Authors: Andrea Stuart
The census divided the planters into four categories, which assessed their worth according to a combination of the acreage held and the size of their slave holdings. Those with sixty or more slaves were all large landowners, while those with between twenty and fifty-nine slaves were classified as middling planters. The owner of twenty slaves had a force large enough to operate a sugar plantation, but not a very sizeable one. Most of the middling planters held significantly smaller tracts of land than the big planters, ranging from thirty to a hundred acres. Landholders with ten or more acres and fewer than twenty slaves were classified as small planters. These people qualified in Barbados law as freeholders, and were therefore eligible to vote in the colony elections (unless they were minors, women or Quakers). Lastly, landholders with fewer than ten acres were classified as freemen, indicating that they were not servants but were not entitled to vote.
As the possessor of only nine acres and one white servant, George Ashby would have fallen into the last category and would not have been able to claim the title “planter.” It meant the difference between having
some role in the island’s political life and none at all. For the want of a single acre George Ashby was excluded from the privileges that these small planters held, the right that was shared by 25 or 30 per cent of the white adult males on the island, to elect or be elected assemblymen, vestrymen and jurors. Those below the ten-acre threshold were near the bottom of the social pile, only one rung above indentured servants and slaves. Maybe his lack of status gnawed at George. But maybe, after the dramas and deprivations of his life thus far, he felt it enough that he and his wife had survived, and so had some of his children. For despite everything, George Ashby had succeeded in making a life.
Too much sugar is bitter.
WHILE GEORGE ASHBY
and his family were struggling to stay afloat in the embryonic years of Barbados settlement, the winds of change were blowing through his island home. This process of transformation became known as “the sugar revolution” because of its speed and impact. This “noble condiment” would have a dramatic effect on the island’s fortunes and on those of the Ashby family. The rise of sugar also coincided with one of the bloodiest periods in Britain’s history: the events that led up to and would follow the regicide of Charles I. The prosperity that this commodity would generate made the island of greater significance to the British Empire and would lure a new set of émigrés to the island, who would in turn drag the island into the motherland’s civil war.
Humans have always craved sweetness and sought methods of sweetening their food. The ancient inhabitants of the Middle East used fig and date syrup; the Romans distilled must from grapes; the Chinese extracted the sap of the sugar palm. Others used grape juice, raisins, honey or manna from branches or leaves. But it is refined sugar that is the most famous sweetener of them all. It is a substance that doesn’t occur in nature, but has to be distilled methodically from the juice of sugar cane or, more recently, sugar beet. It is the only chemical substance that is consumed in almost pure form as a staple food.
The rise of sugar has been remarkable. For many centuries few Europeans even knew it existed, then it metamorphosed into one of the most coveted commodities in the world. Now it is so ubiquitous,
abundant and easy to procure that we can barely imagine life without it. Our consumption of sugar is prodigious; its only rival, in both ubiquity and symbolic value, is the substance we often classify as its opposite: salt. But it is sugar that represents tenderness, comfort and love in many languages. It saturates our cultural references, and is invested with a significance far exceeding its innate properties. More than any other commodity in human history, sugar has shaped our tastes, transformed our landscape and influenced our politics.
Indigenous to the South Pacific, sugar cane is a giant grass, part of the
family that includes maize, rice and sorghum. There are numerous species of cane, but the one that dominated cultivation in the Americas was known as the “Creole.” It thrives in hot and humid places, flourishing in a range of soils including the coral limestone of Barbados. It often grows to twelve feet in height, and sometimes exceeds twenty feet. Its stalks can be green or yellow or rust-red, and divide into joints or nodes from which extrude the leaves, long narrow blades of green.
Some of the earliest linguistic references to sugar are from northern India, where the cultivation of cane is likely to go back to 500 BC. From there the crop migrated to China some time around 300 BC, when cane juice or “sugar liquor” became a popular fermented drink. By the third century AD, cakes or loaves of hard sugar, made by drying the juice of the cane in the sun and then forming the paste into the shape of men or animals, were known as “stone honey.” But the Chinese were slow to master the process of sugar manufacture, and in 640 the Emperor Tai Tsung sent a mission to Bihar in the Ganges valley to find out more about Indian distilling techniques. The resulting report invigorated the Chinese industry and sugar production flourished there down the years. In the thirteenth century, writing about the region around the mouth of the Yangtze, the trader and explorer Marco Polo noted that “
the production of sugar is immense in this province, much greater than all the rest of the world, and it brings in a huge revenue.”
While sugar flourished in India and China it was, according to the historian W. Aykroyd, unknown to the ancient Egyptians, Hebrews and Greeks. There is no mention of sugar in the Bible, the Talmud
or the Koran, in contrast to the frequent appearances of honey, and there are only a few vague references to sugar in the classical literature of Greece and Rome. The Arab conquests that followed the death of Mohammed in AD 632 saw the crop travel to Persia, Mesopotamia and the Lower Nile. There are numerous references to sugar in the
and, by the fifth century, it was cultivated on a large scale in Baghdad. By the tenth century it was being planted along the coast of East Africa, Zanzibar and Madagascar.
It was in Palestine and Syria, between the thirteen and fifteenth centuries, that the Crusaders developed a taste for sugar and brought it home to Western Europe, where it became a highly prized commodity, in the same category as musk and pearls. Sugar was so precious it was bought by the ounce instead of the pound. It was used as a spice, alongside cinnamon and nutmeg, to enliven savoury dishes, and was also used for medicinal purposes. Its value as a drug during this period explains the tag “an apothecary without sugar,” which was a popular way of describing someone who lacked the essential materials for their trade.
