Reflections on Sugar and Slaves – Richard S. Dunn

I am profoundly grateful to Trevor Burnard and Alison Games, the organizers of this workshop, and to all of the participants, particularly to those who have submitted research papers for discussion. I have greatly enjoyed reading the sixteen papers, and wish that I knew fifty years ago what I have learned from this workshop.

Having lived a long time, I am very conscious of the huge changes that have taken place in the historical profession during my ninety-two years. And I am especially aware of my own evolution over time. For I believe—perhaps incorrectly— that I have changed more than most other historians in my choice of topics for research and in my methods of analyzing and handling documentation. And I see the publication of Sugar and Slaves in 1972 as a key turning point in my scholarship.

Figure 1. Richard Dunn as a young scholar. Photo from the Dunn Family Collection.

I grew up in Minneapolis with an English mother and a father who taught English literature at the University of Minnesota. By my early teens I knew that I wanted a college teaching career in either English history or English literature. And my historical taste was very conventional. I saw history from the top down, the achievements of great white men—kings, presidents, generals—with a few queens thrown in. When I entered Harvard College in 1946, I found little to challenge this view. Black history was not in the curriculum, and I was contentedly studying seventeenth-century English history and literature.

Applying for graduate school, I chose History over English, and entered Princeton in 1950 hoping to write a dissertation on some aspect of seventeenth-century Puritanism. Fortunately, I became an American colonial historian after taking a seminar with Frank Craven. He let me work on the Winthrop family in seventeenth-century New England—a traditional top-down study of a great white man and his son and grandsons. My dissertation was published in 1962 as the book Puritans and Yankees. In 1960, I married fellow colonial historian Mary Maples, whose dissertation was on William Penn. We spent a year in London in 1961 and 1962, where I embarked on my second project, a study of the Glorious Revolution of 1689 in English America. It was a natural successor to my first book, which focused heavily on New England politics at the time of the Glorious Revolution.

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

My design for this new book included research on the six Caribbean island colonies settled by the English in the seventeenth century—Barbados, Jamaica, and the Leeward Islands—as well as the twelve North American colonies. This made sense, because the island colonists actively participated in the warfare that followed James II’s downfall. And since I knew nothing about these six colonies, I was eager to learn as much as I could about them. So, I set to work in the Public Record Office (today the National Archives) feeling like a pioneer. My interest increased as I found that the dispatches to the Colonial Office from the island governors were tantalizingly bland, disclosing far less than I wanted to know about sugar production and the employment of enslaved African laborers. When Mary and I returned home to teach at the University of Pennsylvania and Bryn Mawr College, civil rights legislation and the growth of the Black Freedom movement grabbed our attention, and made my exploration of the English sugar colonies increasingly relevant. And when I encountered the Barbados census of 1680, a massive collection of documents buried in the Colonial Office files and untouched by previous historians, I knew that I had found the key to a book-length study of the six English island colonies during the seventeenth century.

Figure 3. Richard Dunn and his two daughters. Photo from the Dunn Family Collection.

In 1968, Mary and I took our two little girls on a month-long visit to Barbados, Jamaica, Antigua, and St. Kitts. We had a wonderful time exploring these beautiful islands, engaging with the local people, visiting archives, and meeting with fellow historians. Soon after, I was racing to finish my book because Carl and Roberta Bridenbaugh were close to publishing their competing study entitled No Peace Beyond the Line. With much help from my editors at the Williamsburg Institute (now the Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture), my book came out in the same year as the Bridenbaughs. Dick Sheridan’s economic study, Sugar and Slavery, followed in 1974.  Before these books were published, there was no extensive account of the first century of English settlement in the Caribbean islands. Now there were three interpretations, each very different, that established a much needed basis for understanding the distinctive character of the British Caribbean slave-based sugar production system.

Thinking of this workshop, I was glad to find several sharp critiques of Sugar and Slaves among the papers. I have long felt that my Preface and opening chapter (“Beyond the Line”) are too cocky and self-satisfied in tone, leading to unsubstantiated exaggerations. Once I focus on developments in Barbados, and the emergence of big sugar planters, I am on firmer ground, and am able to set up a comparison with the contemporaneous Chesapeake tobacco planters and Carolina rice planters. Admittedly, I am still writing history from the top down, but with a difference—I am investigating a cohort of white men who were getting rich by forcing enslaved Blacks to grow their crops. As my critics have pointed out, Sugar and Slaves does a much better job of identifying and characterizing the white planters than the enslaved Blacks. In Chapter 9, I wanted to use the slave records of Bybrook Plantation in Jamaica to portray the Black workers in action, but could not do so. Instead, I ended by showing how white mismanagement led to the decimation of the Black workforce on that estate.       

Figure 4. Richard Dunn with Karin Wulf and Alison Games at the Philadelphia Center for Early American Studies, 3440 Market Street, Philadelphia, 1991-1992. Photo provided by Alison Games.

When I published Sugar and Slaves I was forty-four years old, with plenty of time ahead for new adventures. And I started my next project almost immediately. I wanted to find a Caribbean plantation to compare with an Antebellum U.S. plantation of similar size and comparable slave records. After extensive searching in British and U.S. archives in 1973 and 1974, I fixed on Mesopotamia estate in Jamaica and Mount Airy plantation in Virginia. Their records enabled me to track each of the 1103 enslaved individuals at Mesopotamia and each of the 973 enslaved individuals at Mount Airy during the last three generations of slavery on both plantations. I spent a lot of time correlating slave inventories person-by-person and year-by-year, then spent far more time figuring out how to present my findings. I hoped to bring some of the enslaved people on both plantations to three-dimensional life, and I also hoped to illuminate major differences between the British Caribbean and U.S. slave systems. I was also learning how to do history from the bottom up, focusing on the enslaved rather than the slaveholders, as a corrective to the shortcomings of Sugar and Slaves

My work on Mesopotamia and Mount Airy conflicted with competing projects during the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. From 1972 to 1977, I was chair of Penn’s History Department, and in 1978, I launched the Philadelphia Center for Early American Studies, which became the McNeil Center for Early American Studies. In that same year, Mary and I started a four-volume edition of The Papers of William Penn, which we completed in 1987. And I spent much time co-editing The Journal of John Winthrop with Laetitia Yeandle, which we published in 1994. So it was not until 2000, when I retired as Director of the McNeil Center, that I could work full time on Mesopotamia and Mount Airy. A Tale of Two Plantations finally appeared in 2014. It received excellent reviews but slim sales, and I realized that my book was too long and complex for undergraduate teaching. What to do next? I finally decided to start work on a short sequel volume, using evidence from my database that I hadn’t used in my big book.

I have now almost finished a long essay on the 409 Mesopotamia field workers who produced the annual sugar crop between 1762 and 1831. Working on this Mesopotamia essay, I have attempted to correct a serious deficiency in A Tale of Two Plantations. My chief focus in that book was on the demographic difference between slave life in the British Caribbean and the U.S., with the Mount Airy population continually expanding and the Mesopotamia population continually shrinking. I was able to demonstrate the impact of the population gain among the enslaved in the U.S. by showing how the Mount Airy owners sold many slaves and moved others to new Virginia worksites, while also sending 200 laborers to new cotton plantations in Alabama. But I failed to adequately demonstrate the impact of population loss at Mesopotamia. So, I now hope that my new Mesopotamia essay, with its focus on population loss, will strengthen my argument. And should I live long enough, I hope to write a companion essay about Mount Airy and shape the two essays into a short book directed to a wider audience. 

Figure 5. Richard Dunn smiling. Photo from the Dunn Family Collection.