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379 pp., 61/8 x 91/4, 10 illus., 31 tables, 1 map, notes, bibl., index

$22.95 Paper
ISBN 978-0-8078-4877-7

Published: Spring 2000

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Sugar and Slaves
The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624-1713

by Richard S. Dunn

Copyright (c) 2000 by the University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.


Twenty-eight years after its original publication, Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624-1713 is still the best place to begin a study of slavery in the British West Indies. In addition, by providing a vivid account of early Caribbean slavery, it provides essential benchmarks for understanding what was different about slavery in England's North American colonies. The book has rewarded readers for many years because, like all lasting historical scholarship, it is an amalgam of deep archival research, methodological ingenuity, new perspectives, and literary grace. Happily, this reissue of the book will bring it before a new generation of readers.

Sugar and Slaves is a brilliant depiction of the outlaw English planters who came to the Caribbean in the early seventeenth century. Because they were the first English colonizers to build an economy on African slave labor, their history provides a comparative perspective on the origins of slavery in England's mainland colonies. Writing at the beginning of the social history tectonic plate shift of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Richard Dunn takes the reader inside the tropical island plantation world where displaced Africans and English colonists built a tobacco and sugar economy that mocked all that the English believed their culture stood for. The book begins in 1624, when the English gained their Caribbean foothold on the tiny island of St. Christopher. From that lonely outpost emerged a "cohesive and potent master class" of tobacco and sugar planters that spread to Barbados, Nevis, Montserrat, Antigua, and Jamaica. The book vividly portrays how the English planters created a living hell in a Caribbean Garden of Eden and how they accommodated themselves to the human wreckage involved in turning the islands into highly successful sugar-producing colonies.

Dunn did not intend to write this book when he went to London in 1962 to work at the Public Record Office on a book concerning the Glorious Rebellion of 1688. Encountering a voluminous body of material on the early English colonies in the tropical West Indies, he shelved his Glorious Rebellion project and threw in his lot with one of the most dynamic and important fields to emerge in the last half-century—the study of slavery in the Western Hemisphere. Sipping his pints at the Queen's Parlor near the Public Record Office, Dunn turned into a social historian. He announces this conversion in the preface to Sugar and Slaves, calling the book a "social history" and speaking of the social historian's search for elusive documentary evidence on the "shadowy and half-forgotten" English planters who came out to the islands and on the Africans by the hundreds of thousands who made their white owners the richest men in British America. This entry into slave studies has now occupied Dunn for more than thirty years.

Fully understanding Sugar and Slaves requires some appreciation of its methodology. When Dunn wrote the book three decades ago, he became part of the first cadre of American social historians taking cues from the illuminating power of family reconstitution, demographic analysis, and social structure studies, as pioneered by the French and English historians of the post-World War II period. New sources had to be ferreted out and analyzed with techniques not then taught in graduate school. Devouring path-breaking community studies on both sides of the Atlantic, Dunn searched out in London and the West Indies the unexamined sources from which a composite portrait of Caribbean colonial life could be created: passenger lists, estate inventories, tax lists, war compensation claims, early censuses, militia lists, parish records, land warrants, customs ledgers, and plantation records. Almost all colonial historians of Dunn's generation were schooled in analyzing literary sources, mostly penned by the uppermost members of society, and this made social history research frustrating, eye-straining, and often inconclusive—but also intriguing and exhilarating. Like moths drawn to the flame, the early social historians were seeking illumination but risking incineration.

In researching Sugar and Slaves, Dunn was faced with a far more formidable task than that confronting the New England social historians whose community studies were emerging in the early 1970s. Kenneth Lockridge's study of tiny Dedham, for example, is based almost entirely on four conveniently collected volumes of town and church records.[1] By contrast, Dunn's study of the rise of the sugar planters on six British West Indian islands is painstakingly researched in far-flung and discouragingly incomplete records. The book, in sum, is a methodological tour de force.

In painting a convincing portrait when only some of the pieces of the canvas are available—always the case in studies of slave societies—literary finesse is the historian's best friend. Dunn's formidable descriptive power and carefully crafted language are part of what makes this book so compelling, as well as readable. For example, at the beginning of the book Dunn writes crisply that "the Englishmen who settled in the islands were not mythmakers in the heroic vein of Capt. John Smith, John Winthrop, or William Penn. They did not attempt calypso-style Holy Experiments, nor did they build palm-fringed Cities on a Hill. The most famous seventeenth-century Englishman in the Caribbean was Sir Henry Morgan, the buccaneer, which is rather like having Al Capone as the most famous American of the twentieth century" (xxiii).

