A Tale of Two Richards, or, from Sugar and Slavery to Sugar and Slaves – Roderick A. McDonald

I am taking a wee break from celebrating the 50th anniversary release this month of Joni Mitchell’s fantastic Blue album to enjoy our commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Richard Dunn’s fantastic Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624-1713. Apparently, the early 1970s ‘twas a good time for seminal works!

And I’m just delighted to be participating in this marvelous event with so many friends old and new, although I must confess I had some trepidation about what my role would be in the proceedings. “Were you thinking of a formal academic presentation, or something light, informal, and anecdotal,” I texted Alison. “On the informal side,” she responded, assuring me that “there will be enough academic presentations.” “OK then,” I replied, “I’ll be happy to cobble together a few personal recollections and reminiscences about Richard and Sugar and Slaves. Light and breezy will be the order of the day, though,” I assured her. So that’s what you’re getting. And anyway, as with any warm-up act immediately preceding the headliner, as they’d say in Scotland, I’ll jist dee ma’ best, nae tak too lang aboot it, and get oot o’ the road! So, on to my story.

I want to begin my remarks by borrowing and adapting the title of Richard’s most recent book, A Tale of Two Plantations, to tell my “Tale of Two Richards, or, from Sugar and Slavery to Sugar and Slaves.” 

Figure 1. Roderick McDonald with Richard Dunn holding a copy of Dunn’s Sugar and Slaves, published in 1972. Photo from the Dunn Family Collection.

As many of you know, the same year that Sugar and Slaves was published, another book came out that focused on the same region and time period–Carl and Roberta Bridenbaugh’s No Peace Beyond the Line: The English in the Caribbean, 1624-1690. Sugar and Slaves prevailed handsomely in the inevitable comparisons and comparative reviews. For example, John McCusker observed that whereas the Bridenbaughs covered “the years after the founding of the English colonies in the literate, descriptive manner for which they are well known,” Richard had “provided a model of research and analysis, remaining literate while going well beyond the descriptive.”  In so doing he had “made a significant contribution to the social history of the seventeenth century.”  Meanwhile the celebrated West Indian historian, Elsa Goveia, noted Richard’s great achievement in “filling in with meticulous detail the processes by which island society came into being . . . . This theme of the rise of a plantocracy,” she thought, “makes his book very different from the Bridenbaughs’ work in spite of the basic likeness of their subject matter.”  The Bridenbaughs, Goveia continued, had contended that as late as 1690, “there was no society in the islands.” They dismissed “this new culture as no culture at all,” which she put down to the Bridenbaughs’ “elitist rather than anthropological conception of the term.” But Richard, she countered, had demonstrated that “something new and strange was emerging. A way of life unlike that of England or North America was in process of creation in the English West Indies during the seventeenth century.”  B.W. Higman agreed. In his later overview of West Indian historiography, Writing West Indian Histories, Higman singled out Richard’s pioneering use in his subtitle of the term “the rise” in conceptualizing the formation of these strange new slavery societies.

But my “Tale of Two Richards” starts with the publication shortly thereafter of a far better complement to Sugar and Slaves than the Bridenbaughs’ book and that was Richard Sheridan’s Sugar and Slavery:  An Economic History of the British West Indies, 1623-1775. Richard S. had been working on his manuscript for some time and I believe had been in touch with Richard D. about their common interests that included an agreement about their respective book titles. Anyway, Richard D.’s respect for Richard S.’s work immediately became evident in the review of Sugar and Slavery that he undertook for the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. Sugar and Slavery, Richard D. wrote, nicely counterbalanced his Sugar and Slaves, since the latter was a social history drawing heavily upon economic data, whereas the former was an economic history drawing heavily upon social data. We know a great deal more about sugar and slavery, Richard D. concluded, thanks to Richard S.’s impressive book.

The respect was reciprocal, as I learned when I arrived at the University of Kansas (KU) in 1973, where Richard S. was a long-time member of the faculty, and where I would complete, under his mentorship, a doctoral dissertation on the economic and social history of slavery and the enslaved in sugar plantation societies in Jamaica and Louisiana. The two books, with their respective emphases on the social and the economic, were in the vanguard of a new generation of slavery studies and provided me with intellectual anchors for my own scholarship, and the career I pursued. But as it transpired, I was destined to get a whole lot more from the two Richards that went way beyond the scholarly realm. During my years at KU, I developed a deep and enduring friendship with Richard S. and his family, including his wife Audrey, with whom I still correspond regularly. 

