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368 pp., 61/8 x 91/4, 10 illus., 3 tables, 2 maps, notes, index

$50.00 cloth
ISBN 978-0-8078-2856-4

$25.00 paper
ISBN 978-0-8078-5525-6

Published: Spring 2004

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Mastery, Tyranny, and Desire
Thomas Thistlewood and His Slaves in the Anglo-Jamaican World

by Trevor Burnard

Copyright (c) 2004 by the University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.

Excerpts from the Introduction
[A] Good Ship and easy gales have at last brought me to this part of the New World. New indeed in regard of ours, for here I find everything alter'd…. Britannia rose to my View all gay, with native Freedom blest, the seat of Arts, The Nurse of Learning, the Seat of Liberty, and Friend of every Virtue, where the meanest swain, with quiet Ease, possesses the Fruits of his hard Toil, contented with his Lot; while I was now to settle in a Place not half inhabited, cursed with intestine Broils, where slavery was establish'd, and the poor toiling Wretches work'd in the sultry Heat, and never knew the Sweets of Life or the advantage of their Painful Industry in a Place which, except the Verdure of its Fields, had nothing to recommend it.
—Charles Leslie, A new and exact account of Jamaica A Year in the Tropics

On 24 April 1750 at about noon, the Flying Flamborough docked at Kingston, Jamaica, after a long and troublesome voyage from London. Aboard was Thomas Thistlewood, age twenty-nine, the second son of a tenant farmer from Tupholme, Lincolnshire. Having failed to establish himself as a farmer in his home district, he had resolved to seek his fortune in the wider world. A trip to India as a supercargo on an East India ship had come to nothing. By late 1749, he had decided to set off for Jamaica.[1] His baggage was not impressive. After paying for his passage, he had £14 18s. 5d. He hoped to supplement this small sum by selling "36 cases of razors" he had bought from a merchant in Ghent, which were worth £28 16s. and had been "made over to Mr. henry Hewitt of Brompton in lieu of £25 and its interest at 5% till paid." He also had a promissory note of £60 from his older brother, William, which was all that remained of his inheritance from his deceased parents. In addition, he brought a bed; a liquor case with arrack, Brazilian rum, and Lisbon wine; two large sea chests crammed with books and four pictures, including "a very fine print of ye pretender, bought at Ghent"; surveying instruments; kitchen gear; mementos from his trip to the Orient; and an impressive collection of clothes that included nine waistcoats in various fabrics and colors. Most important for our purposes, he took with him a "Marble cover'd book for a journal." Through this "Marble cover'd book" and thirty-six others just like it, we are afforded a rare entrée into the life and times of an ordinary man in an extraordinary society.

Thistlewood was no stranger to exotic locales. Nevertheless, the Caribbean presented him with novel sights and sounds. On a brief stopover in St. John's, Antigua, he ventured into town with a fellow passenger to see "a pretty piece of modern architecture" that was to be the state house and spent "6d. which here is 9d." at a rum house. He was not impressed. St. John's was "an indifferent sort of place; streets rugged and stony and everything dear." He visited a slave market, where he saw "yams, cashoo apples, guinea corn, plantains &c." and first encountered West Indian slaves—"black girls" who "laid hold of us and would gladly have had us gone in with them." Kingston was more agreeable. It was larger, with "24 ships … and other craft in abundance" in the harbor.[2] He visited two of the oldest residents of Kingston—the eighty-one-year-old William Cornish, who had been in Kingston since at least 1700, and the Reverend William May, rector of Kingston Parish since 1722, who gave him advice about how to survive—drink only water and eat lots of chocolate. He also started to learn about the culture of the majority of the inhabitants of his new land. He went "to the westward of the Town, to see Negro Diversions—odd Music, Motions &c. The Negroes of each Nation by themselves."[3]

He learned even more when he traveled to Savanna-la-Mar in Westmoreland Parish in the southwest corner of the island. Within hours of arriving at noon on Friday, 4 May 1750, he was offered a job as an overseer on one of the properties of wealthy sugar planter William Dorrill. Dorrill lent him a horse, gave him a meal, and let him stay at his plantation, "ready to succeed his overseer who leaves him in about two months." As it turned out, Dorrill's position did not become vacant until September 1751. In the meantime, Thistlewood accepted a position from another wealthy planter, Florentius Vassall, as pen keeper at Vineyard Pen ("pen" is a Jamaican term for a property producing livestock or garden produce) in neighboring St. Elizabeth Parish on 2 July 1750. In the two months he lived at Dorrill's, however, he began to understand the extent to which white dominance rested on naked force. Twelve days after Thistlewood's arrival in Westmoreland Parish, Dorrill meted out "justice" to "runaway Negroes." He whipped them severely and then rubbed pepper, salt, and lime juice into their wounds. Three days later, the body of a dead runaway slave was brought to Dorrill. He cut off the slave's head and stuck it on a pole and then burned the body. These lessons on the necessity of controlling slaves through fear and violence were reinforced at Vineyard Pen. In mid-July 1750, less than two weeks after becoming pen keeper at Vineyard, he watched his first employer, the scion of one of the richest and most distinguished families on the island, give the leading slave on the pen, Dick, a mulatto driver, "300 lashes for his many crimes and negligences." In the nearby town of Lacovia on 1 October, he "Saw a Negroe fellow named English … Tried [in] Court and hang'd upon ye 1st tree immediately (drawing his knife upon a White Man) his hand cutt off, Body left unbury'd." Given these examples, it is not surprising that Thistlewood also maintained his authority with a heavy hand. On 20 July, already convinced that his slaves were "a Nest of Thieves and Villains," he whipped his first slave. He gave Titus, a slave who harbored a runaway, 150 lashes on 1 August.[4]

