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Book Review of the book: "Sugar in the Blood"

By       Message Herbert Calhoun     Permalink

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This book is about how the epic forces of sugar, slavery, and colonial settlement conspired to create the "New World." Few books tell this story with such drama as does this one. It uses vital records, letters, records of first hand accounts, and the inner logic of the era to build a compelling, well-researched and beautifully crafted dramatic narrative centered on the author's own family: the descendant of one white man, George Ashby of Barbados. It fills-in the life content of the Ashby family in an unbroken story from 1620 to the present as George moved from England to Barbados where he entered the sugar plantation business.

The story begins with the author's great grand father eight times removed, the aforementioned George Ashby: a nondescript lower class white immigrant from London who was fed up with the brutal life he was forced to live on the margins there. As the Feudal system continued to break down, the lower class (made up of serfs and peons) were "turned out" into the streets of London without land, jobs or freedom -- since they were constantly subject to being arrested, kidnapped or drafted into the military. Life in England for members of the lower class, like George Ashby, during the early 16th Century clearly was not fit for human consumption. 

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Thus there was nothing left for those who hoped for a better life to do but sail away either under compulsion or freely. For those who went under their own free will, the motivation was god, gold and glory. For those who sailed under compulsion, the hope was to survive long enough to pay off their transit debt and then eke out a comfortable existence. The Atlantic voyage was long, lonely, cramped, unclean, fearful and enervating. For both, the Americas were a "succulent maiden to be seduced, deflowered, and plundered by a virile Europe, which basked in her treasures." 

Upon arrival, the "new Land" turned out not to be a bed of roses either. It was anything but inviting. It was arranged hierarchically exactly as it had been in England, but was much hotter, uncertain, more oppressive and much, much more violent. Booking passage for all but the wealthiest meant mortgaging one's life for 7 years -- the exact longevity of a sugar cane worker or indentured servant on the island. Not insignificantly, men out-numbered women 100 to 1 and most of those who did sail including the women, invariably were the dredges of society: the result of kidnappings, unwanted orphans, criminals, persons released from prison and mental hospitals, vagabonds, and most of all prostitutes that stalked London's dark alleys and streets. 
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The book does not go into the deep implications of what having thousands of young unmarried white men between the ages of 15 -25 (which made up 90% of the population), running loose with their testosterone bouncing of the walls without jobs or women, forced to compete for both in a brutally hot unforgiving land. For those who wish to know more about these implications, I suggest reading David Courtwright's magnificent book "Violent Lands." His story is an important adjunct to this book as it lays out the consequences of the meaning of a skewed gender demographic of too many young white men without access to sex running around in an uncharted social environment called the USA.

The early years on the island were a caldron of brutal work in the hot fields, moral laxity and physical diseases, the latter being various plagues from malaria and tuberculosis to smallpox and influenza. In order to survive one had to not only have his freedom, but also had to own land; otherwise, Barbados was like a tropical prison where only the very strong, the very rich and the very lucky survived. As it turns out, George Ashby, the author's grandfather eight generations removed, was one of the lucky ones. He shows up in the 1650 census as one of the survivors who had managed to get both a wife and nine acres of land, which was just below the cut-off for becoming a "real voting citizens." He got lucky in another respect as factors back in England and Portugal conspired to make Barbados the center of worldwide sugar production. 

As Dutch Jews were being expelled from Spain, Portugal and Brazil came to Barbados as their last resort, they brought with them the kind of financial knowledge, shipping experience and farming technology needed to make sugar production a going concern in Barbados. As they perfected experiments in growing sugar, the trickle of slaves (black, white and red) that had begun in 1620 turned into a torrent. By the 1650s, the island of Barbados was set up exclusively as a big island business enterprise and not as a place to raise a family; or as it is today, a vacation get-away.  With the help of Dutch Jews, it became the first laboratory experiment in how to manage and control a large number of disparate and unruly slaves in a plantation setting. As soon as slaves began to seriously outnumber planters (they were eventually to out-number them 100-1), the security of white people became a looming and pressing ever-present danger. Every color-coded enslaved group resisted slavery; and for the better part of the next century, riots and rebellions became the order of the day. 
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The threats of rebellion were a constant fear best solved by laws and a "good divide-and-conquer ideology." The law that mattered most at the time was the black codes, the most important of which was the one that made blacks and their progeny slaves in perpetuity. The divide-and-conquer ideology of course was what we have come to recognize and accept today as white racism based on an implied theory of white supremacy. Coupled together, the two would work their evil magic so well that nearly five centuries later (at least in the USA), they are still used to keep the races separate and at each other's throats. 

