Overview

Martinique, 1765, and brothers Emile and Lucien are charged by their French master, Father Cléophas, with a mission. They must return to Grenada, the island they once called home, and smuggle back the 42 slaves claimed by English invaders at the hospital plantation in Fort Royal. 

While Lucien, barely in his teens, sees the trip as a great adventure, the older and worldlier Emile has no illusions about the dangers they will face. But with no choice other than to obey Cléophas – and sensing the possibility, however remote, of finding his first love Celeste – he sets out with his brother on this ‘reckless venture’.

Background

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.

Extract

St Pierre, Martinique, Western Antilles 

December 1765

Chapter One

I was tethering the cows out by the pond when a boy came into our pasture saying that Father Cléophas himself want to see me tout suite in the morgue. Never having set eyes upon this child before I simply looked at him askance. He must have been somewheres about my own age; a mulatto, like myself, perhaps a shade darker than me, a hair smaller. His jaw hung loose and he had froth at the corners of his mouth from which signs I deem him to be of no startling intelligence. I spat on the muddy ground that lay between us to show my scant regard for him. Then I told him something he could do if he had a mind to.

The boy he scowled and thrust out his hand. There upon his palm lay a silver-mounted rabbit foot. This grisly talisman belong to Cléophas who found it on the Sugar Landing in St Pierre and kept it to remind himself of home, though it were a superstitious charm and most likely inapt to his faith. I had seen that pitiful scrap of fur and claw manys a time hence knew the Father must indeed have sent this chuckle-head, now telling me he would tend to my beasts once I had gone. And since I knew no different then, I thought he meant whiles I went to the morgue.

Hé! Poté mannèv! ’ said the boy, in our kréyòl tongue. ‘Ou kouyon, wi!

Though it would be unwise to make Cléophas wait, I refuse to be hurried by this poor fool, and I daresay I took my time strolling over to Victorine to gather in her rope. My chief employment was to tend livestock for the friars and since I would rather do that than toil on their plantation, you can bet I slung to my chores like a Hercules. Those animals so spoil they fancy themselve kings and queen. Victorine she leaned against me, entirely companiable, whiles I moored her up to the stake. She had the most most velvety ears of any cow you ever did see and her milk always came plentiful and sweet. I had no fancy to abandon her and her sisters to the care of this stranger; some might say a half-wit at that.

Meanwhile, the boy puffed up his cheeks and paced about, inspecting the little herd. The way he strutted and squinted and stroke his chin you would have took him for some Béké colonial cattle-merchant.

‘What’s your name?’ I asked him.

‘Descartes,’ says he.

Now, I might have been a young tom-fool back in those days but whenever the friars discuss the world beyond the islands I kept my ears open and I had heard tell of many great men, René Descartes among them. Seem to me some former master must have name this boy in cruel jest, for I have known game-fowl with more savvy.

I watched him strut about a-whiles then asked him:

‘They name you after the philosopher?’


‘Filo-kwa?’ says the boy.

‘The scholar: Descartes. They gave you his name?’


Boy shook his head, emphatic, then dealt an imaginary hand of Piquet.

Mé non,’ says he. ‘Dé KARTES, tu vwa? You damn silly. Playing cards.’


Poor boy had more teeth than brains. I could only hope none of my cattle would suffer whiles in his care.

‘Well, Descartes, you best not harm these ladies,’ I told him. ‘Or else.’ And I showed him my fist, mostly in jest. Then I snatch the rabbit foot from him and took off running like a redshank to the hospital.

Chapter Two

The Fathers had constructed the morgue a short distance from the main building in the shade of abundant trees; a stone house in miniature, small enough for to make you laugh had you not known its gruesome purpose. High jalousie windows and walls three feet thick kept the temperature inside cool. I hesitated at the doorway, turning my straw hat in my hands. Not that I felt afraid; I had been in that morgue before. Just the dim light of the interior did blind me awhile. When my eyes adjusted, there stood Father Cléophas and, on the table before him, a naked field hand, dead as a dead herring. Since August they had been perishing at the rate of about one a week, struck down by a raging distemper no amount of prophylactic or purges would cure. For now, the poor dead fellow lay there all of a piece but only a matter of time before Cléophas finish washing him and then he would slice the belly open and haul out the inners. It was a known fact that our surgeon Fathers like to hack up a cadaver, poke around inside. They put our livers and lights in pickle jars and called it Learning. The very thought of it – and the ripe smell of the morgue – would have made a person of delicate disposition queasy. The field hand lips had all shrunk back; his teeth expose; eyes open. There be a fly stood on one of his eyeball but the poor dumb clod would never blink again; he had gone kickeraboo, most certainly.

