Sarah Goodin Barrett Moulton was born in St. James, Jamaica, 22 March 1783. Her mother’s family had grown wealthy through owning and managing sugar cane plantations on the island since 1655. The prominent Barrett scions, so very proud of the island empire they had built, mandated that any individual in succeeding generations maintain the family name if benefitting from income generated through sugaring.
But theirs was truly plantation life; the Barrett children were not out farming fields. That was done by enslaved peoples. Sugarcane is a work-intensive lowland tropical crop, cultivated in the full sun of areas historically ridden with malaria. From this towering, vigorous grass we derive juice that yields molasses and sugar, commodities that entered European cookery through Arabian culture as a costly spice. The demand for sugar proved so great that cane was introduced to Caribbean islands as early as Columbus’s second voyage, leading to production of sugar on Santo Domingo by 1505.
Successful production led to colonization of the American tropics and establishment of the sugar industry, supported through enslavement of over 9 million African natives. By 1780, with Britain limiting sugar imports to those from their West Indies colonies, Jamaica alone supported 700 sugar cane plantations, averaging 1,000 acres each. Thus imperialism and slavery made sugar, which became a normal foodstuff, eventually glutting the market.
To gain some sense of the tribulations in cultivating sugar, run your finger, carefully, along the leaf margins. The leaves are long, tough, and wickedly razor-like. A hyaline (thin and translucent), razor-like cuticular-edge punctuated with microscopic, awn-like teeth, creates a margin that tears at flesh (think paper-cuts with teeth) while tough stems demand great strength to cut and stack. The juice had to be expressed and boiled on-site, before it spoiled. This was exhausting and hazardous work in mosquito-infested regions.
But Sarah never experienced the hardships of plantation life. In fact, at age 9 she was sent to England for schooling. Shortly afterward, Sarah’s Grandmother, Judith Barrett, wrote her relative Elizabeth Barrett, requesting a portrait be commissioned of “my dear little Pinky.” Soon after her portrait was completed, Sarah died at age 12, having never returned to Jamaica. The painting, created by artist Thomas Lawrence, remained in the Barrett family for decades, eventually becoming part of the Huntington collections.
Sarah’s brother Edward Barrett Moulton Barrett remained in England, marrying Mary Graham Clarke. Their oldest daughter, Elizabeth Barrett Moulton Barrett, who referred to herself as EBB, became a noted poet and married Robert Browning, conveniently retaining her EBB initials.