Today’s post is part of our series marking the 75th anniversary of the Omohundro Institute by exploring the OI books that have had an impact on a scholar’s life.
by Natalie Zacek
When I arrived at Johns Hopkins University in September 1992 to begin my graduate studies in history, my first meeting with my supervisor, Jack Greene, concluded with his recommendation that I head for the campus bookstore and purchase a copy of Richard S. Dunn’s Sugar and Slaves. As other members of the “Big Greene Team” will recall, Jack’s reading lists for his seminar and for comprehensive exams in colonial British American history were immensely long, and included both the most recent works of scholarship and those which had been classics when he had started his doctoral studies. But for me, coming into grad school with a strong interest in but remarkably little knowledge of the history and historiography of the English West Indies, it was Dunn’s monograph which he believed would be the ideal starting point.
I no longer have that copy of Sugar and Slaves which I bought at the Hopkins bookstore more than a quarter of a century ago; by the time that I completed my PhD it had become so dog-earned, weak-spined, and filled with marginalia that I replaced it with the Institute’s edition, which was significantly sturdier than and lacked the aesthetically unappealing school-bus-yellow cover of the earlier version. But I remember how enjoyable Dunn’s book was to read, particularly for someone who had been out of academia for a couple of years, and who often felt overwhelmed by the amount and nature of the reading assigned in courses and needed in the research for my various essays. Dunn’s prose was not just clear, but graceful, and he painted vivid pictures of life and, often, death in the tropics—of people, black, white, and racially mixed; of flora and fauna; of settlements; and of values. He published his book at a time in which no such field as environmental history existed, and when the very concept of “environmentalism” tended to be associated with “tree-hugging” hippies rather than Ivy League historians; Alfred Crosby’s The Columbian Exchange was published only that same year, and William Cronon’s Changes in the Land would not appear for over a decade. But although Dunn’s two previous books, Puritans and Yankees (1962) and The Age of Religious Wars (1970), had focused primarily on politics and religion, Sugar and Slaves offers an amazingly vivid and detailed picture of the opportunities and challenges which the tropical environment of the Caribbean presented to those who sought their fortunes there, and argued persuasively that an environment that was so different to those of England and North America was likely to give rise to societies that were also very distinct from the ones which existed in old and New England.
But it was on this last point that I came to differ with Dunn’s analysis. To him, the English communities in the West Indies were not just dissimilar to those in New England and elsewhere in North America; they were inferior, in that they failed to develop the types of institutions, practices, and values which this scholar, whom one of his former graduate students referred to with affection as “the Last Puritan,” valorized as fulfilling the promise of the New World. To Dunn, these islands, as physically lovely and agriculturally fertile as they appeared to their first European inhabitants and the earliest African captives, soon became spaces of misery, degradation, and death. The planters, he stated, “turned their small islands into amazingly effective sugar-production machines, manned by armies of black slaves… They lived fast, spent recklessly, played desperately, and died young… They made their beautiful islands almost uninhabitable… [and] had one consuming ambition—to escape home to England as fast as possible” (xxii-xxiii). For the enslaved, the Caribbean was primarily a graveyard, in which their bodies would soon wear out from malnutrition, overwork, an unfamiliar disease environment, and sheer misery, and as a result few slaves could form the familial connections and cultural resources that helped to make their lives endurable elsewhere in plantation America. In many instances, their masters were also quick to follow them to the grave; they too contended with a hostile physical and epidemiological environment, and, anxious about relinquishing their “Englishness,” refused to alter their habits of diet and dress to those suited to their new homes. Even those who survived “were not mythmakers in the heroic vein of Capt. John Smith, John Winthrop, or William Penn,” and they failed to create, or even try to create, “calypso-style Holy Experiments” or “palm-fringed Cities on a Hill” (xxiii).
While it would be difficult to challenge this description, the overall feeling one gets from Sugar and Slaves is that, while Dunn knows a great deal about the men (and they are nearly all males) of the early planter class, he neither likes them nor respects them. Of course, scholars are often disgusted by the thoughts and acts of the slaveholders they study; even those planters who expressed self-consciously enlightened views were still individuals who held other human beings in bondage, and wielded the power of life and death over them, even if they refrained from using it. But compare Sugar and Slaves with an Institute book published three decades later: Trevor Burnard’s Mastery, Tyranny, and Desire. While Burnard certainly does not valorize his study’s central figure, the eighteenth-century Jamaican plantation manager Thomas Thistlewood, whose voluminous diaries are replete with accounts of his horrific punishments of male slaves and constant sexual depredations against enslaved women, Burnard portrays him as a multi-faceted human being, rather than as an inevitable product of a cruel system of human exploitation. While Dunn’s depictions of the physical realities of the Caribbean are vivid and convincing, those of its inhabitants tend to be flat: masters are cruel, slaves are immiserated, and, to quote Margaret Thatcher, there is no such thing as society in these islands.
These were my thoughts while I was in graduate school, but as I matured intellectually, it became clear to me that I had expected Dunn to write a book of the 1990s or 2000s in the 1970s. In a pre-digital world, his access to primary sources was far more limited than it would be today, and at the time that he researched Sugar and Slaves, the “new social history” was in its early days rather than a dominant mode of historical analysis. If you compare this book with his most recent work, A Tale of Two Plantations (2014), which offers nuanced analysis of the lives of enslaved women, men, and children, and a sense of master-slave relations as fluid and transactional rather than immutably fixed, it is clear that Dunn’s understanding of the nature of slave societies and communities evolved as dramatically as did this field as a whole. At least as importantly, and as previous poster Abigail Swingen has noted, Dunn argued that the English colonies in the West Indies, however different and inferior he felt that they were to those elsewhere in colonial British America, could and should not be excluded from that larger story. It is this, even more than Dunn’s deep archival research, sparkling prose, and brilliantly invoked sense of place, that keeps Sugar and Slaves relevant nearly half a century after its publication.
Natalie Zacek is senior lecturer in American history at the University of Manchester. Her first monograph, Settler Society in the English Leeward Islands, 1670-1776 (Cambridge University Press, 2010) won the Royal Historical Society’s Gladstone Prize, and she is currently completing a cultural history of the nineteenth-century American racetrack.