almost overwhelms the perennial soundtrack of the plantation: the strangely soothing and sad noise of the cane. The plantation house is fated to be converted to condominiums, but perhaps, however sad, its demolition is fitting: a way of finally laying the ghost of the plantation system to rest. 

Tate & Lyle factory London

Tate & Lyle factory London

Source: Finnbarr Webster / Alamy

The Tate & Lyle factory, Plaistow Wharf, London, was opened by Abram Lyle in 1881. The design of Lyle’s Golden Syrup tins, hasn’t changed since 1885, making it Britain’s oldest brand

For me, this land is haunted. It is a place that harbours restless souls for whom not even death has proved a release. These spectres disturb the air, waiting for me to face and name them: as all our ghosts do. Every time I visit, Plumgrove catches my heart so intensely that I’m left dizzy by the force of emotion. I am immediately carried back to my childhood self, jumping from hot paving stones onto cool green grass, chasing my brother and sister around the garden or hiding behind gigantic tamarind trees, trying to catch fireflies in the starlit Caribbean night.  

Lead Image: Pyramidal bulk sugar storage on the industrial coast of Bridgetown, Barbados. The sugar was stored at a 40° angle of repose for raw sugar, and up to 50° for moist sugar, which facilitated moisture readings. Courtesy of Cooking Sections / Columbia University Press

This piece is based on a longer original text published in issue 52 of Granta magazine, ‘Food: The Vital Stuff’

This piece is featured in the AR October issue on Food – click here to purchase your copy today