This new ideology of racism, gave white slaves a new identity of "being white." It was one that separated white slaves from their fellow black and red slaves, but importantly it also was one that allowed white slaves to share an identity with their masters -- the slaveholders. This single masterstroke of a symbolic change in identity, through ideological sleight of hand, changed the calculus and the politics of the plantation in a way that would have incalculable consequences that still reverberates across the centuries, and that would change the way white slaves, and white people more generally, would see themselves forever. 

This new identity of "whiteness," inserted as a permanent wedge between slaves of different colors, entitled the "newly minted members of the newly created "white race" to both tangible and intangible benefits and advantages over their fellow colored slaves that would accrue and evolve into unearned prerogatives that still exist today. Its key existential component was the fact that it made whites feel psychologically superior to their fellow colored plantation compatriots. 

Likewise, the law that made blacks slaves in perpetuity was a simple matter of mathematics also invented with a single stroke of the pen and done so just in the nick of time to stem the tide of the rapidly dwindling numbers of red and white slaves. Both white and red slaves were being used up due to disease, over work, lack of stamina, or depression much too soon to make sugar plantations a sustainable going concern in the Caribbean.  It was estimated that because of the brutality of sugar plantation work, the islands' entire work force turned over every ten years. All agreed that the physically more robust black slaves were a better bargain.

This would not be the first time that "law and ideology" would conspire to save the day for planters, slave owners and the moneyed class. Together slave laws and the ideology of racism solved all of the planter's most pressing problems. It solved his moral problem because racism against the darker skinned slaves could now be justified and sanctioned by the Christian Bible in the story of "Ham." It also solved the plantation owner's even more pressing security problem by driving a wedge between whites and the rest of the slaves: With the ideology of racism, the white slaves were able to relish in their new identity of "whiteness" primarily because it allowed them to share vicariously in their slave-masters superiority. 

The slave owners promoted and objectified this symbolic connection, this psychological wedge, in everyway they could except by paying poor whites more money than was paid to other slaves. In fact as it turns out, the racial connection through ideology and symbolism was always intended by the plantation owners to be a ruse to keep all slaves at the lowest pay possible, and as always, divided. This strategy continues to work to perfection today, as we see poor whites in the US continue to vote against their own economic interests, supporting the plutocrats rather than joining forces with blacks and other minorities. The ideology of white supremacy continues to be a win-win for the moneyed interest in our new globalized economy, where the entire globe has been reduced to a Caribbean style sugar plantation.

Fear made the slavery practiced in Barbados more brutal than slavery had been ever before anywhere in the world or at any point in history. Barbados sugar plantations became the Gulag, killing fields and concentration camps all rolled into one. There, some of the greatest atrocities ever committed in human history occurred. And once this laboratory experiment was perfected, it was then moved lock-stock-and-barrel on to the main land to the Carolinas where land was infinitely cheaper and more plentiful. However as luck would have it, there was a chink in the slave owner's armor. 

Around 1783, the heyday of the idyllic fantasy world created by the Plantocracy was about to come to an abrupt halt. They had successfully lived behind a screen of denial tempered by a deep fear that the true moral meaning of the brutal system of slavery (upon which their profits and easy life depended), would not just come to light, and would not just incite the slaves to rebellion, but would also force them to face up to what the cruel system they had created was doing to their own humanity, their own lives, their own cultures. 

It seemed that the island Planters had lived on moral credit too long and now they were about to be backed into a corner where they had no choice but to "pay the moral piper:" The time to balance the moral books had finally arrived. And as Frederick Douglas put it so aptly: "No man puts a chain around the neck of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck." 

