Two Plantations: Enslaved Families in Virginia and Jamaica

Dr. Vincent Brown, Richard Dunn Oct 01, 2014
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Harvard Professor’s new interactive site uncovers hidden slave histories in Jamaica and Virginia

Betty was born in Jamaica in the summer of 1739. She married and had seven children. When Betty was 46 years old, Joseph Foster Barham, British absentee owner of a Jamaican sugar plantation, bought her for just £40 along with husband Qua and all her children, this is their story…

Today, Thursday 9 October 2014, Harvard Professor of History and Director of the History Design Studio, Dr. Vincent Brown, is launching a new interactive website, which uncovers the lives of 431 enslaved people in seven multi-generational families at Mesopotamia plantation in Jamaica, and Mount Airy plantation in Virginia. These family histories have been painstakingly gathered by fellow historian Richard S Dunn over the last 40 years.

The website, TwoPlantations.com, is the interactive companion to a book written by Dunn called A Tale of Two Plantations: Slave Life and Labor in Jamaica and Virginia, for release on Harvard University Press next month, (4 November 2014). Features on the site include intricate family trees of seven enslaved families, three from Mesopotamia and four from Mount Airy, with mini biographies of each person detailed, information about the 140 people from the families from Mount Airy appearing in the 1870 census taken shortly after the Civil War, and a stunning original hand-drawn family tree of alone lineage, created by Dunn.

Dunn has been tracking the stories of some 2000 slaves since the 1970s, and his book is the result of that research, offering an extraordinarily detailed portrait of slave life in the US and the Caribbean, revealing the distinct patterns of mortality, fertility, and labour in two very different slave communities. However some elements of the research, such as the hand-drawn family tree, were not possible to include in the confined format of a traditional book. It was the collaboration with Brown that led to the development of the accompanying site to overcome these additional challenges and offer an accessible way to compare the complex data from both communities.

Dunn said, “My biggest challenge in composing A Tale of Two Plantations was how to portray as many of the 1,103 Mesopotamia slaves and the 973 Mount Airy slaves I was studying as possible. I wrote character sketches of dozens of individuals, and described the collective actions of the two communities, but this still left hundreds of people unaccounted for. The website has greatly strengthened my presentation, by opening to view the lives of 431 individuals (20 percent of the people in my book), and enabling viewers to get a more direct sense of what slave life was like at Mesopotamia and Mount Airy.” His collaboration with Dr. Vincent Brown through the History Design Studio presents an interactive visual of the family trees, but also an easy to use navigation, which enables a deep understanding of the contours of slave life in both communities.

TwoPlantations.com marks the launch of the History Design Studio, a workshop set up by Brown, to realize new ideas in multimedia history, a creative space where students and scholars can design new modes of historical storytelling. He says, “the History Design Studio has been in development for just over a year now, so we are delighted to unveil it to the public as we go live with TwoPlantations.com. Dunn’s meticulous research, considered analysis, and unparalleled authority on his subject have set a new benchmark for histories of Anglo-American slavery and it has been an honour to contribute to his effort by making some of this history available online.”

“Through the Studio we want to find ways to take advantage of new technologies that can help us uncover deeper historical understandings and tell stories in new ways. TwoPlantations.com offers a perfect illustration of its purpose. We released our first project, Slave Revolt in Jamaica, 1760-1761: A Cartographic Narrative, last year, an interactive map that unveils groundbreaking new insights into the political history of slavery. At the Studio we are striving to express historians’ core values through the innovative methods of artisanship and craft. Extensive use of primary sources, keen historiographical awareness, attention to change over time, and an overarching respect for evidence guide projects that can include databasing, storyboarding, audiovisual narration, performance, cartography, and software development. By stretching the canvas of historical scholarship, studio participants make lasting contributions to the understanding of the past and its many meanings.”

TwoPlantations.com was designed and built by Grafton Studio and was made possible by the material support of the Andrew W. Mellon New Directions Fellowship, Harvard University, and the Hutchins Center for African and African-American Research. History Design Studio is grateful for administrative and intellectual contributions by the following people: J.T. White, Yanni Loukissas, Sean Treacy, Alec Harrison, Luke Peters, Naor Ben-Yehoyada, Benjamin Weber, Bradley Craig, Ajantha Subramanian, Carina Schorske, Cory Paulsen, Rebecca Ladbury, and Rhae Lynn Barnes.

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About the Authors

Dr. Vincent Brown

Vincent Brown, Charles Warren Professor of History and Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University, is a multi-media historian with a keen interest in the political implications of cultural practice. He teaches courses in Atlantic history, African diaspora studies, and the history of slavery and directs the History Design Studio. Brown is the author of the award-winning book The Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery (Harvard University Press, 2008) and producer of the television documentary Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness. He is the principal investigator and curator for the animated thematic map Slave Revolt in Jamaica, 1760-1761: http://revolt.axismaps.com.

Richard Dunn

Richard S. Dunn was born in Minneapolis MN in 1928, he received a BA from Harvard College in 1950, an MA from Princeton University in 1952, and a PhD in History in 1955 from Princeton. He taught at Princeton, at the University of Michigan, the University of Oxford, and for 39 years at the University of Pennsylvania, retiring from Penn in 1996 as the Roy F. and Jeannette P. Nichols Professor of American History.

Among his publications are Puritans and Yankees: The Winthrop Dynasty of New England, 1630-1717 (1962), The Age of Religious Wars, 1559-1715 (1971, 2d edition 1979), Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624-1713 (1972), The Papers of William Penn, 1644-1718 (4 vols.), edited with Mary Maples Dunn and seven Associate Editors (1981-1987), and The Journal of John Winthrop, 1630-1649, edited with Laetitia Yeandle (1996).

In 1978 Dunn founded the Philadelphia Center for Early American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania (renamed the McNeil Center in 1998), which offers dissertation fellowships to graduate students from universities in the U.S. and abroad who wish to do research in Philadelphia libraries and archives. He directed this Center in most years from 1978 to 2000.