A Tale of Two Plantations: Slave Life and Labor in Jamaica and Virginia by Richard S. Dunn (review)
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Slavery, Jamaica, Virginia, Barham family, Tayloe family, Slave labor, Economics of slavery

A Tale of Two Plantations: Slave Life and Labor in Jamaica and Virginia. By Richard S. Dunn. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014. Pp. 552. Cloth, $39.95.)

A Tale of Two Plantations was conceived four decades ago, when Richard Dunn began systematically analyzing two remarkably detailed sets of plantation records—the papers of the Barham family, owners of Mesopotamia, a large sugar plantation in Jamaica, and the Tayloe family papers, [End Page 410] which contain records pertaining to Mount Airy, a tobacco plantation in Virginia. Working primarily from these records, Dunn, a renowned scholar of early American history, reconstructs the demographic patterns, family structures, labor regimes, and social contexts that shaped the lives of over 2,000 enslaved men, women, and children in the final generations of slavery. Bringing his analytical prowess and obvious mastery of the source base to bear, Dunn has produced a nuanced portrait of slave life and work patterns worthy of his decades of scholarly labor.

The central pivot of A Tale of Two Plantations is the demographic contrast between the Barham and Tayloe estates. Dunn argues that high mortality on West Indian sugar plantations and the natural increase of Virginia’s enslaved population resulted in “two radically different slave systems” (73). His reconstruction of enslaved life at Mesopotamia (1762–1834) and Mount Airy (1792–1865) illustrates that Jamaican sugar estates quite literally worked their enslaved laborers to death, requiring regular infusions of new slaves; Virginia plantations, however harsh, were far less deadly. This difference shaped every facet of life at Mesopotamia and Mount Airy. Largely because of its high mortality rates, few stable family units formed at Mesopotamia, and those that did received inadequate provisions and produced few healthy children. Interracial sex was common, and Dunn even suggests that some enslaved women may have sought out liaisons with white men since, in Jamaica’s racially stratified society, the children of such unions might be spared from field labor or manumitted. In contrast, the Tayloes supported the formation of stable nuclear families. Although such support did not prevent the breakup of enslaved families, the Tayloes recognized slave marriages created a productive and tight-knit community at Mount Airy. So powerful were these bonds of kinship, Dunn argues, that some slaves may even have looked forward to their transportation to Alabama cotton plantations where they would be reunited with distant family members.

The Tayloes’ recognition of enslaved families was not a benign act, however, for they were the source of Mount Airy’s most valuable commodity—more slaves. The sale of twenty-six slaves in 1816, for example, made John Tayloe III nearly as much money as Mount Airy’s annual wheat crop. Stable families also supported the diversification of the Mount Airy labor pool, and many children followed their parents into skilled labor. When fresh lands opened up for exploitation in the 1830s, then, the Tayloes were well equipped to reallocate a diverse workforce to their new Alabama cotton plantations. This ability to quickly move [End Page 411] laborers from Virginia to the Black Belt made the Tayloes extremely wealthy. Mesopotamia was also profitable, but not as a result of demographic health. Instead, high mortality made Mesopotamia’s enslaved laborers little more than “disposable cogs in a machine” in the eyes of their absentee owners (73). Access to the slave trade allowed the Bar-hams to compensate for high mortality, and Mesopotamia generated substantial profits well into the nineteenth century. Even when Joseph Foster Barham II stopped buying new slaves from Africa in 1792, in what Dunn describes as a poor business move, Mesopotamia remained productive.

The profitability of the Barham and Tayloe plantations came to a crashing halt with emancipation, however, and Dunn clearly illustrates the many challenges and opportunities brought by abolition. Abolition obviously played out quite differently in the West Indies and the United States, but once freed from the onerous restrictions of a slave society, former slaves in both locations sought to reconstitute families and dictate their own labor patterns, dramatically altering the political economies of the West Indies and the...