Thomas Thistlewood

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Thomas Thistlewood (16 March 1721 – 30 November 1786) was a British landowner and estate overseer who migrated to western Jamaica. He is remembered for his diary, which became an important historical document on slavery and history of Jamaica.


Thomas Thistlewood was born in Tupholme, Lincolnshire, UK. In 1750 he left Britain and migrated to Jamaica, where he lived until his death in 1786. He became a small landowner and the overseer of the Egypt sugar plantation, which was located near the Savanna la Mar.


His diary, The Diary of Thomas Thistlewood is a detailed record of his life and daily activities, providing a rare and detailed insight into plantation life, from agricultural techniques to slave-owner relations.

In his diary, which eventually ran over 14,000 pages, he describes the brutal treatment of slaves:

Thomas Thistlewood's Jamaica was not much like Landon Carter's Virginia. The sugar-producing island of Jamaica was by far the richest colony in all of the British Empire. Although Thistlewood was only of the "middling ranks" among whites in Jamaica and he was nowhere near as rich as Carter, who was one of the first families of colonial Virginia, still, at his death, this Jamaican planter had at least ten times as much wealth as the average white Briton in other parts of the empire.[citation needed] But it was not just the different levels of wealth in the two slave societies that distinguished them from one another; it was the different proportions of whites to African slaves that mattered more. Indeed, the extreme racial imbalance in Jamaica affected everything in the society. With whites making up only one in nine of the population, Jamaica was one of the most extensive racially based slave societies in history. During his first year on the island, Thistlewood lived in an almost exclusively black world. For weeks on end he saw no white people at all. Later he settled in the rural western end of the island where the proportion of slaves to whites was as high as fifteen to one.

Consequently, whites like Thistlewood lived in an Africanized society that rested on white fear, white equality, and white brutality. With almost no restraints placed on their personal freedom, whites ruled their slaves with a degree of violence that left outside observers aghast. Thistlewood routinely punished his slaves with fierce floggings and other harsh punishments, some of them very sickening. One of his favorites was "Derby's dose," in which a slave was forced to defecate into the offending slave's mouth, which was then wired shut for four or five hours.

Thistlewood was not an uneducated man. He was a prolific book buyer and reader; he practiced medicine on his slaves and was something of an expert in botany and horticulture. Although Trevor Burnard at one point calls Thistlewood "a brutal sociopath,"[citation needed] he generally suggests that Thistlewood's treatment of his slaves was not that unusual. Unlike Landon Carter and other rich eighteenth-century Virginia planters, who often developed a paternalistic attitude toward their slaves, most Jamaican whites were convinced that only the severe application of brute force could keep the numerous African slaves under control.

And it was largely an African slave population, dependent on continual importations from Africa. The rate of mortality was so high and the birth rate so low among the slaves that they could not reproduce themselves. "As a result," writes Burnard, "white Jamaicans bought rather than bred their labor force and were the mainstays of the flourishing British slave trade." In fact, one third of all slaves brought to the New World in British carriers ended up in Jamaica. Such was the death rate that a half-million slaves had to be imported in order to increase the island's slave population by a quarter of a million.

The mortality rates for whites in Jamaica were nearly as severe. Over one third of white immigrants died—usually from tropical diseases—within three years of arriving in the Caribbean.[citation needed] If an immigrant could stay alive, however, as Thistlewood did, then he could prosper to a degree that he could never have matched in Britain or even in North America. Whites, especially if they could manage slaves, were in such short supply that they could write their own tickets. Thistlewood arrived in Jamaica in 1750 at age twenty-nine with very few possessions. He was immediately sought after as an overseer and his wages rapidly rose to three figures a year, an enormous sum when compared to the average salaries of white British or North American workers. He bought slaves and hired them out, and although he could have continued to make more money working for others, he decided in the mid-1760s to become an independent landowner, not as a rich sugar producer but as a modestly well-to-do market gardener and horticultural expert for the western end of the island. He acquired local respectability, often dining with the wealthiest planters in his parish, and served in several local offices, including justice of the peace.

Burnard suggests, maybe too strongly, that Jamaica was very different from colonial Virginia, where the political offices such as vestrymen and justices of the peace tended to be dominated by the big planters like Carter. Jamaica, however, did not have enough rich whites to fill all these kinds of offices, and thus had to draw on the services of middling men like Thistlewood. Because of the relative scarcity of whites, says Burnard, Jamaica experienced a greater spirit of white independence, white pride, and white egalitarianism than existed in much of North America. As Burnard puts it, in Jamaica "poor whites had to be feted and treated with care because there were so few whites and so many slaves."[citation needed] When Thistlewood died in 1786 at age sixty-five he left an estate of £3,000, including thirty-four slaves—not great by Jamaican standards but quite substantial by North American standards.

Not only were whites in short supply but their sex ratio was skewed, with 3.1 adult men to one adult woman. Thistlewood never married an Englishwoman but satisfied his quite formidable sexual drive by exploiting the slaves who were all around him. During his thirty-seven years in Jamaica he dutifully entered into his diary his 3,852 acts of rape and/or sexual intercourse with 138 women, nearly all of whom were black slaves.

Although Thistlewood was a sexual opportunist, he had a favorite slave partner, Phibbah, who essentially became his "wife" and with whom he had sex most often. Over the thirty-three years they were together Phibbah and Thistlewood developed what Burnard calls "a warm and loving relationship, if such a thing was possible between a slave and her master."[citation needed] Eventually Phibbah acquired property, including land, livestock, and slaves, and sufficient respectability even to entertain white women. By being Thistlewood's mistress, Phibbah, says Burnard, "accommodated herself so well to slavery that in the end she transcended it."[citation needed] She acquired a sense of self-worth and a greater sense of equality with Thistlewood than was possible for any other slave. In this respect, Burnard concludes, she undermined the Jamaican slave system more effectively than all the attempted slave rebellions.

"He details the daily life of a slave owner and the quite extraordinary levels of brutality he metes out to his slaves; the sexual brutality to the women, and the physical brutality to all of them."[1]


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