That corpse had me so hypnotise, it took me a moment to notice my brother Emile stood nearby in the shadows. Blow me tight. The sight of him there made me jump in my linen. I took him for dead too, just propped against the wall – until he opened his eyes. Mary and Joseph! I laughed out loud and was the gladdest kind of boy alive until, slapdash, it occur to me to wonder exactly why he might be return to the hospital. Emile gave me a dismal look as much to say: ‘Well, here we are,’ just as Cléophas beckon me in with a ‘Bonjour’ and bid me put his rabbit foot on the bench. I set the hairy toes beside some medicine jars. Meanwhile, the old man turn to drop his cloth into a bowl and whiles his gaze averted I whisper to my brother:

Sa ou fé?

But before Emile could tell me how he was or explain his presence, Cléophas had stepped around the table toward us, one finger raised as though to reprimand me. He had been with us several month by that time and the sun had tawned his skin such that it now shone like beeswax in the gloom.

‘Prattle all you like in that gibberish,’ says he, in his same-old fussy-fussy French. ‘But I’m reliably informed, Lucien, that you speak another language.’

At first I thought he must mean his own tongue. Our friars hailed from Paris, Fwance and wanted us slave to speak as they did but we converse mostly like our mothers, in a hodge-podge of their own languages and French and – though we knew more of la langue française than our elders – we were prone to vex the friars with bombast kréyòl.

‘English,’ says Cléophas. ‘I’m told you speak it like a native.’

Perhaps this knack of mine might be a misdeed for which he would scold me inasmuch as, though the war had ended, we still considered England to be the enemy. I cut a glance at my brother. He seem calm enough but I could spot that his breath came fast and shallow. For what purpose he had been summon now I knew no more than a moth. But life had taught us to expect the worst; we were both full of dread and would have twittered in our shoes, had we worn any.

‘No need to look worried, my son,’ the old man said. ‘I speak a little English myself. I gather you learned it in Grenada from that man-nurse, Calder.’

I nodded.

‘Pray let me hear you,’ said Cléophas. He picked up the rabbit foot and slipped it into the folds of his cassock. ‘Say something in English.’

I thought for a moment and presently did as bid, allowing old phrases to come to my lips just as I remembered them; though I took care to leave out the abundant foul curses I knew and use to spout with relish.

‘Good day, Father. How do you do? My name is Lucien. I am thirteen or fourteen years old or thereabouts. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday. Where is the ipecac? Good boy. Give this man a medal. Bring me a jug. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings. The fever has broken. The fever has return. They all have a fever. Fetch bandages and hot water. This leg must come off. She is dead. He is dead. They are all—’

Cléophas raise his hand. ‘Enough,’ said he. ‘I believe you.’


For true, I had not sought his belief but it would have been rash to point this out; and since I had deference ingrained in my very bones, I bessy-down and made him an obeisance.

‘Now then,’ says he. ‘There’s something I want you boys to do for me.’

And in this manner here the whole entire enterprise did commence, exactly so.

Reviews

...It is in Grenada that Harris makes the brutal reality of slavery utterly plain. The risk of her earlier restraint has paid off and the brief, harrowing scenes towards the novel’s climax have an extra power because of it....

Harrison's feat in seeing through a slave-boy's eyes is as remarkable as it is potentially risky in these days of anxiety about cultural appropriation...The story has all the excitement of Robert Louis Stevenson, but with an immersive focus on the black experience.

With a narrator so enthralling he brings to mind Melville's Ishmael, Sugar Money takes readers on a journey into the heart of a Caribbean slave. Author Jane Harris has written an exhilarating tale of slavery, love, and the human drive for a better life even in the face of impossible odds.

In 1765 a group of French mendicant surgeon-monks, struggling to survive on the Caribbean island of Martinique, hatched a plan to restore their fortunes. They had once had a hospital-plantation on nearby Grenada but were expelled for mismanaging it and left everything behind, including 42 slaves. Grenada had subsequently been invaded by the British, and the monks’ appeals for the return of their “property” had come to naught. So the plan was to send one of their remaining slaves to retrieve/steal all those left behind. It was a “reckless venture” for the poor soul chosen for the task — and a command that he could not refuse, despite the danger.

