- People and Places, Past and Present
History, according to Michel-Rolph Trouillot, is complicated. The main problem, as he sees it, is that the word itself is ambivalent. Thus, history can be “both the facts of the matter” and “a narrative of those facts, both ‘what happened’ and ‘that which is said to have happened.’”1 Richard Dunn’s A Tale of Two Plantations and Matthew Mulcahy’s Hubs of Empire make Trouillot’s simple observation abundantly clear. Dunn is committed to narrating a very specific history, with a narrow focus on two richly detailed bodies of records of the lives of slaves on specific plantations in Jamaica and in North America (Virginia and Alabama). Mulcahy wants to take a more comprehensive view of things in order to reframe how we think about colonial America. Whereas Dunn offers a catalogue of names, dates, ages, prices, and other raw data, Mulcahy synthesizes in order to address matters of historical interpretation and presentation. Thus, while their works overlap in important ways, Dunn and Mulcahy are not always in dialogue with each other. Taken together, however, these books serve as a useful reminder that history is, at once, both past and present. They also raise interesting questions about how we engage in historical scholarship—the sources we use, the questions we ask, the assumptions we bear, and how we determine what’s really important. If both works have certain limitations, if they elide even as they elucidate, these are rich and interesting books that speak to the benefits and challenges of comparative history.
Richard Dunn’s contributions to the historical profession and scholarship are profound and numerous. His pioneering 1972 study, Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624–1713, remains required reading and continues to serve as the obvious starting point for any serious scholarly [End Page 40] inquiry into the early English Caribbean. In this new work, forty years in the making, Dunn sets out to reconstruct the lives of roughly 2,000 slaves who lived on plantations called Mesopotamia in western Jamaica and Mount Airy in the Northern Neck of Tidewater Virginia. Any work of comparative history demands some explanation for why a scholar chose his or her subjects. In this case, it was largely a matter of sources. Having discovered the records of the Barham family (the owners of Mesopotamia during its peak years between 1762 and 1833) during the course of his research during the 1970s, Dunn set out to find a comparable source base for North America, which eventually led him to the Tayloe Papers and Mount Airy Plantation during its period of growth and expansion between 1808 and 1865.
Dunn begins with an unsurprising point: Mesopotamia and Mount Airy were very different worlds. Mesopotamia was a West Indian sugar plantation and it shared many of the same characteristics of sugar plantations throughout the Americas. African slaves were imported in large numbers, worked hard, suffered from hunger and debilitating diseases, and suffered high death rates. Even after Britain closed down the transatlantic slave trade in 1807, the brutality of the system forced the Barhams to resupply their ever-eroding labor pool from local sources. Mount Airy, in contrast, had the opposite problem. The slave population in the Chesapeake was comparatively healthy, and it became a challenge for the Tayloe family to find enough work for their ever-expanding slave-labor pool. As Dunn points out, however, the comparative ease of life on Virginia plantations did not mean that slave life in the Northern Neck was without difficulties. Family breakups, to pick one example, plagued the lives of Tayloe slaves throughout the nineteenth century as Virginia whites not only moved their human property from one place to another but, increasingly, profited from selling thousands of slaves to places like...