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  • Exposing Early Histories of Race, Misogyny, and Power in the Old Dominion
  • Rebecca Anne Goetz (bio)
Kevin Joel Berland, ed. William Byrd II, The Dividing Line Histories of William Byrd II of Westover. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, 2013. xviii + 508 pp. Figures, maps, appendices, notes, and index. $59.95.
Susan Scott Parrish, ed. Robert Beverley, The History and Present State of Virginia, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, 2013. xxxviii + 342 pp. Figures, notes, and index. $45.00.

William Byrd II (1674–1744) was the platonic ideal of the colonial scholar-gentleman. A planter, politician, and trader in Indian and African slaves, Byrd fancied himself a scholar. He was educated at the Felsted School in England and later read law at the Middle Temple. Byrd read Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French, Italian, and Dutch, and his library at his home plantation of Westover contained more than 3,600 books at the time of his death. He began each day with reading in Hebrew or Greek, a glass of milk, and a calisthenics routine he termed “my dance.” In his “secret” diaries, of which several years’ worth survive, Byrd reported the purchase of books and the reading of sermons; and he commented almost daily on whether or not he had said his prayers. He was also among the Old Dominion's first historians: in 1728, he accompanied the joint expedition that surveyed the dividing line between Virginia and North Carolina. For the rest of his life, Byrd labored on and off on two histories of that event: The History of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina, which was intended for public consumption (although Byrd was enough of a perfectionist that it was never published); and the private, ribald, libertine version of the story, his Secret History of the Line. These Dividing Line histories have found many editors since the early nineteenth century; one of the most famous of these, Louis B. Wright, wrote in an introduction to his 1958 edition of the History of the Dividing Line that it “is one of the most urbane and readable literary productions of the colonial period. It is written with grace and ease and is seasoned with humor—one of the rarest qualities in colonial [End Page 210] writing.”1 To hear Wright tell it, Byrd is one of the colonial period's literary heroes, carving a library out of the wilderness and bringing learning to an unlearned world.

Yet Byrd had another face that his early editors were unwilling to recognize. He was, in addition to his scholarly talents, also a rapist and a sadist. Byrd was remarkably frank about this aspect of his character in his secret diaries, which he kept in a form of shorthand that was not read until the 1940s. The resulting transcriptions illuminate a man who punctuated his scholarly pursuits with shockingly personal acts of violence against others. On February 8, 1709, for example: “I rose at 5 o'clock this morning and read a chapter in Hebrew and 200 verses in Homer's Odyssey. I ate milk for breakfast. I said my prayers. Jenny and Eugene were whipped. I danced my dance. I read law in the morning and Italian in the afternoon.” The brutal beating of enslaved people was part and parcel of Byrd's orderly routine. In other entries, Byrd recounted sexually assaulting a chambermaid in Williamsburg, forcing a young enslaved boy to “drink a pint of piss,” assaulting an intoxicated Nottoway woman named Jenny, picking up prostitutes in St. James’ Park, and requiring a “negro girl” to kiss him. Nowhere else is the violent and exploitative reality of the plantation system laid so gruesomely bare by one of its principal founders—a system defined by the theft of Native land, the brutal exploitation of enslaved labor, and the rampant sexual abuse of Native, African, and English women. Byrd's writings thus give modern readers access to the minds of the Old Dominion's master class. Unsurprisingly, Byrd the gentleman-scholar is far more recognizable than Byrd the narcissistic and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6628
Print ISSN
0048-7511
Pages
pp. 210-215
Launched on MUSE
2015-06-11
Open Access
No
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