And upon graduation, wouldn’t you know it the gods of history conspired to bring me directly into the orbit of Richard D. with my appointment to the faculty of Rider University and my relocation to the Philadelphia region. The first time I met Richard D. was at a meeting of the Philadelphia Center for Early American Studies (as the McNeil Center was then known) held in the lovely Logan Room of the Library Company of Philadelphia. It featured a paper presentation by my Rider colleague and old Philadelphia Center hand, Susan Klepp. Two things stand out clearly about that Friday back in the 1980s—the first was my delight in getting to meet the historian whose book had been so influential in shaping my research and analysis of West Indian history, and the second was the warmth with which Richard immediately welcomed me into a community that became, and continues to be, my intellectual home. All of us who have been lucky enough to come within Richard’s orbit in one way or another know what it means to have him in your corner—reading drafts, supporting applications, offering opportunities for panels and presentations—and in my case his crafting an elegant foreword to my study of slavery and emancipation in St. Vincent. My two Richards even crossed paths in the volume of essays that I edited in honor of Richard S. to which Richard D. contributed a trenchant study telling “The Story of Two Jamaican Slaves:  Sarah Affir and Robert McAlpine,” that he drew from his forthcoming magnum opus, A Tale of Two Plantations.

Figure 2. Richard and Mary Maples Dunn traveling in China. Photo from the Dunn Family Collection.

Meanwhile, over the decades I have been in Philadelphia and part of the Philadelphia Center/McNeil Center community, my wife Michelle and I were lucky enough to form a fast friendship with our Rittenhouse Square neighbors, Richard and his wonderful wife, Mary Maples Dunn. We dined together frequently (with Michelle and Mary sharing their fondness for a wee bourbon), and we participated together at conferences. I particularly recall a trip to the Association of Caribbean Historians in Curacao where Richard was treated like a rock star (a la Joni Mitchell!) while the fondness displayed by Michelle and Mary, ably abetted by Alison Games, Sharon Richter, and others, for frozen mojitos resulted in the island running out of mint—(not kidding, right Alison?). Mary offered a hilarious toast at our wedding, and we met up in Cape Cod for some R&R and ocean-swimming in Truro. Over time, we got to know and enjoy the company of Richard and Mary’s splendid family, their daughters Rebecca and Ceci, and their families. 

So we have come a long way since back in the 1970s when, as a young immigrant lad, I encountered the two Richards and their two books. They had foundational effects on my scholarship and my career as a historian, and for that I am extraordinarily grateful. But I treasure, beyond measure, the hospitality that Richard S. offered me in my fledgling years as a Caribbeanist, land-locked in the middle of the United States, and the decades-long friendship that Michelle and I have delighted in with Richard D., the sorely missed Mary, and their family.

So circling back to the topic that I was supposed to be discussing in the first place, Sugar and Slaves (you thought I had forgotten, didn’t you?), I’ll close with an anecdote from a dinner party a few years back at our place where Richard and Mary, and Dan and Sharon Richter, joined us for a fine evening of dining, wining, and spirited conversation. The discussion at some point turned to Sugar and Slaves and gave me the opportunity to raise an issue with Richard about the book. Like many of you over the past few days who noted they had had to buy new copies of Sugar and Slaves because they had worn out their originals, I had at some point picked up a Norton paperback edition to bring in to the rotation when my old copy finally fell completely from its binding. Imagine my surprise when I found that a thirty-page section had been tipped in and bound upside down!  I expressed my faux shock and faux dismay at this faux pas. Richard appeared nonplussed, and Mary laughed uproariously when I presented the evidence. But Richard then quickly dispelled my chagrin and any visions I had of hefty legal compensation for the flawed volume that had been priced at an outrageous $2.45. He seized the offending tome, took up a pen, and wrote the following dedication: “For Roderick McDonald, who is so fortunate as to have a copy of my book in which pages 137-168 (mostly on Jamaica) are printed upside down for extra emphasis!  Richard S. Dunn.”

Sugar and Slaves has always occupied a place at the front and center of my library for its scholarly importance, but this particular copy I cherish for the memories it holds of joy and lasting friendship.

And for that, I thank you, Richard.

Dr. Roderick A. McDonald is Professor Emeritus of History at Rider University and Editor Emeritus of the Journal of Early Republic and Early American Studies. He is the author of numerous books and articles covering a wide range of topics in Caribbean history including books on Jamaica and St. Vincent, and most recently, Dominica. Dr. McDonald is a 2009 Guggenheim Fellow, and his scholarship has received additional funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation. He taught courses on Caribbean, African, African-American, and Latin American history.