Richard S. Dunn. Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624-1713. Chapel Hill: The Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture by the University of North Carolina Press, 1972.
In the Fall of 2007, before my first semester in graduate school was even over, I stared at the class schedule for the following Spring with great trepidation. Because I was at a university with a small program, I didn’t have too many choices. I registered for a split-level graduate/undergraduate course on American religious history and I willingly faced the required historical theories and methods course – a difficult gauntlet that every graduate student knows. With great hesitation, I also registered for a graduate seminar in economic history. The Spring of 2008 turned out to be the most difficult of my entire academic career. And while I found the courses on religion and theory to be educational and enriching, the seminar on economic history left an indelible imprint on my mind. However, when I first faced the prospect on having to study economics – a subject that is as obscure to me as the history of professional bowling in Bulgaria – I was scared. A few days before the class started, the professor assigned us four journal articles to read, all of them seminal contributions to the field of economic history. While I was able to grasp most of the material, one of two these readings might as well have been written in ancient Hebrew. Then we got the book list – all but one of the weekly assigned readings dealt primarily with European history. I took a lot of European history as an undergraduate, but American history is much more in my comfort zone. I had no idea what to expect when I showed up for class on the first night, but I knew that just about all of my classmates were in the same boat as me: Americanists not especially mathematically inclined. Thankfully for us, our professor was Laura Cruz, a vibrant and enthusiastic teacher who, although she specialized in Early Modern Dutch economic history (that’s a mouthful), knew that she was dealing with a motley crew. I did southern religion. Christie was toiling away at a thesis on tourism and industry in Appalachia. Cale was ensconced in research on the Boy Scouts of America. Nathan specialized in Native Americans. Several of us were less interested in careers in academia, but instead preoccupied with becoming high school history teachers. If she were teaching a crew of graduate students who desperately loved economics and economic theory, Laura probably would have steered the course in a radically different direction. As it stood, however, she crafted a class that would work for students like us. It turned out to be an amazing – some might say life-changing – course.
We were loaded down with books from the likes of Eric Jones, Ferdinand Braudel, Max Weber, Joel Moykr, E. A. Wrigley, and Sidney Mintz (to name a few). Rather than forcing us to master the subtle nuances of economic historiography, Laura defined economics simply as “the study of human choice” and then taught us to apply the basic principles we learned in these books to our own research, whatever that happened to be. Put another way, we learned to step out of our comfort zones to find heuristic value (as Laura termed it) in our reading. I don’t think that any of us who took Laura’s class that Spring came out quite the same. We pushed our research through economic models and surprised ourselves. I’m not sure if I’ll undertake another quantitative study again, but the experience of doing something so radically different from what I was used to pushed to me to be a better historian, and, dare I say, a better person. When it comes to assessing the historical books I read, I came away knowing that the truly great historians write books that have heuristic value. That is, certain critically important books introduce concepts, methods, and models that, regardless of the author’s historical subject, can radically reshape the way scholars understand any historical subject.
Some books exist because the author was inspired by the heuristic value of another book. This seems to be the case with Richard S. Dunn’s Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624-1713. Dunn’s book owes much of its existence to the pioneering work of Peter Laslett, The World We Have Lost: England Before the Industrial Age, which we read for Laura’s class. Laslett, along with the aforementioned Sir E. A. Wrigley, co-founded the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure – an incredibly well-funded organization dedicated to historical demography. In The World We Have Lost, Laslett studied things like the price of bread in 1619, probed church parish records in unique ways to find out average life expectancy and family structures for English peasants before the Industrial Revolution, and filled his book with dozens of charts and graphs. He then compared his findings of preindustrial England to postindustrial England – which, according to Laslett, might have well been on different planets for all they had in common. Richard Dunn used many of the same methods, although on a much smaller scale and applied them on very different historical actors – English sugar planters.
