I was one of Richard’s graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania. As someone from the Caribbean and from an undergraduate joint degree in History and Latin American Studies, it was only at the University of Pennsylvania–because graduate students are expected to look at the trajectories of historians’ work—that I learned about Richard’s first identity (or always in my mind his “other identity”) as a historian of early North America. My first edition of Sugar and Slaves is marked with underlining and comments in ink. This confuses me as I have long disliked marking books with any kind of notes in ink. Those permanent markings seem to risk fixing one’s thoughts about the book at a particular moment of reading. I prefer to mark books in pencil, or with environmentally-irresponsible removable plastic adhesive flags. I now own two well-marked editions of Richard’s book, one from 1972 and the other a reprint from 2000. In one consideration of how to approach these remarks I thought about following the adhesive flags in my 2000 edition which identified no fewer than nineteen critically important points that I intended to cover during a class meeting, presumably the last time I taught Sugar and Slaves for a university course. In these remarks, however, I am not following those recent class-preparation markers. Instead, I would like to focus my comments mostly on why this book is so foundational and has been so enduring for scholars in my field–the social and cultural history of the African diaspora experience, with an emphasis on the Black Caribbean.
I often think graduate students in our History program at Tulane University assume that I teach Sugar and Slaves in my Caribbean seminar because I am a student of Richard Dunn. But in reality, I teach the book because it does things that few other books do. My students should be able to figure out that the way I am most tellingly Richard Dunn’s student is in how I push them to spend longer hours in the archives or with whatever books they might be using, and how I urge them to get as close as possible to lives of the people they seek to understand.
Richard may not have remembered this, but one of my many recollections from my time as a doctoral student comes from a critical research moment that occurred prior to (I think) even the CD-ROM version of the now well-known Transatlantic Slave Trade database. In the National Archives (then the Public Records Office) I came across the demographic records of about 10,000 Africans taken from illegally operating slave ships under administrative processes jointly run by Spanish and British authorities in Havana during the 1830s. You can now readily read all of this material online, but at that time Richard dipped into his own research funds so that I could have the entire body of records microfilmed. That way, I could spend time with them in the United States and make handwritten notes on all 10,391 people—from which work I predictably learned much. This was one of the many ways that I learned the value of how certain kinds of social history research gets done. Although I could tell other similar stories about how Richard helped to teach me the historian’s craft, I will turn now to the book whose impact we are exploring at this conference.
Among the monographs I teach in seminars for both undergraduate and graduate students, Sugar and Slaves is one that always—every single time—succeeds in advancing student understanding. This is because few books as successfully explain the broad nature of the socioeconomic transformation the so-called ‘sugar revolution’ in the Caribbean started, even though that transformation occurred at different times and in different ways on particular islands. That transformation lies at the root of how much of the Caribbean came to have particular societal contours now familiar even to casual observers. A distinctive kind of planter dominance—economic, political and social—emerged in the Caribbean and became normative, casting long cultural shadows into the present day. Perhaps above all, Sugar and Slaves is a book about the scale and consequences of that power, even though the text is rooted in the seventeenth century, rather than in what Saidiya Hartman and other scholars have recently characterized as the “afterlives” of plantation slavery. Dunn compares the radically different tiers of society in Barbados to the structure of the terraced cane fields; social groups rise level-by-level to a very small group of wealthy and powerful planters at the top. This social hierarchy and the inequitable access to land and wealth that accompanied it was then reproduced (and in some cases intensified) around the post-slavery world. There is nothing casual, for example, about how global economic interests today often disregard Black Caribbean populations and perpetuate inequities for human societies in the region. The difference, of course, is that now there are a wider range of actors (including some people of color) invested in, working for, and living within the higher levels of those hierarchies.
Dunn’s book also emphasizes that there was nothing obvious, predictable, or inevitable about the colonialism and racial slavery that planters built. They chose to build it; and it took at least some decades to do so. Readers who are most familiar with nineteenth-century U.S. slave societies but unfamiliar with the radically transformative effects of sugar plantation slavery, often assume that the power of colonizers and racial domination were timeless and began with the earliest moment of European invasion of the Americas. I recently listened to a podcast featuring a conversation between the authors of two recent and equally path-breaking studies of slavery–Jessica Marie Johnson, author of Wicked Flesh about Black women in early New Orleans, and Jennifer Morgan, author of Reckoning with Slavery about the role gender and Black experiences of kinship played in shaping the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Atlantic world. They turned their attention to the need for still more historical thinking about what happened in the decades that slave societies around the Americas were “in formation,” to use Johnson’s phrasing. Sugar and Slaves gives us a sense of how important and complex that “in formation” period was, and how much deep exploration it warrants.
