[Marxism] Slave Life and Labor in Jamaica and Virginia

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Jan 4 12:31:09 MST 2015

Sunday NY Times Book Review, Jan. 4 2015
‘A Tale of Two Plantations,’ by Richard S. Dunn

Slave Life and Labor in Jamaica and Virginia
By Richard S. Dunn
540 pp. Harvard University Press. $39.95.

For enslaved peoples in the New World, it was always the worst of times. 
Whether captured in Africa or born into bondage in the Americas, slaves 
suffered unimaginable torments and indignities. Yet the specific form 
their miseries took, as the historian Richard S. Dunn shows in his 
painstakingly researched “A Tale of Two Plantations: Slave Life and 
Labor in Jamaica and Virginia,” depended on whether one was a slave in 
the British Caribbean or in the United States. The contrasts between the 
two slave societies were many, covering family life, religious beliefs 
and labor practices. But one difference overrode all others. In the 
Caribbean, white masters treated the slaves like “disposable cogs in a 
machine,” working them to death on sugar plantations and then replacing 
them with fresh stock from Africa. In the United States, white masters 
treated their slaves like the machine itself — a breeding machine.

Dunn began working on this comparative study in the 1970s, around the 
time historians like Winthrop D. Jordan, Edmund S. Morgan and Eugene D. 
Genovese were revolutionizing the study of American slavery. Drawing on 
Freud, Marx and other social theorists, these scholars painted what Dunn 
calls the “big picture,” capturing the psychosexual terror, economic 
exploitation, resistance, and emotional and social dependency inherent 
in the master-slave relation.

Decades of extensive research led Dunn, a professor emeritus at the 
University of Pennsylvania, in a different direction, away from making 
large historical claims or speculating about the “interiority” of 
slavery’s victims. Instead, he’s opted to stay close to the facts, using 
demographic methods to reconstruct “the individual lives and collective 
experiences of some 2,000 slaves on two large plantations” — 
Mesopotamia, which grew sugar on the western coastal plain of Jamaica, 
and Mount Airy, a tobacco and grain estate on the Rappahannock River in 
Virginia’s Northern Neck region — “during the final three generations of 
slavery in both places.”

In Jamaica, Joseph Foster Barham I and his son Joseph Foster Barham II 
presided over Mesopotamia during its most profitable decades. Absentee 
but involved masters, they supervised the plantation’s progress from 
their homes in England, approving new planting fields, reviewing the 
amount of sugar boiled and rum distilled, and auditing the ledger books. 
The one thing they believed they had no control over was life and death. 
During the seven decades Dunn studies (1762 to 1833, the year Britain 
abolished slavery), Mesopotamia recorded 420 births and 751 deaths, 
figures that do not include abortions, miscarriages or, for the most 
part, stillbirths. At a time of rising production, the data “show twice 
as many deaths as births, and a high proportion of the slaves who died 
during these years were children, teenagers or young adults.”

The younger Barham said he took seriously his responsibility to improve 
the material and moral condition of his slaves. And his agents in 
Jamaica told him they did everything they could to increase the survival 
rate of newborns, including lightening the work burdens of expecting 
women. Nothing helped. As the ratio of deaths to births remained high, 
slaves themselves were held to blame. “The Negro race,” Barham wrote, 
“is so averse to labor that without force we have hardly anywhere been 
able to obtain it.” He is referring to the labor of sugar production. 
But the sentiment covered white opinions regarding the labor of slave 
reproduction. Women were punished for miscarrying, sent to the workhouse 
or to solitary confinement. Yet despite the death rate, the plantation’s 
population increased, replenished by new captives purchased from slave 
ships or other Jamaican estates.

In Virginia, John Tayloe III, master of Mount Airy from 1792 to 1828, 
bred horses and slaves. The horses he raced, earning him the reputation 
“as the leading Virginia turfman of his generation.” The slaves he 
worked and sold. “There were,” Dunn counts, “252 recorded slave births 
and 142 slave deaths at Mount Airy between 1809 and 1828, providing John 
III with 110 extra slaves.” Tayloe, a fourth-generation enslaver, moved 
some of these surplus people around his other Virginia holdings and 
transferred others to his sons. The rest he sold, providing Tayloe with 
both needed capital and an opportunity to cull unproductive workers, 
keeping his labor force fit and young.

Tayloe’s son William Henry took over Mount Airy in 1828, and its slave 
population continued to increase, even as depleted soil led to crop 
shortfalls and declining profits. So where the Barhams responded to 
their demographic crisis by buying more slaves and intensifying 
production, the new master of Mount Airy opted for expansion. He struck 
out west with his brothers, acquiring cotton fields in Alabama. Between 
1833 and 1862, William Henry moved a total of 218 slaves from 
white-fenced Virginia to the Cotton South’s slave frontier, a distance 
of 800 miles. Many of these captives were teenagers, “of the right age 
to learn how to pick cotton.” By this point, with the Atlantic slave 
trade closed, Virginia had become a net slave exporter; in the early 
1800s, there were fewer than a million enslaved people in the United 
States, mostly concentrated in the coastal and piedmont South. Four 
decades later, there were four times as many, spread from Charleston to 
Texas, from Mount Airy to west-central Alabama, where William Henry 
Tayloe established his new estates.

Dunn identifies three reasons Mesopotamia’s slaves couldn’t reproduce 
themselves: deadly body-wasting diseases, a poor diet and an onerous 
work regime. He is careful, though, to highlight the brutality of both 
plantations, especially the casualness with which the Tayloes broke up 
the families of slaves, either as punishment or to maximize the 
effectiveness of their labor. Dunn’s prose can be bracing in its 
understatement: “The extraordinarily large number of deaths,” he writes, 
“strongly suggests that the managers of Mesopotamia had been overtaxing 
their workers.”

Dunn’s restraint extends to a reluctance to engage in current debates 
concerning the relationship of slavery to capitalist development, which 
dilutes the power of his research and leads to some imprecision. It is 
unclear whether he believes antebellum slavery was inherently 
expansionist, as Walter Johnson and others have recently argued, or if 
the Tayloe family was merely making the most of the opportunities 
afforded by a growing slave population to diversify into Alabama.

Likewise, Dunn’s discussion of interracial sex seems tone deaf to 
decades of scholarship on the subject. Forty years ago, Winthrop D. 
Jordan wrote about the libidinal foundations of white supremacy in 
America. More recently, the historians Jennifer L. Morgan and Diana 
Paton have explored the linkages between ideology, law and sexual 
domination in slave societies. Dunn devotes a chapter each to two slave 
women, empathetically tracing their family history and considering the 
many hardships they endured. He mentions rape and “predatory” whites and 
discusses the sharp differences in the way mixed-race offspring were 
treated on the two plantations. Yet at times he plays down the varieties 
of sexual coercion that enslaved women lived under. At one point, he 
calls the relationship between a white overseer, his black “mistress” 
and his distraught wife a “ménage à trois.” Still, “A Tale of Two 
Plantations” is a substantial achievement. That it is the product of 
four decades of exacting research and deliberation comes through in each 
of its many details.

Greg Grandin is a professor of history at New York University. His most 
recent book is “The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception 
in the New World.”

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