Dunn’s book is pioneering because no other historical demographer had seriously looked at the English sugar islands, but I put it down feeling unsatisfied. And perhaps that was inevitable – Dunn had very limited source material. It turns out that the planters left very few sources of their own, and, even when they wrote things down, these sources could typically not survive centuries of hot and humid island conditions (paper will rot, after all). Undeterred, Dunn was basically left with a few parish registers, a few firsthand accounts printed in London, one set of plantation records, some scattered probate records, passenger and shipping inventories, whatever he could find in the public records office in London, and maps. While most historians deal with incomplete sources, Dunn’s records were so spotty he was clearly hesitant (with good reason) to draw too many important conclusions from them. So, some of his arguments and generalizations were tentative. Unfortunately, tentative conclusions usually don’t make for a great history book. They usually just leave you feeling unsatisfied. It’s really a shame that Sugar and Slaves leaves you feeling this way, because Dunn’s efforts to bring us an economic and social history of the English islands of Barbados, Jamaica, Antigua, Montserrat, Nevis, and St. Christopher (which is today called St. Kitts) were downright heroic. Normally, if you had to fit all the sources it takes to write a 340-page monograph into one place, you would need to rent a storage unit. Dunn could have probably fit the most of his primary sources on a kitchen table. The feat of creating of something good and useful (if necessarily incomplete) out of almost nothing is astonishing.
There are some books, like Genovese’s Roll, Jordan, Roll, that transcend the era in which they were written. Dunn’s book does not fall into this category – it feels very much like a piece of 1960s or 70s historical research. Nevertheless, just as comparative history was in fashion in the 70s, Sugar and Slaves does an excellent job of comparing the establishment of the English Caribbean colonies and those on mainland North America, such as Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, or Massachusetts. Moreover, the influence of social science is omnipresent. Rather than stressing context and contingency of a specific time and place, Dunn’s research looks for historical patterns that can be observed on, say Barbados, and extrapolated and applied to another place, such Jamaica or Nevis. While I am sometimes hesitant to really buy into this approach, Dunn’s available sources and economic history methods are particularly well-suited for such generalizations. The general pattern, with some exceptions, was that a few settlers went to the various islands and started planting provision crops and tobacco and found themselves mired in poverty. Once sugar caught on, Englishmen quickly cultivated the best land. It is unclear if some people made fortunes with the best land or if English aristocrats used their muscle to acquire the best acres. At any rate, individuals made vast fortunes. Englishmen who chose to actually live there were extreme examples of aristocracy and spent money even more lavishly than their counterparts in England. They imported vast numbers of slaves and drove them hard. There was no middle class – only the very rich (planters) and the very poor (slaves and a few Englishmen). Eventually, the number of English began to decline, thanks to disease and war with the French while the slave population grew rapidly to fill the planter’s demands. This pattern, more or less, repeated itself all over the English Caribbean islands.
The book is structured topically. There is an introductory chapter that describes each island (size, geography, location, etc.), then chapters specifically on Barbados, the Leeward Islands, and Jamaica that explore politics, demographics, and economics. We learn similarities, differences, and find a few historical generalizations. From there, Dunn provides chapters on slavery, sugar (and sugar production), “Life in the Tropics,” and “Death in the Tropics.” Given his available source material and methodological underpinnings, it would have been practically impossible for Dunn to synthesize these chapters into a seamless narrative. It’s always important to remember to criticize an author on their own terms. Put another way, criticize the book they wrote – not the book you wished they had written. And I understand that Dunn was writing about six different islands, each with its own geography and political milieu. But this episodic approach doesn’t really work too well for me. I understand doing separate chapters on the various islands, but other historical research from the 1970s has demonstrated that death rates had a tremendous effect on agriculture, politics, and the development of slavery in other English colonies (the most notable of these remains Edmund S. Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia, which I reviewed for this blog last summer and you can read for yourself). By separating themes like death rate, the process of sugar production, politics, and the emergence of chattel slavery, Dunn does a great disservice to the reader because these topics are, I feel, closely related to each other. While Morgan and Dunn were writing about the same time, I find it hard to believe that Dunn did not know about Morgan’s research or his conclusions. They would have probably been at academic conferences together and, if they did not know each other personally, they had many mutual colleagues. Because of the subject matter, the comparison between Morgan and Dunn is inevitable – and I will freely admit that Morgan’s book is much more satisfying. How did the weighty presence of death in Jamaica or Barbados affect sugar cultivation, slave importation, and colonial politics at a time when England was constantly at war with the French? And how did the experience in the islands differ with the history of early Virginia? By separating the themes of politics, slavery, and death, these interconnected ideas lose much of their potency.
