The Background and True History behind ‘Sugar Money’
Warning – Spoilers!
Please don’t read this if you haven’t read the novel.
In the mid-18th century, a little-known story was unfolding in the islands of the French Caribbean. Following various scandals, the French authorities in Grenada expelled a motley group of mendicant monks. Amongst other infractions, these Fathers (Les Frères de la Charité) had been mismanaging a hospital and plantation at the edge of the main town, Fort Royal. The monks fled the island so quickly that they left everything behind, including a number of enslaved people who worked on the estate.
After their departure, the French authorities took over the hospital and plantation, but not for long, because – a few years later, in 1763 – the British invaded Grenada and assumed control of the island. Meanwhile, the poverty-stricken monks had returned to their sister-hospital in Martinique where they planned to build a distillery. Hoping to recover their human chattels, they appealed several times to the British, to no avail. One of the Fathers (named Cléophas) visited Grenada to negotiate with the authorities in person but he was turned off the island. The friars then ‘sold’ the slaves to a Mr. White who also requested that the British hand them over to him, but he too was refused.
Eventually, in 1765, the monks in Martinique hatched a plan. They tasked an enslaved man – known only in the documents as ‘a mulatto’ – to travel to Grenada and bring back their chattels; essentially, they ordered him to steal the enslaved from under the noses of the enemy. As a slave himself, the poor man had no choice but to comply. What happened next is now just a few paragraphs in the history books of Grenada.
Essentially, this is how I first encountered the story behind my novel Sugar Money – in a history book. For many years, I had felt drawn to Grenada, “The Spice Island”, but I had a fear of flying and, as a struggling writer of short stories, my income was too low to fund a Grenadian trip. However, after publication of my first novel, The Observations, my financial situation improved. A few hypnotherapy sessions helped to reduce my anxiety about flying with the result that a long-haul journey seemed possible. Having finished my first novel and immediately embarked upon another, I hadn’t had a break in years. And so, simply hoping for some rest and relaxation, I booked a holiday in Grenada – never imagining that I might conceive an idea for a historical novel based there.
As it turned out, I spent much of that trip reading about the island and it was in Beverley Steele’s Grenada, A History of its People that I first encountered a mention of the events that took place in the mid-18th century. I was intrigued by the brief account of what had happened, the expedition that was apparently undertaken, the bravery of this ‘mulatto’ man in the face of impossible odds, and the ultimate outcome.
Although I wanted to start work on the idea immediately, I was embroiled in another novel. Thus, I had to wait until Gillespie and I hit the bookstores and the ensuing publicity events had calmed down before embarking upon Sugar Money.
Very little original paperwork concerning the true story has survived from the time: just a few antique documents in the National Archive at Kew, and a few more in the Archive D’Outre Mer in Aix-en-Provence in the south of France. I visited the archives and began to research the slave trade and, more specifically, Les Frères de la Charité, their hospitals, and the islands of the French Caribbean, Martinique and Grenada in particular. In my wider reading, I relied heavily on the works of Père Labat, a French clergyman and explorer, and Lafcadio Hearn, writer, translator and journalist.
In the later stages of working on the novel, I visited Martinique to find the location of the monks’ hospital, under the looming active volcano, Mont Pelée. Back in Grenada, I searched out the exact location of the hospital and plantation at the edge of Fort Royal (now St. George’s). In this, I was helped enormously by Grenadian-born academic John Angus Martin who was, at the time, curator of the island’s museum. Veteran local hiking guide, Telfor Bedeau, took me on a trek across Grenada, following the route that I had calculated that my main characters must have taken to escape the hospital plantation.
Despite all the research, there was no escaping that the known facts did not amount to much and I was forced to rely on my imagination to flesh out the story. My previous two novels had featured solitary protagonists. This time, I wanted to have close relationships at the heart of the story and so I gave the ‘mulatto’ man (whom I had named Emile), a younger brother, Lucien, who accompanies him on his quest, and a first love, Celeste, one of the enslaved people they set out to rescue. These relationships – between the two brothers and Celeste – are now central to the narrative and, ultimately, Sugar Money became a story of love and courage, of sibling love and rivalry, all in the face of the impossible odds and inhumane savagery created by the transatlantic slave trade.