Richard S. Dunn: The Historian I Knew before Sugar and Slaves – Nicholas Canny

My first meeting with Richard Dunn was on the day after Labor Day 1967 when I reported to the History Department at the University of Pennsylvania to take up the four-year fellowship I had been awarded to sustain my study for a Ph.D. in history. My ambition was to write a dissertation that would position the plantations the English government promoted in Ireland during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries within the broader context of British overseas enterprise, especially in North America. 

I could, presumably, have undertaken such a topic at a university in England (Cambridge was the usual destination for ambitious Irish graduate students of history at that time), but what I had in mind was not then in fashion there. Moreover, I felt intimidated at the prospect of becoming a student in an “establishment” institution in Britain, and it struck me that study in the United States would be more congenial. To this end, I applied for financial support from some distinguished American graduate schools and Penn made the best offer. My success in securing a fellowship must have been due in large part to the persuasiveness of the excessively ambitious research proposal I had advanced, and to strong support from my undergraduate teachers. 

Figure 1. Richard Dunn and Nicholas Canny taking a nap after lunch at Canny’s home in Douarnenez, France, summer 2018. Photo provided by the author.

Richard Dunn, then still an Associate Professor at Penn, was appointed as my mentor. He would have been attracted to my topic because he had been combining his expertise in British history with fresh investigations into the history of colonial America, which he had done most effectively in his first book Puritans and Yankees, published in 1962. Now, with the advantage of hindsight, I suspect that Richard’s support of my application was influenced also by his desire to give a chance to “a promising young candidate” from a deprived background. He, together with Mary Maples Dunn, had been on a recent walking tour in the west of Ireland where they would have witnessed the dire poverty and constrained educational opportunities that were manifest there at that time.

Soon after I received my fellowship offer in April 1967, Richard followed up with a long letter of advice on how I should prepare myself for life in Philadelphia. In writing he, characteristically, also mentioned some books I might read that would ease my way into graduate school, and he scheduled our meeting in College Hall for 10 a.m. on the first day of the new academic year. What he did not know is that previous to 1967, I had only once ever been outside Ireland, and that on a student expedition to Germany in very cold weather. My association of cold with foreign places was all the more acute because my mother knew from some of her aunts and uncles who had made their homes in Brooklyn and Chicago that the winter cold was the biggest initial challenge that an Irish immigrant to America would face. To meet this challenge, I arrived in the U.S. on the 27th of August in 1967 in a tailor-made, thorn-proof tweed suit with a matching heavy tweed overcoat, carrying a green suitcase. A few days’ experience with the climate in Philadelphia in late August convinced me that I had better keep the overcoat in reserve for winter. However, I thought it only proper that I should present myself for this first meeting with my mentor in the only suit and tie I possessed. 

My first days in America also gave me some understanding of the merits of air conditioning and I reported to College Hall well ahead of the time scheduled for our meeting so I could find refuge from the rising heat and humidity outside in its cool interior. When Richard arrived on the dot of time he, too, was wearing a suit but one made from a light olive-colored cotton fabric that contrasted with my dark green heavy tweed. He, too, seemed formal with a yellowish bow tie, but once we greeted each other, he, much to my relief, set an example of relaxed informality by taking off his jacket. I did likewise and we continued our conversation in shirtsleeves. After I  reminded Richard–then Dr. Dunn–of my ambitions and boasted of my achievements, I proudly presented him with a copy of the M.A. dissertation I had just completed at what was then University College, Galway. This, as well as our conversation on more general historical matters, led Richard to the conclusion that I already knew how to compile evidence and to formulate an argument, but that my reading in recent historical literature did not match my ambition to be expansive. This was hardly surprising since university libraries in Ireland had scarcely any budgets for book purchase since the country achieved its independence from Britain in 1922. 

Figure 2. Richard Dunn as a professor. Photo from the Dunn Family Collection.

As Richard sketched out an agenda for two years of course work to remedy the deficits in my previous education, I concluded that he would be a fair but firm guide. I also gained the impression from our conversation that his particular historical interest lay in British history of the seventeenth century and in England’s evolving relationship with its American colonies. He confirmed this in his graduate seminar that year, where the first required reading for all participants was the recently published J.H. Plumb, The Growth of Political Stability in England, 1675-1725 (1967). Thereafter, a recurrent theme of the seminar was that the attainment of political stability within an English-dominated world became more precarious whenever the government at Whitehall sought to absorb the territories that English adventurers and traders had acquired in America, including in the Caribbean, into a single polity governed from London. 

The recommended reading material for this seminar was reasonably balanced between what had been published on seventeenth-century English history and on the history of Britain’s American colonies during that same century. However, there was no escaping Richard’s belief that recent publications on seventeenth-century English history were conceptually and methodologically superior to those on colonial British America and that they offered examples that historians of the colonies must imitate if they wanted to have their work taken seriously. I particularly recall Richard’s admiration for books such as Charles Wilson’s England’s Apprenticeship, published in 1965; Lawrence Stone’s Crisis of the Aristocracy, which appeared in an abridged paperback edition in 1967; Peter Laslett’s The World We Have Lost, which  first appeared in 1965; and The King’s Servants, published in 1961 by Richard’s good friend, Gerald Aylmer. In light of such admiration, it seemed evident, at least to me, that Richard’s ambition for himself was to publish a discipline-defining book on an Anglo-American topic. He had been working for some time on the Glorious Revolution in all its aspects, including in Britain’s mainland and island colonies in America. 

