Andrew Durnford: A Black Sugar Planter in the Antebellum South

  • Publish Date: 1995-12-31
  • Binding: Hardcover
  • Author: David O. Whitten

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Andrew Durnford (born 1800, New Orleans; died 1859, St. Rosalie Plantation), Free Man of Color, was born of an English father and a free woman of color. The Louisiana Purchase made him a citizen of the United States. Thomas Durnford, his father, and John McDonogh, a prosperous merchant of New Orleans and Baltimore, were friends and business associates. On Thomas's death Andrew continued the friendship and association (McDonogh was the godfather of Andrew's first son, Thomas McDonogh Durnford). Draw-Ing on McDonogh for credit, Durnford purchased land south of New Orleans In Plaquemines Parish and, with a small cadre of slaves, established a sugar plantation. David O. Whitten's biography of Durnford draws on extensive primary materials, including letters between the principals, that bespeak not only an active correspondence but two extraordinary careers.

Reinforced with newspaper accounts and court records, the Durnford-McDonogh letters offer an intimate view into the life and work of an antebellum planter and depict the social intercourse of a black man in a society built on black slavery. Facile in English and French, Durnford read widely and commented in letters on works of the day. He journeyed to distant Pennsylvania and Virginia in 1835 to procure slaves and then return with them to his Louisiana plantation. Letters between Durnford and McDonogh during the lengthy trip provide a unique traveloguea black man, in the company of his black bondsmen, traversing the heart of slave country.

Had Durnford done no more than build a sugar plantation out of the wilderness with black slave labor, his accounts would be valuable, but he also practiced medicine, recounting his experiences in a journal and in letters to McDonogh. The Durnford volume offers singular accounts of American life and labor in the first half of the nineteenth century. Had he been white, the narrative would be of inestimable value, but because Durnford was black, free, and a medical practitioner, his life stands as a rare example of a man and a culture adjusting to peculiar social orders.

Noted historian John Hope Franklin sums up this contribution to African American studies: David Whitten has performed an important service in bringing the life of Andrew Durnford to the attention of students of the an-tebellum South, of the plantation economy, and of race relationsHe has placed us all in his debt and he has set an example for others to follow.

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