Mastery, Tyranny, and Desire: Thomas Thistlewood and His Slaves in the Anglo-Jamaican World
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Eighteenth-century Jamaica, Britain's largest and most valuable slave-owning colony, relied on a brutal system of slave management to maintain its tenuous social order. Trevor Burnard provides unparalleled insight into Jamaica's vibrant but harsh African and European cultures with a comprehensive examination of the extraordinary diary of plantation owner Thomas Thistlewood.
Thistlewood's diary, kept over the course of forty years, describes in graphic detail how white rule over slaves was predicated on the infliction of terror on the bodies and minds of slaves. Thistlewood treated his slaves cruelly even while he relied on them for his livelihood. Along with careful notes on sugar production, Thistlewood maintained detailed records of a sexual life that fully expressed the society's rampant sexual exploitation of slaves. In Burnard's hands, Thistlewood's diary reveals a great deal not only about the man and his slaves but also about the structure and enforcement of power, changing understandings of human rights and freedom, and connections among social class, race, and gender, as well as sex and sexuality, in the plantation system.
more risk, notably from debtors absconding without settling their debts, than the virtually risk-free position of being an overseer entailed. More signiﬁcant, Thistlewood’s proﬁts depended on the capacities of Cope, and Thistlewood had good reason to doubt the abilities of his feckless and improvident employer. A much more attractive oﬀer came from John Parkinson, the owner of Paul Island and Kendal sugar estates. Thistlewood was to live at Kendal, receive £100 per annum, “and afterwards to have
blacks. The political and social atmosphere of Jamaica in Thistlewood’s time exhibited a complex and combustible blend of ostensible equality and demonstrable elements of social deference and hierarchy, all predicated on a ﬁerce and all-encompassing commitment to chattel slavery. The fabric of white society was inﬂuenced by the predominant role of slavery as an institution in Jamaican life. In eﬀect, the independence of white men was based on their absolute dependence on slavery as a social
Thistlewood and a visiting ship captain. After dinner, Westmoreland grandees William Beckford and his wife and Mr. Bellamy joined the group to drink tea. That Thistlewood was invited to such an event shows the extent of his social acceptance in Westmoreland. In the 1780s, his friendship with Hannah Blake, a wealthy widow, led to his participation in social occasions dominated by women. In February 1780, for example, Thistlewood dined with Blake at Southﬁelds in the company of one other man and
of course, in which moderately prosperous readers distant from the centers of book publishing could keep up to date without having to undertake the laborious and expensive process of ordering books from Britain. It was through books, especially those dealing with botany, that Thistlewood cemented his most intense friendships. Pommells recognized that a mutual love of reading had connected him with Thistlewood by leaving him in his will a parcel of books and “sundry papers.”29 Signiﬁcantly, three
weak used to oppose their masters leads one to wonder how whites were ever able to withstand slave assaults on their property, authority, and person. Yet except in late-eighteenth-century St. Domingue, slaves never managed to overcome white rule. Although slaves contributed to their own liberation, the principal destroyer of the ﬂourishing plantation system in the British West Indies was metropolitan authority. It is appropriate, therefore, to consider the weapons that the few but powerful whites