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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 He is remembered for his diary, an important historical document chronicling the history of Jamaica and slavery during the 18th century.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, United Kingdom. Having tried farming and sailing on a supercargo to India he found himself floundering to launch a successful livelihood. In 1750, he left Britain at the age of 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 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 white Britons in other parts of the British Empire.
With whites making up only one in nine persons in Jamaica, such an extreme racial imbalance affected everything on the Caribbean 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, whites like Thistlewood lived in an Africanised society that rested on the white control of blacks through fear, inequality, and brutality. With almost no societal restraints, whites ruled their slaves with a degree of violence that left outside observers aghast.
Although noted history professor and author Trevor Burnard refers to Thistlewood as "a brutal sociopath", he generally suggests that Thistlewood's treatment of his slaves was not that unusual. However, unlike other British colonies such as the Colony of Virginia where slave owners often developed a paternalistic attitude toward their slaves, most Jamaican whites 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.
Having received no higher education in Britain before moving to Jamaica, Thistlewood was nevertheless rather self-educated and a prolific book reader for a man of his time and even more so in British colonial society. He would often practice medicine on his slaves and was somewhat of an expert in botany and horticulture.
With the mortality rate so high and the birth rate so low among Jamaican slaves, white plantations depended on the continued importation of slaves from Africa with one-third of all slaves brought to the New World in British carriers ending up in Jamaica. Such was the death rate that 500,000 slaves had to be imported in order to increase the island's slave population by 250,000.
The mortality rate for whites in Jamaica was nearly as severe with over one-third dying within the first three years of arriving, usually from tropical disease. That said, if a white male immigrant could stay alive as Thistlewood did, then he could prosper far more than his white counterparts in Britain and its 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.