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Thomas Thistlewood (16 March 1721 ‒ 30 November 1786) was a British citizen who migrated to western Jamaica where he became a plantation overseer and owner of land, property, and slaves. He is remembered for his diary, an important historical document chronicling the history of Jamaica and slavery during the 18th century.
Thomas Thistlewood was born the second son of a tenant farmer in Tupholme, Lincolnshire, England. Having tried farming and sailing on a supercargo to India, he found himself floundering to launch a successful livelihood. In 1750, he left England at age 29 and migrated to Jamaica, where he lived until his death in 1786. Initially, he gained employment from a wealthy planter, Florentius Vassll, as an overseer at Vineyard Pen on July 2, 1750. He then became a small landowner and overseer of the Egypt Plantation, a sugar plantation located near the western coastal town of Savanna-la-Mar, Westmoreland Parish.
Known as The Diary of Thomas Thistlewood, Thistlewood's 14,000-page diary provides a detailed record of his life and deep insight into plantation life from agricultural techniques to slave-owner relations.
The sugar-producing island of Jamaica was by far the richest colony in all the British Empire even though Thistlewood was only of average wealth in white Jamaican society. That said, he was at the time of his death still far wealthier than most Britons in other parts of the British Empire.
With whites outnumbered nine to one in Jamaica, such an extreme racial imbalance affected everything on the island. During Thistlewood's first year in Jamaica, he lived in an almost exclusively black world, having no contact with other whites for weeks on end. Such a disparity was even greater in rural western Jamaica, where Thistlewood would eventually settle with the proportion of slaves to whites being as high as fifteen to one.
Consequently, Englishmen like Thistlewood lived in an Africanised society that rested on the white control of through fear, inequality, and brutality. With almost no societal restraints, slave owners ruled their slaves with a degree of violence that left outside observers aghast.
Noted history professor Trevor Burnard refers to Thistlewood as "a brutal sociopath", but he suggests that Thistlewood's treatment of his slaves was not unusual. Unlike other British colonies such as the Colony of Virginia, where slave owners often developed a paternalistic attitude toward their slaves, most Jamaican slave owners were convinced that only the severe application of brute force could keep the more numerous African slaves under control.
Accordingly, Thistlewood routinely punished his slaves with fierce floggings and other harsh punishments, some of them very sickening. One of his preferred punishments was the "Derby's dose" in which a slave would be forced to defecate into an offending slave's mouth which would then be forced shut via various methods for a considerable number of hours.
Thistlewood was self-educated and a prolific reader for his time and even more so in British colonial society. He often practiced medicine on his slaves and was knowledgeable in botany and horticulture.
With mortality rates high and birth rates low among Jamaican slaves, white plantations depended on the continued importation of slaves from Africa; one-third of all slaves brought to the New World on British ships went to Jamaica. The death rate was so high that 500,000 slaves had to be imported increase the island's slave population by just 250,000.
The mortality rate for white Jamaicans was nearly as great, and more than a third died from tropical diseases within three years of their arrival. Still they came, as a male white immigrant could prosper much more than his counterparts in England's other American colonies.
In 1750, a 29-year-old Thistlewood arrived in Jamaica with very few possessions but was immediately sought after as a plantation overseer and his wages rapidly rose to three figures a year, an enormous sum when compared to the average wages of white British and North American laborers. Such wages would allow him to purchase slaves and hire them out. 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 also suggests that Jamaica was very different from the Colony of Virginia where the political offices such as vestrymen and justices of the peace tended to be dominated by wealthier planters. Jamaica, however, did not have as many wealthy whites to fill such offices and thus had to draw on the services of white men with average wealth 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 colonial British America.
When Thistlewood died in 1786 at the age of 65, his estate of £3,000 and 34 slaves was rather modest by Jamaican standards but quite substantial with regards to other British colonies.
Though Thistlewood never married, his sexual exploits were prolific with his diary chronicling 3,852 acts of sexual intercourse and/or rape with 138 women, nearly all of whom were black slaves. He favoured his black slave, Phibbah, who essentially became his "wife". Over their 33-year relationship, Phibbah and Thistlewood developed what Burnard calls "a warm and loving relationship, if such a thing was possible between a slave and her master." Phibbah would eventually acquire property including land, livestock, and slaves as well as a sufficient "respectability" among white women. She thus obtained a greater sense of self-worth and racial equality than was possible for other slaves, perhaps undermining the Jamaican slave system more effectively than slave rebellions[original research?].