It was a small group of Abolitionists who came knocking at the doors of all who would listen. And when they finished preaching about the evils of the slave system, the fires of liberty had been ignited across the Caribbean. Not a moral stone had been left undisturbed. And then, with both the American and the French Revolutions hovering in the background, the slaves in the Caribbean took matters into their own hands. When the dust settled, Napoleon Bonaparte and the great British Army had both capitulated to Toussaint L'Ouverture (The Opener) and the French were forced to sue for peace by ending slavery in France and in all of its colonies, forever.   

Not so for the British Colonists. They took the opposite fork in the road and began to fight back defending the evil practices upon which their identities, their profits, their way of life and indeed their very existence depended. They "called" the Abolitionists' challenged, tract-for-tract, and then "raised" them by creating and adding a whole new layer to the ideology of racism, which had sustained the brutal process of slavery. They called in the academics to attest to their phony pseudo-Scientific theories about race, and about how these theories supported the divinely ordained "pecking order" latter to be underwritten by Darwin's new theories of the survival of the fittest, and endorsed by the Christian Bible. They used these to prove that blacks lay at the very bottom of that "the Great Chain of Being," that is, at the very bottom of the divinely ordained pecking order, and thus were deserving of their lowly inhuman station in life as slaves in perpetuity. 

They rallied the white tribes together under the banner of white supremacy and white superiority advancing the equally ridiculous theory that the "Caucasus mountains" was the cradle of human civilization and that all intelligence and beauty originated there. It is perhaps the saddest commentary on the history of slavery and the "so-called white race," as well as on the contemporary state of race relations in the Americas, that whites still cohere around this idiotic notion concocted by the racist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach that they are part of the non-existent "Caucasian race." Without having any idea of where that idea came from, whites still refer to themselves as Caucasians? (Go figure?)

Chapter 11 is perhaps the most important chapter in the book as it poses one of the most fundamental questions of all. It is the same question asked about the Germans after Hitler's Nazi regime: How is it that a cultured people like the British, over night, changed their moral and religious character and turned themselves into brutes and their culture into a culture of violence and psychological terror?  The answer we get is a canonical one that fits the template for all times: The British were the beneficiaries of a corrupt system based on an ideology of fear. Slavery was a fear system that allowed them to make lavish profits, which they then quickly turned into soul-corroding absolute power. It was this absolute power that existed without any moral inhibitions or moral constraints whatsoever that turned them into brutes. The ideology of fear that allowed them to do this was the same one that Hitler used in fashioning his "Final solution" of his Jewish problem; the same one that Joseph Conrad spoke so eloquently of in "The Heart of Darkness." It was the ideology of white supremacy, vestiges of which still animate American culture and society a half millennium later. 

One of the saddest corollaries of such a system of absolute power is the fact that the slaves, in an effort to obviate their powerlessness, created their own mini corrupt system, one that mimicked the system of white supremacy that so viciously oppressed them. As they tried in vain to curry favor with the "white powers that be," it was a case of "monkey see, monkey do," as they acted out the roles of so many sycophantic crabs in a barrel: snitching on and competing against each other to curry the favor of the master; inventing their own version of a color-coded scale which they used as a test against each other. They constantly lobbied for any semblance of the master's reflected glory, status and position, and did so unabashedly, and always at their fellow slaves expense. In short, the slaves learned to accept as their only reality, a vicariously rehearsed life that existed only on the backside of white society. Even today, blacks seem impervious to the fact that acting out a caricature of a brutal and amoral white life is but a continuation of white oppression by self-inflicted means. 

I call this corollary cultural system: "the Aunt Jemima and Uncle Tom Nation." Both the ideology of racism and the "Aunt Jemima Uncle Tom Nation" are dynamic and co-evolving systems embedded in the larger system of white supremacy that began in Barbados 500 years ago.  Five Stars

 

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Retired Foreign Service Officer and past Manager of Political and Military Affairs at the US Department of State. For a brief time an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Denver and the University of Washington at (more...)
 

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