Bill Dusinberre obituary | Slavery

My friend Bill Dusinberre, who has died aged 92, was a reader in history at Warwick University and specialised in American slavery, about which he wrote several books.

Bill’s three key books on slavery – Them Dark Days (1996), Slavemaster President (2003) and Strategies for Survival (2009) – posed challenges both to the tradition that linked slavery with paternalism and to scholarship that regarded enslaved people as able to gain quite large measures of agency and community solidarity.

Bill brought forward powerful evidence that enslavers were in fact self-seeking, entrepreneurial and manipulative, ruthlessly exploiting their workforce. In these grim circumstances, survival for the enslaved was, Bill argued, less through community, more through individual struggles for some element of agency.

A measure of the importance of Bill’s work is that, despite their markedly different analyses, his fellow American historian Eugene Genovese wrote of Them Dark Days that “there are pages throughout that rank as the most eloquent indictments of slavery ever penned by a historian”, and that the book “will … take its place among the most important studies of southern slavery we have and are likely to get”.

Bill was born in Boston, Massachusetts, to George, a US Navy engineer, and Charlotte (nee Heath). After high school in Annapolis, Maryland, he earned his BA at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and then his PhD at Columbia University in New York. He went on to become a history lecturer at Yale University until 1961, and then spent four years in Switzerland, carrying out independent research and taking courses at Zurich University.

He moved to Britain in 1965 specifically to become one of the founder lecturers in the history department at Warwick University, and went on to teach there for more than 30 years. Warwick was one of the “new universities” founded in the exciting days of the 1960s and I was one of Bill’s students in that first undergraduate intake. Hearing his lectures and being in his seminars and tutor groups was a wonderful part of university life.

About the time he arrived at Warwick, Bill had his first book published – Civil War Issues in Philadelphia, an innovative study of northern opinion on slavery and race. In 1980 Henry Adams: The Myth of Failure was released – an important contribution to the intellectual history of the early American republic – and just a few months before he retired in 1996, Them Dark Days was published. In retirement he wrote Slavemaster President and Strategies for Survival.

Throughout his career Bill combined a seriousness of purpose with gentleness, always working with a smile and always asking interesting, constructive questions. His contributions to the teaching of history and to humane scholarship were huge, and his mixture of generosity, reserve and passion will be greatly missed.

In his private life he loved to walk in the mountains, played the violin and had a great interest in literature, particularly Shakespeare. He also worked for the Quaker Peace Movement.

Bill was married to Juliet Stainer in 1966. She survives him, as do their sons, Edward and Martin, and grandchildren, Sam, Noah, and Leah.

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