The relationship between whites and blacks was fraught but involved a significant degree of close interaction. During his first year in Jamaica, Thistlewood lived in a primarily black world. Between November 1750 and February 1751, he saw white people no more than three or four times.[5] On 8 January 1751, Thistlewood recorded that "Today first saw a white person since December 19th that I was at Black River." The forty slaves at Vineyard educated Thistlewood in Jamaican and African ways. Dick, the slave driver, introduced him to gungo peas (which were used in soup and served with rice) and slave medicinal remedies. Other slaves taught him how to cure sores and comfort irritated eyes. They told him about Jamaican plants and animals and adaptations of African recipes they had developed in enslavement. His diaries in the first year contain African and Creole words such as calalu, a vegetable stew; pone, cornmeal; patu, the Twi word for owl; and tabrabrah, a Coromantee, or Gold Coast, name for a type of rope dance. He heard African animal fables, such as how the crab got its shell, and learned of duppys, or ghosts, and abarra, evil spirits who lured individuals to their death by adopting the guises of friends and relatives. His slaves told him "if you hurt a Carrion Crow in her eyes (or a Yellow Snake) you will never be well until they are well or dead." He noted that to "drink grave water was the most solemn oath among Negroes" and began to distinguish between different types of African cultural practices. At Christmas, he allowed his slaves to celebrate and watched "Creolian, Congo and Coromantee etc. Musick and dancing." Six months later, on his departure for Egypt Plantation, a sugar estate of Dorrill's in Westmoreland, he threw a party for Marina, a house slave and his mistress, at which she got "very drunk." Thistlewood watched slaves singing and dancing in "Congo" style and marveled at one slave who could eat fire and strike "his naked arm many times with the edge of a bill, very hard, yet receive no harm."[6]

The day after Marina's party, Thistlewood also recorded in his diary, "Pro. Temp. a nocte Sup lect cum Marina," detailing in schoolboy Latin the last time he slept with his first Jamaican sexual conquest.[7] Thistlewood took full advantage of the sexual opportunities offered to white men. Living openly with slave or free mulatto concubines brought no social condemnation. White men were expected to have sex with black women, whether black women wanted sex or not. In his first year in the island—during which he slept with thirteen women on fifty-nine occasions—Thistlewood noted several prurient items of sexual curiosity. On 26 June 1750, he recorded an anecdote from Dorrill about a slave woman with a black lover and a white lover who had twins—one mulatto, one black. Three weeks later, the slave housekeeper at Vineyard borrowed his razor to shave her private parts, leaving Thistlewood to speculate that "some in Jamaica are very sensual." He learned from slave men how to make a powder that made men irresistible to women and that in Africa girls were not allowed to tickle their ears with a feather because it would arouse them. They also told him that "many a Negro woman [received] a beating from their husbands" when they drank too much cane juice because it made them appear as if they had just had sexual intercourse and that "Negro youths in this Country take unclarified Hoggs lard … to make their Member larger."[8]

Jamaica differed from Thistlewood's native Lincolnshire in both small and large ways. Thistlewood thought it interesting that "At dinner today, every Body took hold of the Table Cloth, held it up, Threw off the Crumbs and an Empty Plate, Jamaica Fashion." The heat, sunshine, and sudden tropical downpours were also outside his experience. Nevertheless, by the middle of what passed for a Jamaican winter, Thistlewood found himself "somewhat inur'd to the heat of the Country." A cold snap found people complaining of "the coldness and Sharpness of the North [wind] and asking one another the things to stand it" even though it was "hotter than our summer in England." Even more extraordinary was the tropical phenomenon of hurricanes. At midday on 11 September 1751, the wind, already fresh, became a gale. From 3:00 to 7:00 p.m., the hurricane raged. It "Blew the shingles off the Stables and boiling house" of Egypt, "burst open the great house windows that were secured by strong bars," and inundated the house with water. Trees were blown down everywhere, and the white people fled the great house and "shelter[ed] in the storehouse and hurricane house." The next day, Thistlewood surveyed the damage: "The boards, staves and shingles blown about as if they were feathers. Most of the new wharf washed away, vast wrecks of sea weeds drove a long way upon the land, a heavy iron roller case carried a long way from where it lay, and half buried in the sand." Thistlewood was half terrified and half excited about a physical event that made "all the lands look open and bare, and very ragged, [and] the woods appear like our woods in England in the fall of the leaf, when about half down."[9]

His fellow whites also piqued his curiosity. One of the first whites Thistlewood met in Westmoreland was "old Mr. Jackson." Thomas Jackson was hardly a gentleman—he "goes without stockings or shoes, check shirt, coarse Jackett, Oznabrig Trousers, Sorry Hatt, wears his own hair"—yet he was a wealthy man, "worth £8-10,000." It was not difficult to make money in Jamaica's booming economy. Thomas Tomlinson, a servant, "expects to make £200-300 per annum by planting 4 to 5 acres on Mr. Dorrill's land by his leave." Abundant sexual opportunity, lavish hospitality, excellent shooting and fishing, and a remarkable egalitarianism accompanied whites' great wealth. Whites were given special legal advantages and were invited as a matter of course to the houses of leading citizens. The custos, or chief magistrate of Westmoreland, Colonel James Barclay, entertained Thistlewood within four months of his becoming an overseer at Egypt. Yet white supremacy was held precariously in a country where over 95 percent of the population on the rural western frontier was black. Whites acted brutally toward blacks because they knew only fierce, arbitrary, and instantaneous violence would keep blacks in check. Thistlewood knew blacks were prepared to turn the tables on their masters should the opportunity arise. On 17 July 1751, Thistlewood "heard a Shell Blown twice … as an Alarm." Dorrill—a man experienced in Jamaican mores—was highly agitated because he "greatly feared it was an insurrection of the Negroes, they being ripe for it, almost all over the island." Dorrill's agitation was "nought but a Silly Mistake," but white Jamaicans were correct in assuming that their slaves were "ripe for it." Two weeks earlier, Old Tom Williams had given "very plain discourse at Table" about the possibilities of a slave uprising (along with ribald tales of how he pleased his slave mistress).[10]

