Richard Dunn’s Sugar and Slaves at Fifty Years – Trevor Burnard

Historians are surprisingly poor at honoring the works of the historians who went before them.  We are focused on the present, at least when we consider historiographical trends. We tend to relegate historical masterpieces to distant memory. Our amnesia about the great historians of the recent past has become even more pronounced as we have moved into the twenty-first century and as we have dropped from our reading lists many books that have a twentieth century imprint. Books published before 2000 seem, to us and to our students, just old and out of date. 

I remember well a manifestation of this love of the immediate past during discussions over dinner in Curacao in the 2010s with Mary and Richard Dunn, Alison Games, Roderick McDonald and Michelle Craig McDonald. Mary amused us all by teasing Richard about a comment made at the conference proceedings that day at the Association of Caribbean Historians. An early career scholar, educated mostly in the twenty-first century, had noted that Richard was a prominent twentieth-century historian of the West Indies, a comment that seemed to suggest his scholarship had all been done in the distant past. The speaker was referring, of course, to Richard’s 1972 masterpiece, Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624-1713, which is the subject of this post.

Figure 1. The original 1972 cover of Sugar and Slaves by Richard Dunn. Image in Public Domain.

Of course, Mary’s teasing, while very funny, was utterly misplaced. Richard was far from being an historian whose work had been written so long ago that it was no longer au courant. He was an adventurous and forward-thinking scholar whose research on the Caribbean is as vital today as it was in the 1970s. It is easy to imagine, however, a Richard Dunn whose scholarship might have developed in much more conventional ways than it did. He was trained in seventeenth-century Anglo-American history at Harvard and Princeton. In his early years as a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, he wrote books on traditional topics, such as New England puritans and the religious wars of Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. One might have guessed in the mid-1960s that his scholarship  would continue on the same trajectory. Indeed, that seemed to be the case when he embarked upon a project (never completed, though it did inspire some outstanding essays along the way) to write about the Glorious Revolution of 1689-90 in a transatlantic context. 

Figure 2. Richard and Mary Maples Dunn with Michelle Craig McDonald, at the Association of Caribbean Historians conference, Curacao, 2012. Photo provided by Michelle Craig McDonald.

But Richard got waylaid by a document that he came across, somewhat accidentally, at the Public Record Office in Chancery Lane, London (now the National Archive). That document stopped any move toward conventional scholarship dead in its tracks. Richard found a census of Barbados in 1680 that showed how the transition to sugar and African chattel slavery a generation earlier had fostered the growth of the wealthiest ruling class in seventeenth-century English America. The result of this discovery was Sugar and Slaves.  The impact of Sugar and Slaves was immediate and lasting. In my opinion, it ranks with Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery (1944), Richard Pares, A West India Fortune (1950), and Elsa Goveia’s Slave Society in the British Leeward Islands (1965) as the most significant book on the early English Caribbean in the middle years of the twentieth century. No other book in the last fifty years has approached its influence, historical esteem, and writerly verve, although Vincent Brown’s 2021 Tacky’s Revolt has won enough prizes to suggest it might join Dunn’s work in the pantheon of great books on the history of the British Caribbean during slavery.

It seemed to me and Alison Games that the fifty-year anniversary of the publication of Sugar and Slaves was an appropriate time to reflect on  this book’s influence over time. Thus, we organized a workshop in June 2021 with speakers from Europe and North America who ranged in status from graduate students to emeritus professors. That workshop led to a special issue in  Early American Studies in fall 2022. 

Figure 3. Richard Dunn’s laptop while attending the virtual workshop in honor of Sugar and Slaves on its 50th anniversary, June 2021. Photo from the Dunn Family Collection.

 The highlight of the workshop was that Richard was able to attend and  listened attentively to every paper. Richard, aged nearly 93 at the time, was not in great physical health and indeed he died relatively soon after, in January 2022. But if struggling physically, he was in great shape mentally and gave a fascinating and moving presentation at the end which placed Sugar and Slaves in historical context. The workshop and the  special issue of EAS both demonstrate the lasting power of Sugar and Slaves as a mid-twentieth-century historical masterpiece and show how the themes Richard developed have evolved and transformed over time. As Richard noted, the scholarship on this period of English Caribbean history is notably denser and richer than was the case when he started his work. Our introduction to the special issue outlines some of the ways in which scholarship on the topics that Richard brought to attention in 1972 have changed over time.

A special feature of the workshop was a session in which close colleagues of Richard – Sir Hilary Beckles, Roseanne Adderley, Roderick McDonald and Nicholas Canny – reflected on Sugar and Slaves and what it meant to them and also on how Richard himself had shaped their views of early Caribbean history. Three of these reminiscences as well as Richard’s comments are included with this post as separate features. For me, the opportunity to do homage to a great book, written by a wonderful historian, was the highlight of both the workshop and the special issue. The best way to acknowledge a mentor and colleague, I believe, is to take his or her work seriously. This is what Alison and I have tried to do here and in EAS for Sugar and Slaves, a book that retains its power and vitality, even fifty years after it was first published.

Trevor Burnard,

Wilberforce Professor of Slavery and Emancipation and Director, the Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull.

Trevor Burnard is the Wilberforce Professor of Slavery and Emancipation at the University of Hull and the Director of the Wilberforce Institute. He is a member of the Modern Slavery Policy and Evidence Centre Senior Management Board. He has taught at the University of the West Indies, the University of Canterbury, Brunel University, the University of Sussex, and the University of Warwick. Between 2011 and 2018 he was Professor of American History and Head of School in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne. In addition to many articles, book chapters and edited books on the Caribbean and the Chesapeake, Trevor has written numerous books. Two of his monographs are Creole Gentlemen: The Maryland Elite 1690-1776 (New York and London: Routledge, 2002) and a prize-winning study of a Jamaican slave overseer, Mastery, Tyranny, and Desire: Thomas Thistlewood and His Slaves in the Anglo-Jamaican World (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004). He has published a study of plantation societies in late seventeenth and eighteenth-century British North America and the West Indies in the American Beginnings Series called Planters, Merchants, and Slaves: Plantation Societies in British America, 1650-1820 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015). In June 2016, he published a co-authored comparative study of colonialism and slavery (with John Garrigus of University of Texas at Arlington) titled The Plantation Machine: Atlantic Capitalism in French Saint-Domingue and British Jamaica (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016). In 2020 he published two syntheses – The Atlantic in World History, 1492- 1830 (London: Bloomsbury) and Britain in the Wider World (London: Routledge) – and the monograph Jamaica in the Age of Revolution (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania). He has been the editor-in-chief of the Oxford Bibliography Online in Atlantic History since 2009. In 2022, he published Humanitarianism, Empire and Transnationalism, 1760-1995 (with Joy Damousi and Alan Lester) and in early 2023 he will publish Writing Early America: From British Empire to the American Revolution (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press).