Sugar and Slaves also guides readers to see the Caribbean through the eyes of seventeenth-century observers including an analytical eye toward the topographical, and what we now call environmental history. It is a book whose depth challenges students to rethink the caricatured and tourist-oriented Caribbean images of manicured beaches and endless sea vistas. Those beautiful shorelines existed, of course, but the shoreline was not the focus of the colonial settlers or the enslaved. Nor are such vistas the main focus for most Caribbean people today. This book presents a geographic diversity and complexity that brings the physical reality and colonial development of the Caribbean alive for readers.
The book also does much Atlantic history work, even before that particular framing gained currency. One of the reasons I have long had reservations about the “Atlanticization” of so much early American history is that historiographical conversations regularly situate the Atlantic World as an almost “magical” or “new” historical framing that developed around the turn of the twenty-first century; in fact notable versions of that kind of analysis came long before in works like Sugar and Slaves. In 1972, Dunn’s book engaged in a transatlantic, multinational study of colonial enterprise and its human impacts, looking from the Caribbean to North America, to England, to West Africa, but also to Holland, France, Spain, and Portugal and their African and American colonial activities. Dunn’s historical thinking was arguably Atlantic, well before the more recent theoretical framing of what an Atlantic world meant.
Sugar and Slaves was also self-consciously written as a book yoking the North American colonial experience to a wider English colonial experience around the hemisphere. This is an interest that is once again growing—with the works of Paul Pressly for example, on Colonial Georgia and the British Atlantic World (2013), Matthew Mulcahy’s Hurricanes and Society in the Greater Caribbean (2008) (which I predictably over-teach in post-Katrina New Orleans), and his 2014 work Hubs of Empire. It is also reflected notably and most recently in Vincent Brown’s book Tacky’s Revolt: the Story of an Atlantic Slave War (2020). Brown’s work engages why and how Tacky’s rebellion, long considered a “Jamaican” or perhaps British Caribbean event, had and still has much wider implications for understanding early American history.
In a different and more Caribbean-focused way, Sugar and Slaves also stands as an ambitious model of what inter-Caribbean comparative regional scholarship can—and in many cases—should look like. Knowing Barbados and Jamaica deeply is important; but so too is knowing the geographically more “miniature” (Dunn’s word) territories of the eastern Caribbean; and the relationship of the often overlooked Leeward and Windward Islands to larger worlds. One of my own teaching exercises, taken in part from this book, is to require students enrolled in Caribbean Cultural History to write their first paper on what is sometimes-called the “small island” Caribbean. They must exclude Barbados, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and Trinidad from their topic choices and write instead on smaller and much less well-known territories. I do allow them to write on the equally under-studied territories of Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana, because slave societies and colonial societies in the Caribbean region were (and are still) in conversation with one another both within the region itself and through networks created via multiple imperial powers. Understanding this interconnected Caribbean perspective is another element of the important historiographical work done by Sugar and Slaves.
The book also remains—whatever one’s historical field—a model of and a testament to the importance of archivally-based social history. For a historian such as myself mostly focused on African and African-descended cultural experience in the Americas, the overwhelming detail of Chapter Six on “Sugar” or Chapter Seven on mostly English “Life in the Tropics” may not seem an obvious or easy place for figuring out the historical craft. But in the inventories, sugar technologies, and hundreds of colonizers’ names Dunn uses, he models the kind of social history that has made possible the explosion of studies about the subaltern populations of women, children and the enslaved. Dunn comments regularly in the text about the smaller volume of writing left behind by English and other European colonizers in the Caribbean in comparison to the sometimes voluminous writings of their peers in North America. But in the end, Sugar and Slaves is a methodological field school in how to carefully extrapolate more from less. (As a reader of my own graduate-student writing Richard was incredibly detailed in every aspect related to both style and content, and we did a lot of editing my own tentative over-use of the adjective “probably” when I had in fact compiled more than sufficient fragmentary evidence to support whatever “hunch”—another of Dunn’s terms—I had about the lives of 19th-century free Africans in the Bahamas and Trinidad, who were the subject of my Ph.D. dissertation.) This practice of extrapolating “more from less” is a core analytical and research tool in Black Studies of the Early Americas—it is well demonstrated in Sugar and Slaves.
