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A bittersweet family history Add to ...

[Editor's note: Read an excerpt from Sugar at the bottom of this essay.]/p>

Sugar: A Bittersweet History was several lifetimes in the making. It began with the ancestral Abbott who left Northern Ireland's County Fermagh to seek his fortune as a sugarcane planter in the Leeward Island of Antigua; he married another planter's daughter and established the Abbott dynasty.

It continued with my grandfather, Stanley Abbott, who turned his back on Antigua and its struggling sugar industry in the early twentieth century and sailed away to Canada. Grandpa confided to his family that he'd like to return to Antigua for a visit, but he never did. To outsiders curious about his accent, he concealed his origins by pretending that he had emigrated from Blackpool in England.

In my late teens, years after Grandpa Abbott's premature death, I developed a fascination with my West Indian heritage. I sought out lost relatives and, in the family home in the Antiguan capital of St. John's, bunked down in the bed of my late great-grandmother, Mary Johnston Abbott.

Mary had been a very pretty but difficult woman, wiry and tense, and death had not brought her peace. Instead, she was said to wander restlessly through the courtyard in her long blue dress, a " jumby " or restless spirit. For neighbours, she was a disquieting presence. For me, she was the only person who might answer my questions. Nobody else could or would.

What I most wanted to know was: Who were my ancestors? By then, I was convinced that I had black as well as white blood, and I believed that my great-grandmother could shed light on my lineage. Though I lay sleepless with a notebook and pencil under my pillow, peering through the mosquito netting for a glimpse of her blue dress, she never appeared.

As I continued my quest, I became increasingly aware of how pervasive sugar was in my family's history. I inherited two cups awarded to my great-great grandfather, Richard Abbott, by the Antigua Western Agricultural Society. One was for "Making the Largest Return of Sugar at the Smallest of Expense;" the other was for producing "the Best Quality of Sugar at the Least Expense." I listened as my widowed great-aunt Millicent Abbott Sutherland described weighing cane at the Antigua Sugar Factory at Gunthropes to support her family. I came to understand that I needed to write a book about sugar, though I had no idea what sort of book it would be.

I devoured Caribbean history books. I developed and taught a course in comparative slavery. I left Canada and moved to Haiti, where I interviewed farmers who grew cane in minuscule fields and lived with their families in mud-floored shanties. I lectured at the national university, teaching comparative slavery to the descendants of sugarcane plantation slaves.

Nearly a decade later, on a clear sunlit June morning in the West African slave-trading port of Whydah, Benin, I made a pilgrimage down the Route des Esclaves, the long and eerily verdant trail that was the shackled Africans' last sight of Africa as they shuffled along in coffles to the waiting slavers.

My book had begun to take shape in my mind. In 2004 I resigned my deanship at Trinity College, University of Toronto, to write it. A few months before it was published, I submitted two sodden swab sticks to a DNA-testing company. The analysis revealed what my jumby great-grandmother had failed to: bloodlines of European, Sub-Saharan African and (a total surprise) East Asian origins. Whether writing about sugar planters, slaves or indentured coolies, I had been writing about my ancestors.

An excerpt from Sugar: A Bittersweet History

Sugar began life in Europe as an aristocrat, a luxury reserved for nobles who outdid each other with sugar-sculpted virtuosity. It was so highly valued that sycophantic officials curried favour with kings by offering them gifts of sugar loaves. Sugar symbolized wealth, and delighted those fortunate enough to have it available.

Let's peep in at a feast given by Mary of Hungary, regent of the Netherlands, in honour of Philip II, son and heir of Charles V. It's 1549, and the highlight of the evening is the "sugar collation," a gastronomic orgy offered after both banquet and ball. Charles and Mary's other guests watch as each course is lowered to the ground on tables attached to massive pillars, followed by an outburst of thunder and lightning, with tiny pieces of candy simulating rain and hail. The tables are laden with sweets, including 100 varieties of white conserves. The most impressive boasts sugar sculptures of a deer, boar, birds, fish, a rock and a sugar-fruit laurel tree. Does Charles, under intense pressure to act decisively on the issue of New World Indian human rights, feel the slightest twinge of conscience at the human cost of so much squandered sweetness?

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