Africans were always prepared to resist enslavement. A Vineyard slave called Wannica told Thistlewood that in "the ship she was brought over in, it was agreed to rise but they were discovered first. The pickaninies [children] brought the men that were confined, knives, muskets & other weapons." Thistlewood found himself confronted at every turn by what he perceived as slave villainy. The second day he was at Vineyard, "Scipio's house was broke into and robb'd as supposed by Robin the runaway Negro." The robbers were, in fact, Vineyard slaves. Robin came to a bad end: he was hung for repeatedly running away, and his head was put on a pole and "Stuck … in the home pasture," where it stayed for four months. Thistlewood responded by whipping delinquents. In his year at Vineyard, he whipped nearly two-thirds of the men and half of the women.[11]

The Life of Thomas Thistlewood

This book is about how Thomas Thistlewood made sense of the strange environment he found himself in from April 1750 until his death at age sixty-five on 30 November 1786. Thistlewood is our main character, but the book is also about the society he lived in. I want to explore what it meant to be a white immigrant in a land characterized by extreme differences of wealth between the richest and the poorest members.[12] I am also interested in examining how Thistlewood operated in one of the most extensive slave societies that ever existed. Our perspective has to be largely that of Thistlewood. The source that we have, despite its remarkable depiction of the lives of illiterate if not inarticulate African-born and Jamaican-born slaves, reflects the prejudices and experiences of a white man in a black person's country. I make no apologies for the book's focus on Thistlewood. We need to know more about the foot soldiers of imperialism, especially the men involved at the most intimate level with slaves and slavery in the eighteenth-century British Empire.

Of course, to understand is in some ways to forgive. Forgiveness is especially easy when the person in need of forgiving produces the words that we rely on to construct a historical narrative. This account of Thistlewood's life and diaries is an empathetic one; it acknowledges the difficulties he was forced to labor under and the different context of an eighteenth-century world with values and experiences removed from our own. I hope, however, that empathy does not tend too much toward sympathy. Sympathy for the travails of a man living in the middle of a war zone (as Jamaica indubitably was in the eighteenth century) is constrained by the realization that the subject was definitely not on the side of the angels. Thistlewood was on the wrong side of history—he was a brutal slave owner, an occasional rapist and torturer, and a believer in the inherent inferiority of Africans.

Thistlewood's life can be recounted simply. It was not a life full of incident. He was born on 16 March 1721 in Tupholme, Lincolnshire, the second son of Robert Thistlewood, a tenant farmer for Robert Vyner. His father died on 18 December 1727, leaving Thomas £200 sterling to be paid when Thistlewood was twenty-one years old. Thus, from an early age, Thistlewood was in the uneasy position of being a fatherless second son with few prospects of obtaining land. Shortly after his mother's remarriage to Thomas Calverly on 27 September 1728, Thistlewood was sent to school in Ackworth in York, where he boarded with his stepuncle, Robert Calverly. Thistlewood received a good education for a person of his status, especially in mathematics and science. He continued his schooling until he was eighteen, when he was apprenticed to William Robson, a farmer in Waddingham, eleven miles due north of Lincoln. By this time, he had already established some of the habits he would keep throughout his life. He was interested in books and practical science, and he had begun a regular diary. He kept a diary on a semi-daily basis from 1741 onward.[13]

He was adrift in the world after his mother died at age forty-two on 7 October 1738. Thistlewood soon realized it was unlikely that he would become a tenant farmer as his father had been and as his brother was to become. He left Robson on 27 July 1740, explaining to him in a letter that he "cannot get money to pay you withal supplying [my] own wants & if I had staid with you till I was of age, I would owe you a great deal." Other factors played a part in his decision to leave. Thistlewood "had a mind to travell," and after leaving Robson, he journeyed south to Nottingham, Leicester, Stratford upon Avon, and Bristol. He returned to Robson's farm after the death of his stepfather on 19 November 1740 but never settled down. By 1743, he had entered into partnership with his brother to be a tenant farmer for Robert Vyner, but he ended that partnership after less than a year. His wanderlust was strong now, as was his realization that he was unlikely to achieve his ambitions in Lincolnshire, or even in England. His determination to leave may have been enhanced by events that occurred in late 1745. On 19 December 1745, Thistlewood was served a warrant for getting Anne Baldock pregnant on 1 August 1745 at a county fair. Baldock miscarried, but Thistlewood's reputation may have been damaged. On 7 March 1746, he left his family and Tupholme, taking with him £4.71 in ready money. He undertook a two-year journey to India via the Cape of Good Hope and Bahia, Brazil, on a ship belonging to the East India Company to sell English manufactures.