It must also be said that this book’s most critically important intervention may be its examination of the white people who wrought the human havoc on the racial slave societies of the Caribbean and the Americas. Put differently, the study of long dead white men by scholars with a commitment to understanding the costs of European colonialism, is work that really matters for Black history. Current conversations in the United States questioning the teaching of slavery and segregation as being somehow harmful to public culture or national identity and related conversations in parts of Europe calling for more “balance” and less condemnation in writing about European colonialism would benefit from Sugar and Slaves. Numerous reviewers and commentators over the years have noted the “moral” critique Dunn offers of the Caribbean plantation societies. The actions of large planters and many others who had power in these societies were immoral and had unspeakable consequences for Africans and their descendants. But using more dispassionate language, Dunn’s careful study of the historical record demonstrates the economic greed, amoral social ambition, and immoral self-serving and regularly brutal action that drove these societies.
In addition to being a historian, I am also an activist for various racial justice causes. Yet, I explain to students that my perspective on current debates about what enslavement was, what it cost, and what it caused comes not from my activism but from the diligent and focused study of social history. When I was an undergraduate student there was a brief moment in which history majors eagerly purchased dorm room posters of Malcolm X with his quote: “Of all our studies, history is best suited to properly reward our research.” Although this quote was sometimes decontextualized, it is still correct for those of us engaged in ethically-driven slavery studies as exemplified by Dunn’s work in Sugar and Slaves.
In interdisciplinary Africana Studies scholars make much use of imaginative, speculative, and creative methodologies. My fellow Caribbean historian at Tulane, Guadalupe García, often reminds me that some things I wish to do as a historian fall perilously close to trying to read the minds of historical actors. And what, she asks, is the evidentiary threshold for that kind of mind reading? I appreciate García’s caution on this methodological question because it is necessary. Can I really know what most Africans believed about whether or not supernatural spirits inhabited silk cotton trees? Sugar and Slaves drew historical minds mostly to other questions, not to such African spirits, but the book certainly made present in a pioneering way the tens of thousands of African lives whose presence came to overwhelm much of Caribbean society. And that those African lives were subject to violence and socioeconomic coercion, stereotyping, prejudice, and the limited thinking of English colonizers is a kind of intellectual glue in the second half of the book. The strong analytical statement of that second half is an emphasis on the hierarchies and the harm white planters wrought in this particular early American world. These slave societies were a system of human suffering. Attention to that harm and to everyday life and death is one of the book’s core lessons. As many scholars have noted—and Gary Nash emphasized in his foreword to the 2000 edition—this is not a book about Black agency, culture and community among the enslaved, or about Black resistance. But the historical work done by those kinds of studies is not mutually exclusive from the work done in and by Sugar and Slaves—and that insight has long been my biggest takeaway. Indeed, scholars of slavery studies such as Marisa Fuentes in her work Dispossessed Lives (2016) are currently paying deep attention to how we can attend equally to multiple historical, methodological, and analytical concerns throughout the field.
I am working now on a book about the earliest African re-captives taken by British authorities from slave ships that were operating illegally in the Caribbean between 1807 and 1830. Although many of these men, women, and children were in my dissertation, I have spent many months revisiting them. Sugar and Slaves has pointed me to the effects that outrageously high mortality had in shaping even the lives of free Africans who were just barely rescued from Caribbean enslavement. I have also looked closely at physical descriptions of these individuals, including what I presume were cultural scarifications. In doing so, I have found at least one teenager with unusual cut marks that occurred after their Caribbean arrival, possibly an early documented case of trauma-related self-harm. Figuring out what happened to that young African using often-dehumanizing colonial records, and working around or reading against whatever aims the colonial record-keeper had: this is the radically human and radically humane social history of slave societies that Richard Dunn called historians to write in Sugar and Slaves. I have little doubt and profound hope that such a call will endure.
Laura Rosanne Adderley is Associate Professor of History at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana. At Tulane she is also affiliated with the Africana Studies Program and the Stone Center for Latin American Studies. Adderley is author of “New Negroes from Africa”: Slave Trade Abolition and Free African Settlement in the Nineteenth-Century Caribbean (2006). Following this cultural history, her current book project is focused on research methods, colonial records and the way that Black people envisioned their own life and labor in the era of British Caribbean emancipation. The book is tentatively entitled Archives of Atlantic Abolition: Slave Trade Records, Slave Ship Survivors, and the Everyday Politics of Freedom. Adderley is involved in multiple public history projects related to African diaspora experience and also serves on the board of the Amistad Research Center, an independent archive whose collections focus on the experience of African Americans and other ethnic minorities and Civil Rights history in the United States.