Explaining how the English adapted painfully to the strange new tropical world they struggled to control, Dunn tells us:

Seventeenth-century Englishmen attuned their lives to the weather, to seasonal change, and to the annual cycle of birth, growth, maturity, and death. But in the West Indies, they found a year-round growing season, year-round summer, and year-round heat. They were used to a moderate climate: moderately warm, moderately cold, moderately rainy, moderately sunny. But in the tropics they had to adjust their eyes to brilliant sunlight, and a palette of splashing colors: vegetation startlingly green, fruits and flowers in flaming reds and yellows, the mountains in shimmering blues and greens, shading to deep purple, the moon and stars radiant and sparkling at night, and the encircling sea a spectrum of jeweled colors form cobalt to silver. They found the Caribbean atmosphere to be volatile: blazing heat suddenly relieved by refreshing showers, and soft caressing breezes capriciously dissolving into wild and terrifying storms. In climate, as in European power politics, the Indies lay "beyond the line." (40)

At the end of Sugar and Slaves, Dunn's stylistic deftness and eye for the paradoxical make the reader think broadly about the English colonizers who did not go to Virginia or Massachusetts or Pennsylvania. He writes:

Despite . . . close contacts, the islanders rapidly diverged from the mainlanders, most particularly from the Puritan colonists in New England. . . . The New Englanders, through their numerous elective offices and frequent town meetings, encouraged (indeed almost required) every inhabitant to participate in public life, but in the Indies the big sugar planters completely dominated politics. . . . In New England the young were deferential to their elders, repressed their adolescent rebelliousness, and often waited into their thirties to marry and set up on their own, while in the islands there were no elders, the young were in control, and many a planter made his fortune and died by age thirty. In short, the Caribbean and New England planters were polar opposites; they represented the outer limits of English social expression in the seventeenth century. (337-38)

Dunn's eye for the paradoxical, the bittersweet, and the downright grim, ugly, and tragic is apparent in Sugar and Slaves. At the book's beginning, Dunn explains how the pioneering English planters "made their beautiful islands almost uninhabitable" (xxiii). Midway through his story, he expresses his dismay that "from New England to Virginia to Jamaica, the English planters in seventeenth-century America developed the habit of murdering the soil for a few quick crops and then moving along. On the sugar plantations, unhappily, they also murdered the slaves" (223). Most tragic is his exacting account of how English colonizers "turned their small islands into amazingly effective sugar-production machines, manned by armies of black slaves" (xxi) and how this altered English behavior, values, and ideas. In Dunn's hands, this is a depressing story of human degradation, of the brutalization of Africans, and of the self-brutalization of the English planters and overseers. The English sugar islands, Dunn tells us, were "disastrous social failures" by the early eighteenth century (340), and he barely withholds his scorn for the sugar planters.

It is revealing to compare Sugar and Slaves with Edmund Morgan's American Slavery, American Freedom.[2] Both Dunn and Morgan were known first as gifted historians of Puritan New England, and both turned from the literary sources on which Puritan scholarship was built to the records from which social history is now constructed. For both, asking questions about the character of life at the bottom of society altered their understanding of the motive forces shaping history. Turning from free- to slave-labor societies, both delineated themes, interpreted human behavior, and reached conclusions that made them seem like closet Marxists. Sugar and tobacco production, they explained, developed hand-in-hand with coerced and degraded labor: grasping for wealth, profit-maximizing English planters relentlessly sought overseas markets, ruthlessly exploited fellow humans, accumulated narrowly concentrated power, and resonated very little to liberal ideas and higher values. Both of their books, dealing with class formation and class tension, have a tone of moral outrage at the behavior of the storied freedom-loving English adventurers in the raw Darwinian colonies they constructed. Dunn gloomily ends Sugar and Slaves by concluding: "The stark dichotomy between the all-powerful sugar magnate and his abject army of black bondsmen was the ultimate expression in seventeenth-century English society of man's strenuous search for wealth in an era of primitive productive techniques" (341).

What of the power of ideas? In his chapter titled "Life in the Tropics," Dunn struggles to show how inherited ideas and values continued to matter in the British Caribbean—but only in limited ways. "In their basic living arrangements—food, clothing, and shelter—the early settlers," he explains, hung on to English customs (264). But in this persistence Dunn sees only cultural stubbornness or stupidity in clinging to English habits that ill suited the tropics. They foolishly wore cool-weather garb, ate the wrong food, and built houses absurdly. In all other matters, the English planters tragically abandoned what might have rescued them from the human wreckage they were creating: they turned their backs on the idea of representative assemblies in order to convert the assemblies into platforms for the master class, sabotaged the militia system because it interfered with sugar production, muzzled religion in order to prevent slave unrest, made common law a mockery by withholding due process from three-fourths of the population, and scoffed at education.