There is every reason to believe that this projected book would have been wide-ranging and challenging if we are to judge from what Richard revealed in 1998 of his thinking on the American side of the project. Moreover, during the late 1960s, Richard was reading extensively in preparation for the textbook on European history that he published in 1970 titled The Age of Religious Wars, 1559-1689. Publishing a book at that time on the Glorious Revolution would have sealed his reputation as a leading scholar of Anglo-America. However, we may not fully appreciate today that his reputation was already secure, and was further enhanced when he and Mary Maples Dunn, with support from a research team, prepared a four-volume edition of The Papers of William Penn (published sequentially between 1981 and 1987). Richard further consolidated his standing as an Anglo-American specialist when he returned to his first research interest in 1996 with a masterly edition of The Journal of John Winthrop, 1630-1649 on which he had worked jointly with Laetitia Yeandle. 

Nevertheless, in light of Richard’s interests and expertise in the late 1960s, nobody during my years at Penn–least of all Richard himself–could have anticipated that when he was appointed to a named chair in 1984, it would be as a Professor of American History. But everybody would have considered it appropriate that the chair he was offered was named after Roy. F. and Jeanette P. Nicholls, because Richard had been a regular visitor to the bedside of Roy Nicholls during his long struggle with Alzheimer’s to which he finally succumbed in 1973. 

The process by which Richard, one of the leading authorities of his generation on the seventeenth-century Anglo-American world, was converted to a historian of the Americas was triggered by his chance archival discovery of a detailed census of the island of Barbados that the governor of that colony had commissioned in 1680. This compilation, which Richard mentioned intermittently during the Dunn seminar of my second year, was precisely the type of source that had enabled Peter Laslett’s The World We Have Lost. For Laslett, the key source was the population estimate of England that statistician Gregory King had compiled in 1696. It was also similar to, but more comprehensive, than the various parish records that a rising generation of social historians studying colonial British America–including Philip Greven, Kenneth Lockridge, John Demos, and Mike Zuckerman–had put to good purpose in their doctoral dissertations. When I was attending the Dunn seminar, the work of these researchers was already being published in journal articles and was to result in a cluster of books on New England towns that appeared in print in 1970. Richard’s discovery and analysis of his new-found source persuaded him to abandon his projected book on the Glorious Revolution. He opted instead to emulate the work of Laslett and his American disciples by reconstituting the economy and society that English entrepreneurs created on Barbados and neighboring islands towards the close of the seventeenth century. This became the subject of Sugar and Slaves that appeared in print in 1972. 

Figure 3. Book cover for Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624-1713 by Richard Dunn. Image provided by Rosalind Beiler.

This book, as was indicated by its subtitle, “the Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624-1713,” was still a chapter in the history of the Anglo-American world of the late seventeenth century. However, the sources that Richard used and the questions he raised enabled him to write also of the lives and deaths of the enslaved. This focus brought him into the mainstream of American history where some of the most original and exciting scholarship was just then being dedicated to reconstituting life on the slave plantations of the American South. Sugar and Slaves gave Richard a point of reference far removed from events in seventeenth-century England, and won him recognition as an Americanist. However, those who knew Richard Dunn in his earlier career respected him also as a pioneering investigator of the Anglo-American world of the seventeenth century.

Nicholas Canny, who studied with Richard Dunn at the University of Pennsylvania from 1967 to 1971, held the Established Chair in History from 1979 to 2009 at the University of Galway within the National University of Ireland system. There he was also founding Director of the Moore Institute from 2000 to 2011 and Vice President for Research from 2005 to 2008. An expert on early modern history broadly defined, he edited the first volume of The Oxford History of the British Empire (1998) and, with Philip D. Morgan, The Oxford Handbook of the Atlantic World, c.1450-c.1850 (2011). His major books on Irish History have been The Elizabethan Conquest of Ireland, A Pattern Established, 1565-1576 (Harvester Press, 1976); The Upstart Earl: A Study of the Social and Mental World of Richard Boyle, First Earl of Cork, 1566-1643 (Cambridge University Press, 1982), Making Ireland British, 1580-1650 (Oxford University Press, 2001), and Imagining Ireland’s Pasts: Early Modern Ireland through the Centuries (Oxford University Press 2021).

He is a Fellow of the British Academy (2005), a Member of the Royal Irish Academy (1981), of Academia Europaea, (1995), of the American Philosophical Society (2007), and of Real Academia de la Historia (Madrid) (2011). He served as President of the Royal Irish Academy, 2008-11, and was appointed by the European Commission to the Scientific Council of the European Research Council. 2011-16. He has been twice winner of the Irish Historical Research Prize.