Richard Dunn, Sugar and Slaves, at Fifty Years 

Professor Trevor Burnard

Wilberforce Professor of Slavery and Emancipation and Director

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

Following a workshop earlier this year on Richard Dunn’s Sugar and Slaves, first published in 1972, contributors reproduced their talks for a special issue in the eminent early American history journal, Early American Studies, which has just been published. This blog by Professor  Burnard was written to accompany it.  

Historians are surprisingly poor at honoring the works of the historians who went before them.  We are focused on the present, at least when we consider historiographical trends. We tend to relegate historical masterpieces to distant memory. The historical amnesia about the great historians of the recent past has become even more pronounced as we have moved into the twenty first century and as we have dropped from our reading lists many books that have a twentieth century imprint. Books published before 2000 seem, to us and to our students, just old and out of date.

I remember well a manifestation of this love of the immediate in the historians we read in discussions over dinner in Curacao in the 2010s with Mary and Richard Dunn, Alison Games, Rod McDonald and Michelle Craig McDonald. Mary amused us all by teasing Richard over a comment made at the conference proceedings that day at the Association of Caribbean Historians by an early career scholar, educated mostly in the twenty first century, that Richard was a prominent twentieth century historian of the West Indies, a comment that seemed to suggest that Richard’s scholarship had all been done in the distant past. The speaker was referring, of course, to Richard’s 1972 masterpiece, Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624-1713, which is the subject of this blog.

Richard Dunn

Of course, Mary’s teasing, while very funny, was utterly misplaced. Richard was far from being an historian whose work had been written so long ago that it was no longer au courant. He was an adventurous and forward-thinking historian whose work on the Caribbean is as vital in the third decade of the twenty first century as it had been in the eighth decade of the twentieth century. It is easy to imagine, however, a Richard Dunn whose scholarship might have developed in much more conventional grooves than it eventually did. He had been trained in seventeenth-century Anglo-American history at Harvard and Princeton. In his first decade or so as a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, he had written books on traditional topics, such as New England Puritans and the religious wars of Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. One would have guessed in the mid-1960s that he would have continued in the same way that he started his historical career. Indeed, that seemed to be the case when he embarked upon a project (never completed, though it did inspire some outstanding essays along the way) to write about the Glorious Revolution of 1689-90 in a transatlantic context.

But Richard got waylaid by a document that he had come across, somewhat accidentally, at what was then called the Public Record Office in Chancery Lane, London. That document stopped any movement to conventional historical scholarship dead in its tracks. This document  was a census of Barbados in 1680. It showed how the transition a generation before to sugar and African chattel slavery had led in Barbados to the growth of the wealthiest ruling class in seventeenth century English America. The long-term result of this discovery, which led to his book on the Glorious Revolution to be put on a permanent back-burner, was the publication of one of the great masterpieces of early American history, written in a protean age of historical writing on seventeenth-century North America. Sugar and Slaves is one of the standout monographs of social history in the time when social and economic historians utilizing techniques drawn from French and British scholarship were transforming the landscape of early American historiography. Richard established, among many other findings, that historians writing on seventeenth century English America had to include Barbados in their accounts, along with more familiar stories drawn from Virginia, Massachusetts, and the Ohio Valley borderlands. It was an opening salvo in the conceptualization of a wider idea of early America, encapsulated nowadays in the commonly used hashtag #VastEarlyAmerica.

The impact of Sugar and Slaves was immediate and lasting. In my opinion, it ranks with Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery (1944), Richard Pares, A West India Fortune (1950) and Elsa Goveia’s Slave Society in the British Leeward Islands (1965) as the most significant book on the early English Caribbean in the middle years of the twentieth century.

1973 edition

No other book in the last fifty years, I believe, has approached it in influence, historical esteem and in writerly verve, although Vincent Brown’s 2021 Tacky’s Revolt has won enough prizes to suggest it might join Dunn’s work in the pantheon of great works on the history of the British Caribbean during slavery.

I had been a fellow at the (then) Philadelphia Center for Early American Studies in 1986-7 before taking up a position at the University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica. In was in 1986 when I first met Richard who was the director of the center where I was a fellow. Alison Games, now of Georgetown University, had been a student of Richard Dunn, working on a dissertation, later an important book, on migration patterns in the early seventeenth-century English Atlantic. Barbados had featured prominently in her dissertation and I had begun while at Mona extensive work into the Jamaican archives which led to scholarship on that island. Over the years, we had moved from being deferential students to becoming respectful colleagues of Richard. We had always valued very highly Sugar and Slaves, both as a source of empirical information and as a model of how to write about the early English Atlantic world.

It seemed to us that the fifty years’ anniversary of the publication of Sugar and Slaves was an appropriate time to evaluate it and its influence over time. Thus, we organized a workshop in June 2021 with speakers from Europe and North America who ranged in status from graduate students to emeritus professors. That workshop led to a special issue in the eminent early American history journal, Early American Studies, published alongside the publication of this blog, in the fall of 2022. I’d like to thank the new editors of EAS, Rose Beiler and Judith Ridner, for their enthusiastic support of our initiative to consider the arguments in Sugar and Slaves after 50 years.The workshop, which was done online, was sponsored by the Wilberforce Institute for the study of Slavery and Emancipation at the University of Hull and by the McNeil Center for Early American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, the latter through the generous leadership of Daniel Richter.

The fact of the conference being online had advantages and disadvantages. It required less organization than a conference in person and cost very little to put on. There was some organization, however, and I’d like to thank Laura Spero and Amy Baxter-Bellamy of the McNeil Center for the many things they did to ensure that the workshop went well – which it did. Doing it virtually allowed for much greater participation than would have been likely for an in -person conference. The total attendance was around 150 people with about 80 people present at each session. On the other hand, we missed the chance to socialize and network with friends, new and old. A stimulating session would be followed by the dispiriting experience of a solitary lunch or dinner.

Alison and I were delighted by what happened at the workshop. It was satisfying on both a personal and an intellectual level. Personally, a highlight of the conference was that Richard was able to attend – he listened attentively to every paper. Richard, aged nearly 93 at the time of the workshop, was not in great physical health and indeed he died relatively soon after the workshop, in January 2022. But if struggling physically he was in great shape mentally and he gave a fascinating and moving speech at the end of the workshop which placed Sugar and Slaves in historical context; outlined some of his thinking behind writing the book; and, most interestingly, outlined how this book had shaped his research for his other important book on the British Caribbean (and the American South) which was A Tale of Two Plantations (2014).

On an intellectual level, the workshop and the ensuing special issue demonstrated both the lasting power of Sugar and Slaves as a mid-twentieth century historical masterpiece and also the ways in which, in part due to its influence, the themes that Richard developed have evolved and transformed over time. As Richard noted, the scholarship on this period of English Caribbean history is notably denser and richer than had been the case when he started his work. Our introduction to the special issue outlines some of the ways in which scholarship on the topics that Richard Dunn brought to historical attention in 1972 has changed over time.

A special feature of the workshop was a session in which close colleagues of Richard – Sir Hilary Beckles, Roseanne Adderly, Roderick McDonald and Nicholas Canny – reflected on Sugar and Slaves and what it meant to them and also on how Richard himself had shaped how they looked at early Caribbean history.

2000 edition

Two of these reminiscences are included with this blog as separate blog posts. For me, the opportunity to do homage to a great book, written by a wonderful historian, was the highlight of both the workshop and the special issue that this blog draws attention to.The best way to acknowledge a mentor and colleague, I believe, is to take seriously his or her work. This is what Alison and I have tried to do here for Sugar and Slaves, a book that retains its power and vitality, even fifty years after it was first published.