Roundtable: Richard S. Dunn, A Tale of Two Plantations

Roundtable: Richard S. Dunn, <i>A Tale of Two Plantations</i>

Dunn Roundtable CoverThis week The Junto is dedicated to a roundtable review of Richard S. Dunn’s A Tale of Two Plantations: Slave Life and Labor in Jamaica and Virginia (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014). Professor Emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania, Dunn’s previous publications include one of the seminal texts on Caribbean slavery and sugar plantation agriculture, Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624-1713 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1972). Dunn’s newest book is an unflinching study of Afro-Caribbean and antebellum U.S. slavery in the final decades of both systems. Through a detailed demographic analysis of the enslaved plantation populations of Mesopotamia in Jamaica and Mount Airy in Virginia, A Tale of Two Plantations follows in the tradition of historians like Gwendolyn Midlo Hall and Philip D. Morgan in using comparative methods to study the multiplicities of enslaved experiences throughout the Atlantic World. Unlike many of the comparative studies of fully developed slave systems, however, Dunn’s remarkable source base allows readers to follow multigenerational enslaved families and their varied experiences laboring to produce Virginia wheat, Alabama cotton, or Jamaican sugar. Nearly forty years in the making, A Tale of Two Plantations covers a lot of ground and, as such, each day this week The Junto will post a different review by one of our contributors, beginning with my brief introduction, followed by Jessica Parr (Tuesday), Roy Rogers (Wednesday), Ben Park (Thursday), and an interview with Professor Dunn conducted by Sara Georgini to cap the week off (Friday). Each of these reviews will discuss a different aspect of Dunn’s work and will, hopefully, encourage discussion of this impressive piece of scholarship.

Perhaps the most important aspect of Dunn’s decades-long undertaking is not contained within the pages of his new book. As Dunn states in his introduction, the primary aim of A Tale of Two Plantations was to reconstruct the lives of 2,000 enslaved individuals in Jamaica from 1762 until 1833 and in Virginia from 1808 until 1865. But Dunn’s research accomplishes more than just surveying enslaved communities on two different plantations—his work has allowed him to trace generations of single families across time on Mesopotamia and Mount Airy. And, for the rest of us, the bulk of his research is available online at From detailed family trees to clear analysis, the website’s design and information make it an invaluable resource for early Americanists both inside and outside of the classroom. As Ben Park will discuss this Internet resource in more detail on Thursday, my introduction will focus on the book itself.

Works of comparative history frequently encounter two related critiques: either the author compared apples to oranges and therefore revealed little more than stark differences, or the author presented two stories side-by-side without adequately demonstrating what was gained by the approach. For Dunn, however, reconstructing the lives of the enslaved individuals of Mesopotamia and Mount Airy demonstrates the fundamental difference between Caribbean and North American slavery in a revealing and tangible way. On the one hand, Mesopotamia suffered high mortality rates while the enslaved population of Mount Airy experienced demographic growth. On the other hand, Mesopotamia’s enslaved community had little to no contact with the Barhams—the family who owned the plantation—while Mount Airy slaves had frequent interactions with the owners of their labor, the Tayloes. Pointing out that mortality rates were higher in the Caribbean or that Jamaican planters were more frequently absentee owners are not shocking revelations to students of New World slavery. The innovation of Dunn’s work, however, comes through his analysis of the ways in which individual families experienced slavery across generations and, perhaps more importantly, that the experiences of enslaved individuals in each community varied tremendously.

When Professor Dunn began his research on this book, the publication of Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman’s Time on the Cross (1974) shaped approaches to raw data on enslaved communities through methods of quantifying and number crunching. Seeking to “present the Mesopotamia and Mount Airy slaves as people rather than digits,” Dunn embarked on the more difficult task of constructing generational biographies in an age before personal computers (15). Nor does Dunn’s new book follow in the model of more recent biographies of enslaved individuals—such as Jon Sensbach’s Rebecca’s Revival or James Sweet’s Domingos Álvaresbecause, as Dunn points out, the people who form the fiber of A Tale of Two Plantations were not exceptional individuals. The Sarah Affirs and Whinney Grimshaws of Dunn’s narrative did not travel to Germany and preach on itinerant missions nor fall afoul of the Inquisition and get sentenced to exile. Rather, Dunn’s narrative explores the details of quotidian plantation life in two regions, thereby exposing what the horrors of slavery would have been like for the majority of enslaved individuals in the English-speaking Caribbean and antebellum South.

