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Sugar in the Blood

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 seventeenth 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 so George Ashby left England in the late 1630s a humble blacksmith, and arrived in Barbados ‘a fighting farmer’, with a hoe in his hand and a sword at his belt. He landed in a country that was different in every way from the one he had left behind. Instead of the English palette, which was permanently tinged with grey, the Caribbean was a chaos of colour, bombarding the senses with dazzling light, heavy scents, unfamiliar sounds. And so a man habituated to winter’s shortening days, the turning of the leaves and cold nights crouched around heat-giving fires had to become accustomed to the eternal heat and days that were divided equally all year round. The lifestyle too was radically different. The population of Barbados, in new conurbations such as Bridgetown, was teeming with young men on the make (only 1 per cent of the early settlers were women): a motley assortment of English planters and privateers, Dutch traders and French merchants, as well as a sprinkling of – largely enslaved – black and Amerindian faces. Freed from the social constraints of the old country, these men cursed and fought and drank assiduously, coming together in rustic ‘tippling houses’ to reminisce about the old country and share information about the new, but most importantly to find consolation in the companionship of their fellow migrants and assuage the loneliness and uncertainty that assailed them in this strange and unfamiliar place. Only to separate at the end of the night and return to their isolated plantations, where they would resume their ongoing battle with the hostile wilderness of their plots of land. The work was brutal, the crops – tobacco, cotton, indigo – yielding at best a meagre benefit.

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