He returned to England on 27 August 1748, remaining in London until 6 October, then traveling to Lincolnshire. At loose ends, he alternated between the delights of London and the comfort of Tupholme and undertook an unsuccessful trip to the Low Countries in the summer of 1749 to sell goods he had brought back from India and Brazil. This was not a happy time for Thistlewood. He had no position and little chance of becoming a landed proprietor. Despite having torrid affairs with Elizabeth Toyne, the wife of his erstwhile employer, Thomas Toyne (Thistlewood related that on 21 October he had sex with "Mrs. T in the night 4 tempora" and on 28 October "Cum E.T.—cum illa in nocte quinque tempora") and another married woman, Elizabeth Toyne's friend, Jenny Cook, he had not found a suitable partner. He courted Bett Mitchell of Fulsby, noting on 5 March 1749 that she was the eleventh woman he had had sexual intercourse with, and they exchanged gifts to signal their intentions toward each other. But her parents turned Thistlewood down when he sought her hand in marriage. Mitchell's parents were right to do so: Thistlewood was twenty-eight years old and had little money and poor prospects.[14] Thistlewood was as low in spirits as at any other time in his life. He left Tupholme at the beginning of April for London. He had no job and was forced to rely on loans from his landlady. On 1 May, he recorded, "Took a walk in the long fields. Borrowed off Mrs. Gresham [his landlady] 5s. Ecclesiastes Chap. 7th. Verse 28th: which yet my soul seeketh but I find not: one man among a thousand I have found, but a woman among all these have I not found." In these low times, Jamaica was an appealing prospect. He departed for the island on 1 February 1750, arriving in Kingston on 24 April. He remained in Jamaica for the rest of his life.

It is his life in Jamaica that is of interest here. If his diaries had not been preserved, we would know little about him except for a few references in Jamaica's public records. Although he was an acquaintance of the wealthy sugar planter and historian William Beckford of Hertford and knew members of the prominent Ricketts family, he is not mentioned in Beckford's 1790 history of Jamaica or in the Ricketts family letters, the only other surviving written records of Westmoreland in Thistlewood's time.[15] The sole source that casts light on Thistlewood besides his diaries and associated writings is the collection of Edward Long's papers on Jamaica held in the British Library. Thistlewood wrote two letters on scientific and meteorological matters to Long, the scion of one of Jamaica's most distinguished families, owner of a considerable amount of Jamaican property, and author of the best contemporary history of Jamaica.[16] Thistlewood was not an important man, even if by the end of his life he had attained some small celebrity in his immediate neighborhood for the extent and quality of his garden and had become a justice of the peace. He did not mingle in the highest circles of Jamaica—Long never bothered to reply to Thistlewood's letters, for example—and had no descendants through whom his memory could be transmitted over time. His grave is not marked in the Savanna-la-Mar churchyard, and no trace of his house or property remains. His unusual name is not found in Jamaica today and is rare in Britain. If the name "Thistlewood" resonates at all, it does so in a way that would have displeased Thomas Thistlewood—the name became notorious in 1820 when his great nephew, Arthur Thistlewood, was executed for treason as the leader of the Cato Plot to assassinate the prime minister.[17]

Moving to Jamaica cured Thistlewood's wanderlust. He did not venture beyond western Jamaica in the thirty-seven years he lived in the island and seldom went more than a few miles from the southern Westmoreland town of Savanna-la-Mar. The only move he made after 1751 came in 1757 when he left for a year to take up an overseership at the Kendal estate, a sugar property belonging to John Parkinson located a few miles due north of Egypt in Hanover Parish. On 3 July 1766, he purchased a half-share of a 300-acre property a few miles northeast of Savanna-la-Mar. On 3 September 1767, he moved to this pen, which he named Breadnut Island. He described it in 1781, when he briefly considered selling it and returning to Britain, as containing 160 acres, of which between 60 and 70 acres were "Negro grounds and pastures, very clean; most of the rest is a rich open morass, great part of which in the dry season is good pasturage; it affords fish of various sorts, more especially mudfish, also crabs, and in the season plenty of wild fowl." From the highest point, where Thistlewood had built a house that had been destroyed in the hurricane of October 1780, "there is a prospect of the shipping in Savanna la Mar harbor, and the country all round."[18] Thistlewood developed Breadnut Island into a showpiece property, with one of the earliest and most spectacular gardens of western Jamaica.

Two great events intruded into this Arcadia (the original name of the 300-acre property was Paradise) between 1750 and 1786. Thistlewood provides us with vivid firsthand accounts of both events. In 1760, Thistlewood found himself in the middle of the greatest slave rebellion in the eighteenth-century British Empire, Tackey's revolt, in which slave rebels attempted to "extirpate the whites" and establish an African kingdom. Westmoreland bore the brunt of the rebel attacks, along with St. Mary's, and, as Thistlewood relates in his testimony about the revolt, the rebels came close to achieving their aims. At least 50 whites and perhaps 500 slaves lost their lives either in battle or in the grisly retributions that occurred after the rebels had been defeated. In terms of its shock to the imperial system, only the American Revolution surpassed Tackey's revolt in the eighteenth century.[19]