Despite the on-the-ground approach that makes the book so satisfying, Dunn also steps out of the day-to-day narrative in order to make interventions into some of the longstanding debates in the study of both Caribbean and North American slavery. Two interventions deserve mention here, albeit briefly. First, while Dunn accepts the standard interpretation for the high mortality rates among of Caribbean slaves – namely overwork, poor nutrition, and deadly diseases—he asserts that none of these factors explain why enslaved males died in higher numbers than their female counterparts. In an argument that will surely spark much debate among the scholarly community, Dunn contends that the psychological impact of the “emasculation” of male slaves could explain their higher demographic decline (157). For Dunn, this psychological stress had mortal consequences for enslaved Caribbean males. For this reviewer, however, what is less clear is why the constant threat of sexual violence and exploitation did not have similarly deadly consequences for enslaved women?

In the second intervention sure to stimulate dialogue, Dunn analyzes the transportation of Tayloe slaves from Mount Airy in Virginia to another Tayloe plantation in Alabama during the first half of the nineteenth century. While Dunn describes the internal slave trade as a traumatic disruption of enslaved families for the majority of individuals forced to travel thousands of miles to unforgiving new plantations, he argues that for Mount Airy slaves perhaps the internal slave trade was less disruptive. Dunn demonstrates that many Mount Airy slaves were reunited with family members who had been sent to Alabama earlier. For this reason, Dunn asserts that perhaps historians of the internal slave trade have overlooked the “pull factors” that may have induced enslaved individuals to want to leave the upper South for the lower (321). Moreover, Dunn emphasizes that the majority of Mount Airy slaves were not broken up by sale in Alabama—making the maintenance of family ties a possibility usually not seen in studies of the antebellum internal slave trade.

A Tale of Two Plantations is, beyond a doubt, an imposing and remarkable piece of scholarship written by one of the profession’s best. As a work of comparative history, Dunn expertly weaves together the lived experiences of two very different enslaved communities while making clear the utility of seeing these stories side-by-side. A Tale of Two Plantations’ exceptional source base and Dunn’s provocative conclusions guarantee that this is a book sure to spark much dialogue in the coming months.

9 responses

  1. I am the great-grandson of the miller who helped save the Mt. Airy plantation when fire nearly destroyed it and I would very much like to communicate with Richard S. Dunn the author of a Tale of Two Plantations which I purchased two weeks ago, Got any idea of how I might communicate with the author

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  3. Mr. McKenney — Might I speak with you about your ancestor, please? I’m a journalist with a local newspaper, The Free Lance-Star, who’s interested in Professor Dunn’s work. I’d be interested in hearing more about your kin, not necessarily for an article.

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  5. A Tale of Two Plantations is perhaps the most significant study of slavery. I was shocked to hear that Dunn had been working on the Barham plantation in Jamaica. I recently found the family of Edward Thache there and a woman named Elizabeth Thache who had married Dr. Henry Barham in April 1720 in St. Catherine”s Parish. I think she was Edward Thache’s daughter… so, the daughter of Blackbeard the Pirate! I have a blog entry talking about Dunn’s new book and the implications from my work on Edward Thache:

  6. A bit tardy, but I also enjoyed the roundtable. Richard S. Dunn published a WMQ article on “John Winthrop, Jr., and the Narragansett Country” that, almost sixty years later, figured into my lit review.

  7. Doing family tree research and I appear to be a descendant of Ogle Lawson. Would love to speak to Richard Dunn to see if he has more information on the Lawson’s.

  8. I am a descendant of Sally Thurston and would love to speak with Richard Dunn. I wondered if there were any pictures.


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