But let me be clear that there is a lot of value in Sugar and Slaves, if not in overall argument, in specifics that Dunn gives the audience. First of all, Dunn asks three questions that allow for creative comparisons between the islands and the 13 mainland colonies, “how did the early English planters in the West Indies respond to the novelty of life in the tropics? to the novelty of large-scale sugar production? and to the novelty of slave labor?” The answers are important because many of people who settled these islands later immigrated to the colonies and brought with them certain English sensibilities, tempered in the conditions of the West Indies. Dunn finds that, outside of England’s rigid social conventions, the men who inhabited the West Indies to cultivate sugar developed larger-than-life personalities. They displayed their wealth lavishly and sought out adventure as a matter of course. Dunn is not the first to notice that Europeans in the Americas acted very differently than they did at home. “[W]hen the Englishmen began to colonize in the Antilles in the 1620s, they were no babes in the woods. They were self-conscious heirs to Hawkins, Drake, and Raleigh, and as Sir Henry Colt put it, they could not rest until they too had ‘doone some thinges worthy of ourselves, or dye in the attempt.'” Dunn’s explanation for the this penchant for outrageousness in the New World is particularly elegant and, for me, convincing. Dunn argues that the Americas were “beyond the line.” To be beyond the line meant to be “outside the territorial limits of European treaties. In America, might made right and international law was suspended…It [also] meant a general flouting of European social conventions.” Thus, Europeans shed their laws and also found themselves outside of the reach of custom, mores, and, ultimately, any sense of shame. Behavior unimaginable in Europe was fair game in the New World. This concept of being outside of the reach of European law and conventions, for me, goes a long way to explain how behavior that might have been totally acceptable in Europe became perfectly normal in the so-called New World.
Dunn also provides pertinent historical information not often found in one place. Dunn gives the reader a useful overview of the political history of each of the six islands. Caribbean history is not my strong suit, and so the information was educational at a pretty elemental level. We learn the basic narrative of the settlement and political development in the Caribbean, and we find out that landed elites came to dominate each place with a totality that was unknown in England. We find cataclysmic natural disasters, governors who were corrupt, elites who were ready to fight any meddlesome policies from England, clergymen more interested in their next sugar crop than any church business, hostile Frenchmen ready to launch a raid at any minute, and slaves ready to rebel. We learn about the lavish lifestyle of the elites, constantly seeking money, power, and pleasure. There are other parts of life completely foreign to modern readers that Dunn illuminates. I have never really experienced agricultural work, much less large-scale sugar cultivation. Dunn provides us with a detailed account of sugar production: labor intensive, time sensitive, dangerous, and, if done correctly, enormously profitable. And, as alluded to above, the experience with sugar is important to American history because many of these planters later moved onto the 13 colonies to seek new opportunities. One of the chief landing places turned out to be South Carolina – one of the most wealthy colonies and a politically important state before the Civil War. The numbers of Barbadians who came are not overwhelming, but the wealth of these immigrants was indeed impressive. Land proved more abundant in Carolina and younger sons of Barbadian planters dreamed (and frequently realized) dramatic fortunes on the mainland. “People like the Middletons and Colletons were drawn to Carolina because of its semitropical setting, which seemed to combine the advantages of Caribbean agriculture with the wholesome environment of the North American mainland… [T]hey carried much of the Caribbean milieu with them. Most basically the Barbadians introduced Negro slavery to South Carolina.” While Dunn recognizes that slavery was inevitable in South Carolina, the Barbadians were experts on chattel slavery and plantation agriculture and, as such, the colony took a very different route than Virginia, which more or less backed into slavery. In the past few decades, South Carolina historians have come to realize the importance of the Barbados connection and Dunn’s discussion of the conditions of Barbados is of ongoing importance to historians of lowcountry South Carolina – and, I feel, this connection with the Caribbean is of great importance to antebellum American history. If not for those Barbadian planters, the South would be quite different today.
Ultimately, Sugar and Slaves is excellent in its rendering of historical information but organized in a way that leaves me underwhelmed. Still, his methodology is firmly rooted in economic history and so Dunn’s book reminds me that that historians we studied in Laura’s class, like Wrigley and Laslett, have indeed had an influence on southern historians like me, if sometimes in a roundabout way. And it’s good for aspiring scholars like myself to be aware of the historiographic genealogy that we are taking heir of. As a southern religious historian, I might want to focus only on the work of historians like John Boles, Eugene Genovese, Donald Mathews, Glenda Gilmore, and Samuel Hill. But Dunn reminds us that there are deep roots to other scholars and it behooves us to tease out those connections to see what we have learned from each other. When I learn about southern history from Dunn, I’m also learning from Laslett. And I’m also reminded of how much I learned from Laura.