Richard Dunn's A Tale Of Two Plantations Analysis

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Richard Dunn’s A Tale of Two Plantations is the product of four decades of exhaustive archival research encompassing the lives of over two thousand slaves on the Jamaican sugar plantation Mesopotamia, and the Mount Airy plantation, located in Virginia’s tidewater region. His two primary goals are to reconstruct the lives of these individuals, and through comparative analysis, highlight the differences between the two slave societies (1). To accomplish these objectives, Dunn relies heavily on the writings of two prominent slave holding families, the Barhams of Jamaica, and the Tayloes from Virginia. The possible application of Dunn’s extensive research and accompany genealogical database by historians in their own future research means that …show more content…
His findings show that women outlived men by an average of 3.5 years, writing that “Women outlive men in most places, of course, but the male mortality problem at Mesopotamia was extreme” (152). Although acknowledging that the traditional factors of poor diet, lethal diseases, and harsh physical labor contributed to the high mortality rates, he argues these did not fully explain the phenomenon. To Dunn, the emasculation of male African slaves played an important role in reducing their life expectancy. Unfortunately, he provides little empirical evidence to support his claim other than to suggest that the uneven sex ratio meant that some men never established families and therefore had no one to care for them when they reached a mature age (158-159). However, the reversal of the sex ratio in the last three decades of the Jamaican slave era apparently did little to change the gender based mortality rates. While the male to female ratio was 104:100 in 1808, the demographics shifted to 83:100 by 1834 (153). This trend should have evened out as more males found suitable wives, however that does not appear to have occurred. A possible explanation lies in one of Dunn’s passing comments, “Close to 40 percent of the 601 Mesopotamia males during our period were born in Africa, as against about 30 percent of the 502 females” (158). …show more content…
slave trade during the mid-nineteenth century. His contention that the majority of Mount Airy’s slaves, which the Tayloes sent to Alabama, were kept together on the family’s southern plantations, contradicting the slave accounts in Edward E. Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told (58, 183, 273-274). This exemplifies the dangers of using one plantation as the representative for an entire system, especially one that seems to be the exception rather than the rule in several ways. It is interesting that Dunn criticizes the traditional slavery historiography, claiming historians usually focus “on the most visible people; e.g., those who run away, wrote about themselves, or were in other ways remarkable” (2). Yet Dunn does just that by focusing on the Mount Airy plantation. The Tayloe family was unusual. They were remarkable for their time. The fact that they inquired so deeply into the lives of their slaves and kept such detailed records is the reason they can be studied so thoroughly

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