At the outset, Dunn imagined his book as mainly a study of the English planter class. Yet in the course of studying plantation records, data on sugar and tobacco exports, and literary sources revealing planter attempts to control the newly formed slave societies he was led inexorably to the enslaved Africans themselves. Though thwarted by the limited evidence on "how the blacks themselves reacted to their treatment by the island planters" (xxiv), he found a wealth of material disclosing slave conditions and slave revolts on the English Caribbean islands. For example, his comparative analysis of slave revolts in Barbados and Jamaica is very instructive, focusing on the far greater chance of their succeeding on the north coast of Jamaica than in Barbados, Virginia, Maryland, or other English colonies where geographical conditions discouraged or thwarted African rebels. This judgment, contrary to that of Orlando Patterson, whose book on Jamaican slavery appeared as Dunn was finishing his study, has stood up to the present.[3]

Given the absence of the kind of sources that are available for later eras—slave narratives, detailed plantation records, and the like—Dunn was able only to begin the process of restoring to memory the lives of the enslaved Africans who made their English masters wealthy. Yet he briefly treats African cultural retentions in the West Indies—language, religion, family structure, and names—and he lays the foundations for studying the inner lives of slaves. In his memorable chapter "Death in the Tropics," he exhibits his skills (later to be sharpened) as a demographic historian by isolating two key factors that dealt out death and impeded fertility so differently in the island and mainland slave populations: first, the especially lethal disease environment in the tropics; second the extraordinarily brutal slaveowners who directed a uniquely punishing crop regimen. Philip Curtin's The Atlantic Slave Trade, published three years before Sugar and Slaves, had noted the huge contrast between the natural increase of British slaves in North America and the demographic disaster of slaves nearly everywhere in the tropics, whether their masters were English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, or Dutch.[4] But Curtin had not explored the causes, mentioning only the possible factor of tropical disease. Dunn, along with James Walvin and Michael Craton in their studies of Worthy Park, a large Jamaican sugar plantation, nailed down the reasons for the disaster.[5] By the early 1970s, Dunn was on his way to a comparative study of African enslavement in mainland and island British America. In a series of essays published over the last two decades, he has used two extraordinary sets of plantation records, each covering more than a century, to compare slave lives in Virginia and Jamaica.[6]

Dunn's analysis of the heartless sugar system in the West Indies swam against the tide of emerging scholarship—what might be called the story of the "heroic enslaved African." Sugar and Slaves was published before Eugene Genovese's Roll, Jordan, Roll, John Blassingame's The Black Community, and Herbert Gutman's The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom.[7] Hence Dunn was not in a position to address their arguments about the resilience of enslaved Africans, African inventiveness in creating new cultural forms, and the near-heroic maintenance of slave family structure. His analysis of African slavery, of course, is about the British Caribbean, but nonetheless it rubs uneasily against the new slavery paradigm constructed in the 1970s and 1980s that gives far more agency to the slaves than Dunn allows.

In Sugar and Slaves (and in subsequent essays), Dunn argues that, in the main, enslaved Africans lived unspeakably difficult lives, dying prematurely, struggling futilely to resist brutalization, and in the end awaiting deliverance at the hands of their oppressors. While never subscribing fully to Stanley Elkins's thesis that the crushing brutality of slavery in the English colonies numbed slaves into becoming "Sambos," Dunn traffics little with the idea of a "slave community" that became popular in the 1970s and 1980s.[8] Mostly he stresses how white brutality thwarted black ambition and achievement. In his essays since the first publication of Sugar and Slaves, he has not strayed from his conclusion that slave systems, whatever the religion and nationality of the masters, whatever the region or crop regimen, afforded little opportunity for coerced Africans to achieve very much or to rebel very effectively. An outpouring of scholarship on West Indian and mainland slavery has mostly confirmed this view.

The question of overt slave resistance is central to this argument about the semi-autonomous roles played by enslaved Africans. "The acid test of any slave system," writes Dunn, "is the frequency and ferocity of resistance by slaves" (256). However, even in Jamaica, Britain's most rebellious colony, African insurrectionists had little effect in bringing an end to slavery. Much more important in destabilizing the British death-dealing sugar economy were hurricanes, earthquakes, malaria epidemics, and French marauders. Ironically, Dunn notes, "the English planters, who treated their slaves with such contemptuous inhumanity, were rescued time and again from disaster by the compassionate generosity of the Negroes" (262).

Considering today's strenuous debates over "the objectivity question," a final note is warranted on Dunn's value judgments in Sugar and Slaves. Subtly threaded through Dunn's Sugar and Slaves is a quality that must be called moral. It appears in rueful comments, in wordplay signaling a raised eyebrow, in suggestive juxtapositions of material, and occasionally in passages expressing righteous outrage. Though a thoroughly professional historian with a decent respect for impartiality, Dunn is impatient with man's inhumanity to man, with unconscionable behavior, and quite pointedly with the massive contradictions of freedom-loving English planters creating hell on earth for Africans. The grandson and son of Presbyterian ministers, the nephew of Congregationalist and Episcopalian preachers, the descendent of Ulster immigrants to East New Jersey in the 1680s, Dunn has channeled his family's moral temperament into an academic career. There is hardly such a thing as a notable historian who is not a passionate historian. Dunn is both.

Gary B. Nash University of California, Los Angeles

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