The second great event was the hurricane of October 1780. Hurricanes frightened white Jamaicans as much as slave rebellions. Thistlewood experienced his first hurricane as early as 1751, as we have seen. It terrified and excited him in almost equal measure. The hurricane of October 1780, however, was a different matter. When Thistlewood compared the three hurricanes he had experienced (in 1751, 1780, and 1781), he ranked them on a scale of 1-10 as follows: "11th September, Violence or Force, not Velocity, say 6. 3rd October 1780, say 10. 1st August 1781, say 4."[20] The second hurricane was the most violent ever to strike the Caribbean in recorded history, and it made a direct hit on Westmoreland Parish. It devastated both the parish and Thistlewood, leaving "sad havoc all through the countryside." The loss of life was close to that in Tackey's revolt, and the physical destruction was considerably greater. At its height, the hurricane was "most tremendous, dreadful, awful & horrible…. [T]he elements of fire, air, water and earth seemed to be blended together … [and] it seemed as if a dissolution of nature was at hand." People could not stand upright in the force of the wind, and their clothes were torn from their bodies. "An old negroe man" who had "crept into an empty puncheon for shelter" was "carried over a high fence into a cane piece 2 or 3 hundred yards distance." The aftermath of the hurricane was as devastating as the hurricane itself; most trees were "blasted" and destroyed, and survivors were assailed by sickness that probably arose from lack of clean drinking water and the destruction of food supplies. Westmoreland bore "the appearance of the dreary mountains of Wales, in the winter season," with "not a blade of grass, nor leaf left or tree, shrub, or bush." Traveling to Savanna-la-Mar, Thistlewood found "the havock at the bay … past comprehension, an intolerable stench in the air, every thing rotting and such a great number of putrid carcasses laying unburied."[21] It also brought out the tensions in Jamaican society. Westmoreland whites feared that their slaves, "who were at that time exceeding turbulent & daring, well-knowing a number of Inhabitants had perished in the storm, and almost all our arms & ammunition destroyed," would take advantage of whites' desolation. Whites were "much afraid of the Negroes rising, they being very impudent."[22] Thistlewood's dwelling house had been destroyed, his prized garden had been flooded and ruined, virtually no trees remained upright, and he and his slaves faced the possibility of famine because of the scarcity of provisions. The British government, aware of the vast scale of destruction in its wealthiest colony, provided £40,000 sterling as a grant-in-aid.[23]

Thistlewood had his share of personal tragedies, such as the death by drowning of his nephew, John Thistlewood, who had come to Jamaica in 1764, on 30 March 1765 and the death of his twenty-year-old mulatto son, John (the product of a relationship with Phibbah, a Creole black house slave), on 7 September 1780. Moreover, the dismal demographic prospects afforded whites in Jamaica meant the frequent loss of friends and acquaintances. Life as a white man among brutalized slaves bent on revenge was also always dangerous. Thistlewood's stay in Jamaica was almost a very short one. On 27 December 1752, he barely escaped being murdered by a runaway slave named Congo Sam. But personal difficulties and setbacks were relatively rare. Thistlewood achieved much more in Jamaica than would have been possible in England. He spent the last twenty years of his life as an independent landed proprietor and died with a healthy estate worth £3,371.26 Jamaica currency or £2,408.04 sterling, including thirty-four slaves.

As well as securing moderate wealth, he gained some status within Westmoreland society. On 31 December 1769, he received a commission as a lieutenant at the Savanna-la-Mar fort with responsibility to "exercise the inferior Officers, Gunners and Soldiers thereof in arms" and hold them "in good order and discipline." Six years later, on 17 December 1775, he became a magistrate. This date marked the peak of Thistlewood's prosperity. He was comfortably well-off, respected, a figure of some consequence in his parish, and the owner of a sizable number of slaves and an attractive estate. He had achieved some measure of fame through his creation of a renowned garden. Moreover, he was in a stable relationship with a slave housekeeper, Phibbah, his partner since early 1754, even if domestic happiness did not preclude frequent philandering with numerous slave women. His position declined in the subsequent decade, but at his death on 30 November 1786 after a month-long illness, three months short of his sixty-sixth birthday, he could be satisfied that in coming to Jamaica thirty-seven years earlier he had made the right decision.

A "Marble Cover'd Book"

It was in this environment that Thistlewood sat down every day to write in his diary, tabulate daily rainfall and note weather conditions, copy passages from books he was reading, and, in 1764, compile an "account of the Game which I shot."[46] Some of the most basic facts about Thistlewood—such as what he looked like—are not known. Nevertheless, the cache of materials deposited in the Lincolnshire Archives through the generosity of their owner, John Monson, 11th Lord Monson, is remarkable, unparalleled for its insights into Caribbean life and slave society in the eighteenth-century British Atlantic world. No other source contains the wealth of information about slavery in the colonial period found in Thistlewood's diaries. The deposit amounts to 92 items, of which 37 are the journals of Thistlewood from 1748 to 1786 and 35 are weather reports from Egypt Plantation and Breadnut Island between 1752 and 1786. In addition, it contains the journal of Thistlewood's nephew, John, who lived with his uncle between 1764 and March 1765, nine commonplace books, two lists of books owned by Thistlewood, a volume entitled "Mr. Richard Beckford's Instructions," a book in which rules of war are set forth by Jamaica's governor in 1756 after martial law had been declared, a book of game shot in 1764, and a volume with a list of slaves and an account of their labor on the Egypt estate between 1758 and 1766.

