Thomas Thistlewood 1721 - 1786
Thomas Thistlewood from Tupholme was a British estate overseer and small landowner in western Jamaica. His diaries are now important documents on the slave trade and history of Jamaica.
Shortly after Thomas Thistlewood, a Jamaican slave owner who had moved to Jamaica from his native Lincolnshire in 1750, died on 30 November 1786, his local paper, The Cornwall Chronicle, celebrated his life as follows:
Deaths … In Westmoreland …Thomas Thistlewood, Esq., a gentleman whose social qualities during a residence of upwards of 30 years in that parish, had greatly endeared him to the whole circle of neighbours and acquaintances, and whose attainments, in many branches of natural knowledge, in which he was peculiarly communicative, rendered him a most desirable companion to men of science.
Such an eulogy would have been gratifying to Thistlewood, who saw himself as an amateur scientist and accomplished gardener. The designation of “gentleman” would have been particularly pleasing for someone who had arrived in Jamaica as a propertyless second son of a middling yeoman farmer.
He would be much less pleased with how he is remembered today. We see him as a brutal and sadistic slave owner, with a capacious sexual appetite, whose otherwise unremarkable life would have left few traces, if he had not written a voluminous set of diaries, detailing virtually every aspect of his life in Jamaica.
These diaries, fortuitously preserved at the Lincolnshire Archives, depict Thistlewood in a different light. But they reveal him to be an important person, for through his words we get an insight into the true nature of slavery and its meaning for masters and enslaved persons in the peak period of the slave trade period in Jamaica, Britain’s most valuable eighteenth century colony.
It is his diaries, rather than Thistlewood himself, which are remarkable. Written over 37 years, and comprising many thousands of pages of closely written text, they offer a singular account of a slave society full of barely assimilated Africans, employed in the onerous work of sugar planting. The diaries reveal how hard life was for slaves.
Thistlewood ruled with a fist of iron, whipping slaves frequently and sexually exploiting almost all women under his control. Enslaved persons not only had to work very hard; they were underfed, unable to be in control of themselves or their families without master permission, and, most significantly, were terrorised by an arbitrary system of control in which violence and coercion were constant features.
Yet what is most important about Thistlewood’s diaries is that they also allow us a unique glimpse at the lives of individual Africans and show us how, despite the torments they faced, enslaved people were able to create lives for themselves outside the master’s control. In these lives they could continue African cultural practices and develop relationships not based on slavery with other enslaved persons.
The diaries give us a picture of the unremittingly hard world that slaves faced. But we also get to know a lot about the person who wrote daily what he did to slaves. Thistlewood was one of the foot soldiers of empire, whose work allowed the business of slavery to flourish.
Arriving in 1750, he lived for the next 37 years in a small corner of southeast Jamaica, an area of swamps and morasses and valuable sugar land. For 16 years, Thistlewood worked for a sugar planter called John Cope on a property called Egypt, containing around 80 slaves.
Among those slaves was a domestic called Phibbah, who Thistlewood took up with in 1753 and with whom he lived, almost as man and wife, until his death. It was while he was overseer on Egypt that he was caught up in the greatest slave revolt in the eighteenth century British Caribbean, Tacky’s Revolt in 1760.
This revolt came perilously close to success, thus endangering white dominance over blacks. By his death, he had become, as his obituary states, a man of some local consequence. He owned a small livestock Pen, called Breadnutt Pen, on which he maintained one of the most extensive horticultural practices in Jamaica. He died, with an estate of over 30 slaves, an extensive library and an impressive personal estate worth over £2500 – much more money than he would ever have been able to obtain in Britain.
His many white friends, with whom he exchanged books and discussed science, mourned him. It is highly unlikely, however, that the enslaved persons whom he mistreated and terrorized felt anything but pleasure at his passing.
By Trevor Burnard, Professor of American History at the University of Sussex and the author of Mastery, Tyranny, and Desire: Thomas Thistlewood and His Slaves in the Anglo-Jamaican World (University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, 2004).
last updated: 13/06/2008 at 15:40