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  • A Tale of Two Plantations: Slave Life and Labor in Jamaica and Virginia by Richard S. Dunn
  • Philip A. Howard (bio)
A Tale of Two Plantations: Slave Life and Labor in Jamaica and Virginia. By Richard S. Dunn. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2014. Pp. 540. Cloth, $39.95.)

A Tale of Two Plantations explores the daily lives of some two thousand African slaves who labored in Jamaica and in the tidewater area of Virginia. In this study, which took forty years to research and write, Dunn uses the papers of the Barham family, owners of the Mesopotamia sugar estate located in Westmoreland, Jamaica, and those of the Tayloe clan, owners of the Mount Airy plantation in Virginia, to compare how the slave trade, slave occupations, treatment of slaves, family life, disease, and mortality, as well as resistance, differed between the slave communities. This effective methodology allows Dunn to examine and interpret the institution of racial slavery in the Americas from the last half of the eighteenth century to the 1830s in Jamaica and during the antebellum and Civil War eras in the United States.

Employing roughly 1,100 slave records included in the Barham Papers and nearly 1,000 documents from the Tayloe collection, which illuminate various demographic, occupational, and health and mortality patterns among the slave populations, Dunn argues that the demographic pattern of each society, and the commodities that the slaves produced for each, influenced the bonded workers’ lives. As typical Jamaican sugar planters, the Barhams made their slaves confront “a shockingly inhuman system.” They viewed and treated their workers “as disposable cogs in a machine: importing slaves from Africa, working them too hard, feeding them too little, [and] exposing them to debilitating disease” (73). The pursuit of profits from the sugar and rum trades informed the slave management on Mesopotamia, states Dunn. Meanwhile, on the Tayloes’ Virginia plantation, which was dedicated to rice and wheat cultivation, the slave workforce naturally increased as births exceeded deaths. Some Tayloes saw this development as a potential source of additional revenue. By the 1820s, they began to sell their surplus slaves to the planters responsible [End Page 442] for opening the South to cotton. During the 1840s, they also marched their slaves to Alabama to work the family’s own cotton plantations. In so doing, the Tayloes separated the members of thriving and loving slave families.

To substantiate his argument and reveal the different experiences of the Barham and Tayloe slaves, Dunn traces the lives of two female slaves, Sarah Affir of Mesopotamia and Winney Grimshaw of Mount Airy, and their families. The experiences of Affir and her children allow Dunn to trace how Jamaican planters gradually transformed slave children into field-workers. Slave children typically attended to the livestock and fertilized the cane fields. Teenage slaves cleaned the fields and weeded cane. At twenty years of age, Affir and other slave women and men “were required to perform the most taxing and hazardous labor on the estate. … They did everything in unison and by hand, with no reliance on draft animals or on labor-saving tools” (81). This labor-intensive regime broke the bodies of the Mesopotamian slaves, making them vulnerable to a host of illnesses such as yaws, tuberculosis, influenza, and pleurisy. Yet Affir and other slave females were expected to have children. Affir had six children. Two were mulattoes and reflected the sexual violence that commonly occurred on most Jamaican estates. Some Moravian missionaries helped the slaves resist these conditions.

Compared to the status and conditions of Affir’s life, those of Winney Grimshaw and her Mount Airy family were influenced by the occupations of her grandparents and parents. They served as spinners, domestics, and skilled artisans, and so too did Winney and her children. Nonetheless, her family’s experiences proved that although some slaves were privileged, their owners could immediately change their status. In 1845, when Winney’s father fled to Canada after being punished, the Tayloes broke up the Grimshaw family. Some members were sent to the Tayloes’ property in Washington, D.C., while Winney and others marched eight hundred miles to Alabama. Her brother and infant son accompanied her. The separation of...


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pp. 442-445
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