The diaries interest us most. Each volume is a small book covered in paper with the year written on the front. Each journal spans one year and contains between 184 and 354 pages of closely written and occasionally faded handwriting, except for the first volume, which runs from 27 August 1748 to the end of 1750 and contains 535 pages. In total, the diaries include over 10,000 pages of daily entries covering 39 years, 37 of which were spent in Westmoreland Parish. Each page contains between 150 and 200 words, the total text running to perhaps 2 million words. Thistlewood was a remarkably diligent diary keeper, virtually never missing a day's entry. He wrote in a clear, if tiny, script, so readers have little difficulty in deciphering his handwriting, although on occasion it is too faint to discern. A few pages are too discolored to be properly transcribed. Nevertheless, the vast majority of the text is accessible. At times, it is difficult to distinguish between vowels, and some of Thistlewood's abbreviations are mystifying. Moreover, his spelling was less than perfect (though better than that of his nephew John, who had execrable spelling and even worse grammar), and he did not always care to make his entries grammatically perfect. In this book, I have modernized spelling and added punctuation if needed to clarify words and sentences. I have otherwise tried to leave direct quotes as Thistlewood wrote them.[47]

Our reading of the diaries must be mediated by our understanding of Thistlewood's strategies of inclusion and exclusion. He wrote the diaries to satisfy various needs arising from his personality. Although we can guess what that personality was like from reading his diaries, we have no other source by which we can validate our suppositions. Nor did Thistlewood provide us with much help in our effort to understand the underlying motivations behind why he wrote the diaries in the way he did. He did not tell us why he kept a diary so assiduously and what he gained from keeping such a detailed record of his life. Nor did he discuss why he wrote his diaries in the distinctive form he used. He wrote flat, serviceable prose in entries that are regular in form and consistent in the type of activities mentioned. Over time, the regularity of these entries meant that the overall length of each year's entries was remarkably similar. A typical entry contains details of his and his slaves' work routines; punishments he meted out; letters he wrote to other whites and which slaves delivered those letters; monies expended and on what; people he met and his interactions with them, including formulaic lists of his many sexual partners; illnesses he experienced and the remedies he tried (repeated bouts of venereal disease are the most memorable of these entries); books he read or borrowed; and items of curiosity he thought especially interesting and worthy of record. At the beginning and end of each year, he summarized the year's activities and analyzed his financial situation by listing his assets and liabilities. His diary was thus part account book, part aide-mémoire, and part recapitulation of a life as lived.

Here is an example of a typical day's entry, taken at random:

Friday 10th April 1761: Gave our Negroes today. Sent on board the Ruby Captain Sattie 5 tierces of sugar 5583 lbs Recpt Signed Wm Lindsay. Wrote to Mr. Thos Eddin, recd 100 yams. P. M. Cum Phibbah, Sup: Lect.
It was a slow day. This entry showed that he allowed his slaves to work for themselves rather than laboring in the fields, that he sent some sugar to Britain, that he transacted with a local merchant for some crops for his garden, and that he had sex with his mistress. In the same week, he noted that "Cyrus, Egypt, Susannah, Phillis and Abba in the hott house" recovering from illness, that he had given some trees to Dr. Gorse, that "Venus has got the Clap," that he had sex with Little Lydde (to whom he paid 2 bitts) and Little Mimber, and that he set his slaves to work fishing and planting. On Sunday, he "gave many Ticketts to our Negroes," presumably so they could go to markets or visit lovers or friends on nearby estates. On Monday, 13 April, he noted that "a Rebell Negroe [was] kill'd not far from Glasgow Estate lately (one off those who was at Mr. Thos: Torrent's) and the other took by his Negroes after a desperate engagement." This entry was the only one that week that ventured away from the commonplaces of ordinary life.

He does not appear to have reflected on how a reading of the diaries might make him appear to others. All of the textual evidence suggests that the diaries were intended for personal use only. An occasional entry indicates that he periodically returned to his diaries to read them and, if necessary, correct factual statements that he subsequently discovered to be wrong. But he does not seem to have shown his diaries to anyone else. The diaries are remarkably frank in their description of his sexual activities and the brutal methods he used to subdue and punish slaves. They contain no attempt at self-censorship and precious little self-justification. In this respect, the diaries present a warts-and-all portrait of an intelligent if not especially sensitive man unconcerned about the morality of his life and actions.

Thistlewood's Presentation of "Self"

The diaries' great strength and their principal weakness is their extreme lack of self-consciousness—they are a presentation but not an examination of self. Thistlewood appears to have kept a regular diary because he was an inveterate list maker and collector of facts. As a result, his diaries are diffuse, shapeless, and unremittingly concrete. They are not part of a polished autobiography, as are those of James Boswell, nor are they the raw material from which a later book can be created, as are the diaries of his Caribbean contemporary, John Stedman, whose Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam is based on his daily log. Nor were Thistlewood's diaries written to resolve problems of a pathological personality, as Kenneth Lockridge argues was true for William Byrd II of Virginia, or written as a form of emotional release and a justification for one's conduct against the opinion of a hostile outside world, as has been argued for Thistlewood's wealthy contemporary, Landon Carter of Sabine Hall, Virginia. If Thistlewood was concerned about creating in writing a coherent "self," as Patricia Mayer Spacks argues was usually true of eighteenth-century diary writers, then he was remarkably unreflective about the process of such self-creation. Thistlewood seems instead to have kept a diary "to keep a kind of time and motion study by which the individual records and judges his output day by day." What pervades the diaries is an overwhelming desire to maintain order, principally achieved through an obsessive fixation on facts. His diaries show Thistlewood's compulsive urge to find, generate, sift, handle, collect, and record factual impressions and were one way in which his passion for collecting facts and desire for routine and regularity could be advanced. His desire for self-improvement was intellectual and to an extent financial, without any hint of moral self-accounting. A deeply conservative man, he accepted the world as it was and himself as he was. This means that his diaries are remarkably honest and accurate, but it also means that we have little access to his inner life and the inner life of others. He seems to have had virtually no capacity for abstract analysis or self-analysis. His diaries exhibit, even for a pre-psychoanalytic age, extremely limited insights into what motivated his behavior, what fears and ambitions he might have had, and how he perceived his relationships with others.