In November 1565 a sculpture was unveiled at the wedding of Alexander Farnese to Princess Maria of Portugal depicting the voyage of the Portuguese princess. It consisted of tableaux of all the cities she had passed through, complete with models of palaces, theatres and ships. Each one was so large it had to be carried by three or four men. Every part of this extravaganza was made from sugar, one of the greatest status symbols of the sixteenth century.
Sugar cane arrived in the New World with Columbus. But as a crop for cultivation, it crossed the Atlantic with the Portuguese and the Spanish: the former took it to Brazil and the latter to their colonies in Hispaniola. Realizing the ideal match between territory and crop, they began to invest in cane heavily and by the late 1500s the Spanish and Portuguese held a virtual monopoly on the supply of sugar to Europe. As the scale of production grew, prices fell and sugar began to appear not only on the tables of princes but on those of the merely rich.
From its inception, sugar in the New World was reliant upon slave labour, but for the first 150 years of production in Iberian America,
African slaves were only used sporadically. This was because it was easier to exploit local labour. The Portuguese first developed the sugar plantation model in Pernambuco, Brazil, around 1580. Their
(plantations) relied on a mix of local, African and indentured servants. But the death rate of the indigenous population across the New World was dreadful. In many parts of the region the collapse of the native population was so extreme that it was described as genocide. As one Spanish planter remarked about the Arawaks in Hispaniola and Cuba, whom the colonists had attempted to enslave: “
They died like fish in a bucket.”
This unanswerable reaction to “forced labour and the lash” meant that the Iberians were swiftly in need of a new source of labour. Their first response was to bring workers from home, but the Spanish population was too small to provide a consistently large enough pool of workers. African slaves proved both more hardy and more cost effective than indigenous labour. From the early 1600s African slavery became increasingly intertwined with the world of sugar production. In the 1630s Father Antonio Vieira conjured up a Dantesque vision of a plantation in Bahia, Brazil:
People the colour of the very night, working briskly and moaning at the same time without a moment of peace or rest, whoever sees all the confused and noisy machinery and apparatus of this Babylon, even if they have seen Mt. Etna and Vesuvius will say that this indeed is the image of Hell.
As time passed sugar became an increasingly important food commodity. Though still expensive, it was the crucial ingredient in conserving fruits and making jam, pastimes which became popular in the households of wealthy merchants. In Portugal and Spain sugar was used to sweeten rice and conserve everything from chestnuts to Brazilian pumpkins. These sweets were given evocative names: “celestial lard,” “heaven’s marrow,” “angelic Adam’s Apples.” In Europe, sugar also starred in a particular genre of paintings which depicted visions of plenty with sugar as their centrepiece.
The watershed moment in Atlantic sugar production took place in Barbados during the period when George Ashby was settling into the colony. Sugar cane had arrived on the island with the first colonists in the late 1620s, but they did not know how to exploit it, so they used it only to make a sweet drink, as the ancients had. But by the 1640s, smarting from the failure of their earlier crop experiments—tobacco, cotton, ginger, indigo—and under pressure from their merchant financiers, who were anxious to make a profit, the colonists were looking for a new opportunity. They chose sugar, for which there was still a strong demand on the international markets. Their timing was good: the sugar industry on the Spanish island of Hispaniola had collapsed and that of Brazil was increasingly vulnerable to competition.
The precise date of the establishment of Barbados’s first sugar factory is contested: some claim that it was built by Captain Holdip in 1641, but in September 1647 Richard Ligon wrote: “
At the time we landed on this island, we were informed that the great work of sugar making was but newly practised here.” He went on to explain the process:
Some of the most industrious men have gotten plants from Fernambrock [Pernambuco], made tryall of them, and finding them grow they planted more and more, until they had such a considerable number as to set up a very small ingenio [sugar mill], and to make tryall what sugar could be made on that soyl.
But, he continued, “The secret of the work is not being very well understood, the sugars made were very inconsiderable, and … barely worth the bringing home to England.”
Getting the cultivation process right was an arduous, expensive and frustrating task. Sugar was an altogether more demanding crop than tobacco or cotton; it required a much bigger workforce, investment and level of expertise. So it was only a handful of the bigger planters, such as Holdip and his partner James Drax, who were in position to follow it through. It required a unique combination of farm and factory, where brute strength was combined with a chemist’s precision and judgement. The land had to be prepared just so: the right soil, freshly weeded; and the new shoots had to be protected from any number of diseases and pests. The cane had to be cut at exactly the right moment, during the
cooler, dry months from January to June, and once the cane was cut it had to be transported immediately and processed swiftly or it would ferment. Then the distilled mixture had to be “struck” at just the right time, before being moved into a cooling cistern. It would be a number of years and many costly mistakes later before these sugar pioneers got it right. But when that finally happened at the end of the 1640s, they swiftly became rich men.
The Dutch played a pivotal role in the fledgling industry. Their ships carried sugar from the colonies to Amsterdam for refining, and to markets in northern Europe. They became the industry’s financiers and the disseminators of technical knowledge. In particular, a community of Dutch Sephardic Jews facilitated the shift of the cane industry to Barbados. Originally from Portugal themselves, they escaped the Inquisition and settled in Amsterdam and Brazil, then fled to the Caribbean when the Dutch settlement in Brazil, Pernambuco, was defeated by the Portuguese. In both places they became involved in the sugar industry as financiers and merchants. In the final years of the 1640s, one anonymous source declared they “taught the English the Art of making Sugar” and used their international trading contacts to make sugar cane a viable option for planters on the island.