Sugar Money, the new book by Jane Harris

Sugar Money

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

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.

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.

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