A Representative Diary?

The deficiencies of the diaries as guides to eighteenth-century human behavior, however, cannot detract from the abundance of evidence they provide about what white and black Jamaicans did within their peculiar society. They are the richest source into either white or black society that I have come across in extensive archival investigations into Jamaican history. They offer a wealth of material about white society, slave interactions with their masters, and the manner of living in the eighteenth-century British tropical world. Their very richness makes them suspect: no one else kept a diary with the assiduousness of Thistlewood. Does this make Thistlewood unrepresentative? Is he an unusual man in an unusual society and thus not to be trusted? Of course, the very fact that Thistlewood kept a journal makes him curious. Just as Edward Long's intelligence and sophisticated understanding of history make his history not only one of the great historical works of his age but also the product of his particular brilliance and opinionated views, so too does the singularity of Thistlewood's diaries make him ipso facto unrepresentative. Diary keeping was not a normal preoccupation of white Jamaican men, and the type of person who keeps a diary—someone with a protobourgeois mentality, keen on accounting for time spent, and someone engaged in self-improvement[53]—does not fit with what we assume to be the quintessential eighteenth-century white Jamaican personality, in which self-indulgence and the lack of a persevering spirit were pre-eminent characteristics. As Alan Macfarlane has commented concerning another diary, if we used diaries on their own, we would receive a picture "biased toward the more methodical and the more introspective sides of life."[54]

Certainly Thistlewood was not the quintessential white Jamaican man. He was neither noticeably self-indulgent, except perhaps in his strong sexual appetite, nor conspicuously indolent and devoted to short-term pleasure. He seldom drank to excess, was careful about what he ate, and preferred his own company to the compulsive carousing that was common among white men. His slaves accurately summed up his personality as it appears in his diaries in the name they privately bestowed on him: "abbaumi appea i.e. No for Play." The name they called his subordinate, John Hartnole—Crakra Juba, or "Crazy Somebody"—was a much more typical moniker for a white Jamaican.[55] Being fascinated by books and an avid reader was also unusual. Few white Jamaicans read very much, at least if contemporary denigrations of the cultural ambience of Jamaica can be believed and if the absence of books in Jamaican inventories is a guide.[56]

Nevertheless, what distinguishes Thistlewood from other white Jamaican men is less significant than what connects him to them. Nothing in his diaries signifies that he was at odds with his neighbors in his behavior, personality, or values. He was not universally liked, which is not surprising given that he was prickly and highly conscious of his own dignity. He had several run-ins with authority figures, especially in his first years in the island, when his willingness to whip slaves first and ask questions later if he found them on his land created several powerful enemies among the owners of the slaves so treated. As an independent proprietor in the 1760s, he was prepared to openly insult one of the leading men of the parish when solicited for his political support. But his difficult personality did not prevent him from being recognized by other white men as an acceptable member of society and a man worthy of being included in significant social and political events in the parish. Wealthy white men invited him to dinner; he was made a lieutenant of the Savanna-la-Mar fort and a justice of the peace; and men of similar status to himself—tavern keepers, doctors, and slave overseers—appointed him as executor of their estates. By the time of his death, Thistlewood's position in Westmoreland Parish was clear. He was a respectable old settler, well-off without being wealthy, and a man of some local consequence as a justice and a vestryman. He had no wider fame, except perhaps in botany and horticulture. Like most white men in the parish, he made his living through planting and the ownership of slaves. He was skilled at both endeavors, as evidenced by the competition among planters to employ him as manager of their estates and slave forces. But he was not an extraordinary agriculturalist. He followed normal practices in cane cultivation and was not especially innovative as a pen keeper, though he had particular talents as a gardener. Thistlewood was nothing if not conventional, both in his behavior and in his views. Apart from exhibiting a strong dislike for Scotsmen, which may have been more pronounced than usual for white Jamaicans of English descent, he evinced no political or social opinion that marks him as unusual. He accepted the existing order as it was. He never questioned the morality of slavery, for example; the right of white men to dominate slaves, wives, and children; or, even in the American Revolution, the necessity of British sovereignty over its colonies. Nor he did he ever doubt that white men were bound to rule and that political and social authority should accrue to men who had the greatest social and economic standing in the community.

He was also very normal in what strikes modern readers as the most aberrant aspects of Jamaican life: his sexual, social, and physical relationships with slaves. Modern readers of Thistlewood's diaries—and I presume readers of this book—do not think well of Thistlewood because of the brutality of his behavior toward his slaves. His sexual appetite appears less that of a Caribbean Casanova than the unnatural and bestial longings of a quintessential sexual predator and rapist. His willingness to subject his slaves to horrific punishments, which included savage whippings of up to 350 lashes and sadistic tortures of his own invention, such as Derby's dose, in which a slave defecated into the mouth of another slave whose mouth was then wired shut, reveal Thistlewood as a brutal sociopath. It is hard to get past these aspects of Thistlewood's behavior in order to see him as he saw himself: a harbinger, in a modest way, of the Enlightenment in the Tropics; a scholar and perhaps a gentleman; a loyal friend and respectable imperial subject; and a man of principle and integrity.

