Teaching Through Primary Sources: Henry Drax’s Plantation Instructions

draxhallPrimary sources form an important part of the assignments for any of my undergraduate classes. As with any set readings, some of these sources work more successfully than others. One source that has proven reliably successful is Henry Drax’s instructions on running a sugar plantation in seventeenth-century Barbados. Back in my graduate student days, I prepared an initial transcription of the instructions as a research assistant. Thankfully, my students don’t have to grapple with some of the more eccentric approaches to handwriting in the original copy, and can instead read the 2009 William and Mary Quarterly “Sources and Interpretations” piece written by Peter Thompson. [1]

In the classroom, Drax’s instructions have not yet failed to provoke sustained discussion and thoughtful primary source analyses; at the end of my colonial America courses, students have singled out the instructions as the primary source they have found the most stimulating. Why has the source proven so successful?

One reason, I think, is that while images of slavery are ubiquitous in American historical culture, attempts to convey the horrors of the institution can easily seem exaggerated. Students recognize that slavery was a brutal and cruel institution, but an approach to recreating plantation life can easily rely excessively on anecdote. It’s an approach that can easily get a student’s attention; it also runs the risk of seeming exaggerated. (I will be interested to see how this changes as 12 Years A Slave enters general cultural consciousness).

Drax’s instructions, by contrast, are so unremittingly meticulous that the sense of an oppressive, controlling, and inhuman system keeps building for the reader. It is unremittingly clear how slaves were simply seen as cogs in a machine, at every part of the sugar production process, and in every part of plantation life.  This is most chillingly seen in the off-hand way that Drax identifies the necessity of replacing as much as 20% of his plantation’s workforce on account of death (noted also in Thompson’s introduction to the document). [2] But while that revelation is certainly a jolt to the system, it is the specificity with which tasks, punishments, and even the selection of certain ‘favorites’ to dine with the family are detailed that provide the real value of the source in the classroom.

It might seem strange that students, who may occasionally be resistant to an overload of detail, find the intricate nature of Drax’s instructions so appealing. Drax’s Instructions, though, clearly demonstrate that the devil is in the details. That familiar images of the chain gang, as horrific as they may be, ultimately don’t convey the systemic nature of the plantation system. Drax’s Instructions therefore transcend both the general overview and the anecdotal approach to transmitting the true nature of slavery. That middle position is rare in primary sources suitable for the classroom – but it certainly provides for some of the most engaged discussion I’ve witnessed in class.


[1] Peter Thompson, “Henry Drax’s Instructions on the Management of a Seventeenth-Century Barbadian Sugar Plantation,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series 66, no. 3 (2009): 565-604.

[2] Ibid., 575-6.

2 comments on “Teaching Through Primary Sources: Henry Drax’s Plantation Instructions

  1. Jon Roland says:

    The Thompson introduction and annotations are copyrighted, but the original Henry Drax document is not, so is a copy of it available somewhere that can be downloaded?

  2. Dave Mazella says:

    Jon, did you see that the published essay contains a modernized transcription, pp. 582-604? This seems perfectly useable for undergrad and grad classes. Alternatively, you could use a copy of Belgrove’s Treatise of Husbandry, which seems available through Early American Imprints or Gale Cengage.


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