Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture

Uncommon Sense—the blog

OI Books: Shifting the Conversation on Slavery

· September 4th, 2018 · No Comments

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 Abigail Swingen

The pages of my copy of Richard S. Dunn’s Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies are dog-eared thirty-one times. I referred to it repeatedly while I wrote my dissertation and my book. I first encountered the book in a class on colonial America in graduate school, but I did not really delve into it until I started to research my dissertation on unfree labor in the early English empire. I remember taking it with me practically everywhere I went on my first trip to the UK archives in the summer of 2002, reading it while on the Tube down to Kew, in coffee shops around London, and in the garden behind the dorm where I stayed at the University of Bristol. I’m sure many of the dog-ears date from that summer. In many ways the book remains indispensable to our understanding of the early English Caribbean colonies and how and why slavery played such an important role in their social and economic evolution.

While reviewing Dunn’s book for this post, I was reminded what an important corrective it was to the traditional approaches to the study of empire that had dominated scholarship during the first half of the twentieth century. As Dunn shows, the early British empire was not simply about “mercantilist” commercial policies and laws, but about people on the ground. His focus on the rise of the white planter class was groundbreaking. These were extraordinarily wealthy men who became incredibly politically powerful, who did everything they could to stay wealthy and powerful. They lived hard, difficult lives, and got rich from a system of coerced labor that treated enslaved people, as Dunn puts it, “as dehumanized cogs in a very inefficient machine” (324). Although histories of colonial North America had taken a social history “turn” by the time Dunn wrote his book in the early 1970s, such an approach had not really been applied to the English Caribbean colonies. As a work of social history, the book contains deep analyses of demography, work regimes, family structures, and everyday life among those who lived and worked in the West Indies, including planters, indentured servants, and enslaved Africans.

Although Dunn’s book is not exactly in conversation with the “Williams Thesis” regarding the connections between profits from sugar and Britain’s later industrial development, it can be read as a prequel to Eric Williams’s analysis. Dunn elucidates how sugar planters in the 1600s became extraordinarily wealthy, laying the foundations for even more growth during the eighteenth century. He concludes that what made English planters so rich—the sugar plantation system based on the labor of enslaved Africans—“was totally without precedent in the English experience” (335). Like Williams, Dunn argues that racism quickly came to justify and regulate slavery in the English colonies, but it was not the main reason why planters were willing to use enslaved Africans for their plantations. “Economic exploitation seems to be the prime motive,” Dunn writes, “racism conveniently justified and bolstered the use of forced black labor” (225).

Upon re-reading the book I was struck by how much environmental and agricultural history Dunn included, with thick descriptions of early modern sugarcane cultivation and its devastating impact not only on enslaved people, but on the land in places like Barbados, Antigua, and Jamaica. Dunn describes a plantation system that needed to operate with almost factory-like precision. As much as Dunn emphasizes the horrific uniqueness of the sugar plantation system in the English West Indies, he also argues that the Caribbean colonies were not all that far removed from those in North America. The sugar plantation system fostered a significant amount of interdependence among England’s colonies. Because planters focused on cultivating as much sugarcane as possible, the West Indies were dependent upon the New England and Mid-Atlantic colonies for food, clothing, and livestock. In emphasizing such connections, Dunn reminds readers that developments in the West Indies did not occur in a vacuum. As Dunn writes, “investigation into the early slave system in the sugar islands helps to explain how and why Negro bondage spread to North America, for the mainland colonists borrowed heavily from their island cousins even as they worked out a distinctly different formula” (225).

Most significant for my own research were the choices Dunn made in terms of inserting metropolitan politics into his narrative. Dunn mainly focuses on the clashes that occurred between the new class of wealthy planters and directives emanating from London in moments of crisis or transition. From the perspective of a historian of England, it was a slightly stilted, although understandable, approach. But it gave me a way to think about how the early English empire was conceived and managed from the metropole, particularly the role that slavery and the slave trade played in those developments. In my own work, I came to argue that the acceptance of slavery and the slave trade as key to early English imperialism was not something that only happened in the colonies but was fundamental to how people in England understood and promoted the empire. The system of sugar plantation slavery may have been unique to the English colonial experience, but it happened with the full knowledge and participation of those in power in England. Nevertheless, Dunn’s main contribution to the scholarship on slavery is his focus on larger social and economic systems. The sugar plantation system was supported by structures of white supremacy and violence, driven by the desire for profit. White planters and enslaved Africans alike suffered as a result of this system and the unwillingness of the planter class to better adapt to the tropical climate. Enslaved people, through the dehumanizing process Dunn describes, were “murdered” by the relentless work regime sugarcane cultivation required (223).

What seems missing from Dunn’s analysis, especially when reading it after forty more years of scholarship on the subject, is a more individualized approach to the lives and experiences of enslaved people. They are mostly treated as a whole, as “slaves” or “blacks.” Although Dunn concludes the effects of the plantation system were horrific, he does not fully examine this beyond the surface. In part this is a limitation of the sources Dunn used, which included Colonial Office records and occasional accounts of plantation life by white observers, not to mention probate materials from the planters themselves. In the chapter titled “Slaves,” for example, I was struck by his focus on slave laws and institutions such as the Royal African Company rather than the lived experiences of enslaved people. Although there is a section on resistance among the enslaved, it focuses mainly on how planters dealt with rebellions through brutal punishments and less on everyday acts of resistance. Still, Dunn’s focus on the horrors of the world that white planters created in many ways helped lay the foundations for later generations of scholars who have focused on the demographic disasters of the English West Indies.

During the early 1970s, a number of books were published on slavery in the English Caribbean, including books by Orlando Patterson, Richard Sheridan, Carl and Roberta Bridenbaugh, Michael Craton, and James Walvin. Dunn’s book was thus of its time. It would now be unheard of to design a graduate course on colonial America without incorporating the English West Indies and slavery. Dunn’s groundbreaking research contributed to this important shift in how scholars understand and define “colonial America.”

Abigail Swingen is associate professor of history at Texas Tech University and the author of Competing Visions of Empire: Labor, Slavery, and the Origins of the British Atlantic Empire (Yale, 2015). You can follow her on Twitter @abbyswingen.

Leave a Reply