Jane Harris’s previous novels — The Observations (shortlisted for the Orange prize in 2007) and Gillespie and I — have had narrator-protagonists situated firmly on the margins of society, so it’s little wonder that this true story, recorded only sketchily in history books, should have appealed to her. For her fictionalised version she creates not one man but a pair of brothers who are given the task.

The older, wiser Emile is cynical and bitter from his experiences and his separation from the woman he loved, but fiercely, defiantly protective of those he cares for. Meanwhile, our hotheaded narrator, Lucien, is half the age of his brother and full of bluster, heroics and optimism, which keeps making a bad situation worse for the pair. His lively account, constructed in the style of the “slave narratives” of Olaudah Equiano and the like, mixes English, French and Creole, and owes an acknowledged debt to Robert Louis Stevenson.

Harris builds a lush sense of place, and the pace and tension of a rip-roaring adventure here, with derring-do and double-crossing and a looming sense of threat and dread from the start. There is also a carefully drip-fed sense of the appalling violence of the slavery-era Caribbean, with the brutality of the British made more and more horribly apparent. But what is most striking is the irrepressible voice of Lucien — whose highly original multilingual turns of phrase bring a spark and tingle to the telling of his tale — and the fractious but profound relationship he has with the desperate, damaged Emile.

Jane Harris pitches you headfirst into this outstanding, heartbreaking story of siblings, slavery and the savagery of the colonial past... Unwilling participants in a deadly escapade, their fate and the fates of their fellow slaves are beyond their control. As this superb novel reveals, they are at the mercy of the merciless.

After two well-received mysteries set in Victorian Scotland, Harris’s latest novel takes us to the colonial-era Caribbean for a wrenching tale of derring-do, told by a slave caught in the crossfire between warring imperial powers... Based on a true story, the drama — which turns on an audacious Christmas Eve bid for escape — supplies rip-roaring adventure and unspeakable tragedy, while airing dirty laundry from Britain’s imperial past.

Jane Harris won much praise for two previous novels, The Observations and Gillespie and I, set in 19th-century Britain. For her third, Sugar Money (Faber £12.99), she has turned her attention to the West Indies in the 1760s. Emile and Lucien are brothers, slaves living on Martinique. The property of French monks, they are given the mission of returning to their former home of Grenada and smuggling out 42 fellow slaves, now owned by the English on that island.

Their task is a near impossible one and what begins, at least for the narrator, teenaged Lucien, as a thrilling adventure ends in tragedy. Based on a true story, and told by Lucien in rich, supple prose that echoes the rhythms of Caribbean speech, Sugar Money gives a memorable voice to people whose lives have largely been ignored by history and fiction.

Jane Harris’s third novel is an unashamedly old-school adventure story in the vein of Robert Louis Stevenson.

...it is Lucien’s voice – bright and upbeat, in an enchanting mix of English, French and Creole – which really makes the novel...Sugar Money is a historical novel, but it is also a story of people and relationships; and when one of those people is Lucien, it makes it hard to put down.

For her third novel, Jane Harris takes an obscure true story and turns it into a gripping tale of colonial cruelty set in the Western Antilles in the late 18th century. Enthrallingly narrated by Lucien, a teenage slave, the story begins in Martinique and travels to Grenada where the British have instituted a particularly brutal regime for the enslaved. Harris has said she that visited Grenada during her research and the evidence of this is abundantly plain in the sense of place and time she evokes.

...outstanding, heartbreaking story of siblings, slavery and the savagery of the colonial past.

A lyrical, vividly told adventure story set in Martinique in 1765 from the bestselling author of Gillespie and I. Brothers Emile and Lucien, slaves bound to a French monastery, undertake a reckless, dangerous mission to return to their home island of Grenada to smuggle back 42 slaves claimed by the British. In return, the brothers are promised their freedom, and for Emile, the change to be reunited with his first love Celeste.