A Violent Man in a Violent Age

As historians, it is not our responsibility to attribute retrospective blame. We do, however, need to explain why ordinary people such as Thistlewood acted in the ways they did—ways that dismayed contemporaries as much as they horrify us today. How could Thistlewood behave as he did toward his slaves and develop strategies of control that were designed to demean, demoralize, and traumatize them when in other situations and in relations with fellow whites, he adopted patterns of behavior that we associate with a man of intelligence and integrity? Why was his ethical behavior so strongly influenced by the situations in which he found himself? Thistlewood's behavior indicates a very strong sense of situational ethics, of having different codes of conduct for different circumstances. The conduct adopted depended on the race of the person involved. Although Thistlewood saw slaves as human beings and did not see them as biologically inferior in the manner of a scientific racist such as Long, he accepted common Jamaican understandings that whites could act toward blacks in any way they wanted with impunity. Whites had total license to behave toward slaves as they saw fit, with white juries excusing all white crimes toward blacks short of psychopathic serial murder. John Wright, who was convicted of murder after killing four partners, was the only white noted by Thistlewood in thirty-seven years of residence in Westmoreland who was punished for his ill treatment of slaves. Moreover, he was only "fated" when he murdered a mistress who was mulatto: perhaps if he had confined his killing solely to blacks, he would have been safe. In the end, he escaped hanging and died by shooting himself at sea, having been allowed to escape from jail on the condition that he left the country.[57]

That whites were free to act as they pleased toward blacks does not, however, explain why they were so brutal toward their slaves. White Jamaicans, as Charles Leslie noted, were notorious for their ill treatment of slaves.[58] One of the causes of that ill treatment arose from the almost complete absence of constraint over how that power was exercised. Psychological studies, notably the famous Milgram experiments on the makeup of authoritarian personalities, have confirmed the increased extent to which individuals are willing to abuse normal ethical standards when they are placed within institutional structures that allow normal ethical standards to be violated.[59] Studies of the Holocaust have revealed that extraordinary circumstances can encourage ordinary people to commit acts of unrestrained violence and evil.[60] Late-eighteenth-century commentators were similarly interested in the extraordinary circumstances that led white Jamaicans to treat their slaves so abominably. Some attributed white Jamaican brutality to the climate, arguing that the heat transformed the "natural Disposition" of Britons "from humanity into Barbarity." Others blamed the "Barbarity" on the way white Jamaicans were raised. "Bred for the most Part at the Breast of a Negro Slave; surrounded in their Infancy with a numerous retinue of these dark Attendants," white Jamaicans were, John Fothergill asserted, "habituated by Precept and Example, to Sensuality, and Despotism." They were used, in short, to "play the Mogul and lord it" over their slaves "without Controul." Not only did native-born whites take immense pride in the constant obsequiousness of their slaves; migrants also became quickly attuned to West Indian ways. "Like wax softened by heat," J. B. Moreton argued, men from other countries "melt into [Jamaican] manners and customs." He continued: "[M]en from their first entrance … are taught to practice severities to the slaves … so that in time their hearts become callous to all tender feelings which soften and dignify our nature; the most insignificant Connaught savage bumpkin, or silly Highland gauky, will soon learn to flog without mercy to shew his authority."[61]

Nevertheless, I would argue that the major impetus of white Jamaican "Barbarism" was the belief that slaves could only be controlled through severe force and were not entitled to the same treatment that was meted out to Englishmen. Jamaicans imagined that Africans were used to harsh treatment in their native land. They also thought them "a sort of beast, and without souls," "a set of vile beings, of a species different from ours." They believed Africans had "as great a Propensity to Subjection, as we have to command and love Slavery as naturally as we do Liberty."[62] Harsh measures were needed to control such "savage and uncivilized creatures." White Jamaicans believed in force because they were frightened. Jamaica was a society at war. Slaves had to be kept cowed through arbitrary, tyrannical, and brutal actions, supported at all times by the full weight of state authority. White Jamaicans developed a legal system and a social structure in which any brutality exercised by whites toward blacks could be excused by the fundamental necessity of keeping blacks subdued. Only in this way could white fears be assuaged. Such assumptions, of course, were a license for sadism and tyranny among all whites, not just those inclined to psychopathic behavior. Whites knew that they had the full support of the state and white public opinion for whatever they did toward slaves. As James Knight declared, "Whoever considers the Negroes Superiority in Number, the sullen, deceitfull, Refractory temper of most of them … and how much their Masters Interest depends on the Care, and Diligence of His Slaves must be Convinced, that there is an Absolute necessity of keeping a Vigilant Eye, and Strict hand over them."[63] Because white Jamaicans considered themselves at war, they convinced themselves that normal rules of behavior did not apply. This conviction was reinforced by their all-pervasive racism. As Long asserted, Africans were "men of so savage a disposition, as that they scarcely differ from the wild beasts of the wood in the ferocity of their manners"; thus they had to "be managed at first as if they were beasts; they must be tamed, before they can be treated like men."[64]

The ethos of Jamaican society was similar to that described by Primo Levi in his searing accounts of life in Auschwitz, a gray zone with moral rules peculiar to its own distorted social structure, a society with ill-defined and abnormal outlines in which oppressors and victims were both separate and joined together. As Levi observes, to understand the incredibly complicated internal structure and strange morality of such a society, one must understand how power operates when it is not constrained by moral considerations. Both the powerful and the powerless—the master and the slave—seek power in totalitarian societies, and power is "generously granted to those willing to pay homage to hierarchic authority." The immorality of societies based on the rightness of force alone makes the wielders of power themselves immoral, whether they are part of the oppressors' power structure, such as Thistlewood, or the oppressed, contaminated by the need to identify with, imitate, or emulate the oppressors.[65]


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