Sugar Money is lit-award fodder. In 18th-century Martinique, Lucien and his brother are slaves forced into a mission to Grenada, the island they once called home, to smuggle back 42 other slaves. It’s a gripping, uncomfortable premise, and all the more so for discovering it’s loosely based on a true story. Harris’ strong writing manages to weave the horrifying and sobering details of Lucien’s life into a tale that is also, by turns, an adventure, a romance and a study of brotherly love.

Sugar Money is a Tour de Force. Two brothers are sent from Martinique to Grenada to smuggle back the slaves that were appropriated from their masters A thrilling adventure, cleverly observed and written, that’s full of atmosphere and local colour.

Martinique, 1765: two brothers are told to return to Grenada and smuggle back slaves. Adventure and intrigue ensues

One of the books that I have been most looking forward to, for quite some time, is Jane Harris’ Sugar Money...if you want a tale of adventure and daring do, filled with wonderful characters, that makes you think and explores a period of history you may not know of (oh and I should say this book is based on a true story) that will leave you heartbroken yet with a sense of hope then this is a book you should be rushing out to get right now or what the tumpty-tum are you playing at?

On one level, the book is an adventure story: a dangerous mission, a journey across seas in a rust bucket of a vessel with a rackety and drunken captain; obstacles, perils, dreadful suffering, suspense, and through everything, like a chain of gold, the touching love between two brothers...What begins as a typical 'ripping yarn' changes as we progress through the book, into something a great deal darker and the horrors of slave owning are not glossed over. What carries us through is the voice of Lucien which is the main achievement of this novel.

This is a full-tilt, richly- patterned and thrillingly exciting story, brilliantly told.

...Sugar Money by Jane Harris was one book which I knew I had to read after stumbling across just one paragraph...The prose is delightful and vivid. It captures with precision, not just the traits of the characters, but also that of the time and place it is set in...In Sugar Money, Jane Harris writes a story that is part rollicking adventure and part poignant tale of slavery and oppression.

This novel is almost like three separate novels in one! It is a sensational story of a brave adventure. Yet there are obviously added dark elements, due to the slavery theme. It is also a story of the bonds of brotherhood and love. It really will pull at your heart strings and you will root for brothers Lucien and Emile, with love and hope on every page!

A vivid, perfectly paced tale of slavery and freedom, innocence and experience, love and despair, Sugar Money is told in an unforgettably beautiful language. What a stunning writer Jane Harris is, mastering an extremely harrowing and complex subject and making it into art.

...what makes this novel really stand out is Lucien’s wonderfully reproduced narrative voice...there are touches of comedy here, but that in no way deflects from the fact that this is essentially a drama of heart-rending proportions. So, Jane Harris has managed to do it again.

Whilst there is no doubt that this is beautifully written, it is also devastatingly painful to read. The author does not spare the reader from the horrific detail of how the slaves are treated. Rape, torture, oppression; all there, all vividly portrayed, it is breathtaking.

Sugar Money is a powerful, impressively told story. The sense of place is stunning and the reader is transported to a time of deep injustice, of hate and rage. Sugar Money delves deep into the past. The author's eye for detail is so precise, her characters are pure and the story is compelling.

Based on a true story, this novel gives an unflinching account of the appalling reality of slavery and colonialism. Beautifully written with a taut story-line and shrewd characterization, Sugar Money is singularly impressive.

It’s a fascinating story, made more so by the teenage Lucien’s jovial narration, and Harris takes us on a rip-roaring adventure without overlooking the violence and brutality of the slave era.

I don't think I can convey how good this novel is. Jane Harris is the writer of The Observations and Gillespie & I, both of which are memorable and wonderful, so I had very high expectations for Sugar Money - and my expectations have been surpassed, by a country mile...It is a story that is saddening and sickening but it is told with great beauty, with an outstanding narrative voice, and it is an important story.

...The novel is vibrantly alive with a cast of engaging characters, but throughout it is narrated in the voice of the younger Lucien, whose bawdily unique language is as joyous as his spirit, albeit with a naivety that eventually will be addressed ~ because Jane Harris is not an author afraid of pulling punches. How could she be when the theme of this novel is slavery, theft, brutality? A scenario in which some dreadful horrors have to be endured. But what endures above all else is the humanity, the love and hope, the instinct for survival, for freedom, also dignity.

That message is as important now as it was 200 years ago. Black Lives Matter.

...A thrilling adventure, cleverly observed and written, that's full of atmosphere and local colour.

News and Articles About Sugar Money

X