Thomas Thistlewood

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Thomas Thistlewood (16 March 1721 ‒ 30 November 1786) was a British citizen who migrated to the western end of the Colony of Jamaica where he became a plantation overseer and owner of land, property, and slaves. His diary is considered an important historical document chronicling the history of Jamaica and slavery during the 18th century. He is also known for keeping a detailed account of the treatments of his slaves as well as his sexual relationships with them.

United Kingdom Country in Europe

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, commonly known as the United Kingdom (UK) or Britain, is a sovereign country located off the north-western coast of the European mainland. The United Kingdom includes the island of Great Britain, the north-eastern part of the island of Ireland, and many smaller islands. Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom that shares a land border with another sovereign state, the Republic of Ireland. Apart from this land border, the United Kingdom is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, with the North Sea to the east, the English Channel to the south and the Celtic Sea to the south-west, giving it the 12th-longest coastline in the world. The Irish Sea separates Great Britain and Ireland. The United Kingdom's 242,500 square kilometres (93,600 sq mi) were home to an estimated 66.0 million inhabitants in 2017.

Colony of Jamaica Colony on the island of Jamaica, English, from 1707 British, colony 1655 - 1962

Jamaica was an English colony from 1655 or 1670, and a British Colony from 1707 until 1962, when it became independent. Jamaica became a Crown colony in 1866.

Slavery System under which people are treated as property to be bought and sold, and are forced to work

Slavery is any system in which principles of property law are applied to people, allowing individuals to own, buy and sell other individuals, as a de jure form of property. A slave is unable to withdraw unilaterally from such an arrangement and works without remuneration. Many scholars now use the term chattel slavery to refer to this specific sense of legalised, de jure slavery. In a broader sense, however, the word slavery may also refer to any situation in which an individual is de facto forced to work against their own will. Scholars also use the more generic terms such as unfree labour or forced labour to refer to such situations. However, and especially under slavery in broader senses of the word, slaves may have some rights and protections according to laws or customs.


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.

Thistlewood was self-educated and a prolific reader for his time and even more so in British colonial society.[ citation needed ] He often practiced medicine on his slaves, though some of his practices, like those of the European doctors in Jamaica, were questionable. He was also knowledgeable in botany and horticulture. He bought and read a number of books about religion, husbandry, and estate management, and he watched and marvelled at the appearance of Halley's Comet in 1759. [1]

British colonization of the Americas American Colonies of England and then Great Britain and the United Kingdom

British colonization of the Americas began in 1607 in Jamestown, Virginia, and reached its peak when colonies had been established throughout the Americas. The English, and later the British, were among the most important colonizers of the Americas, and their American empire came to surpass the Spanish American colonies in military and economic might.

Botany science of plant life

Botany, also called plant science(s), plant biology or phytology, is the science of plant life and a branch of biology. A botanist, plant scientist or phytologist is a scientist who specialises in this field. The term "botany" comes from the Ancient Greek word βοτάνη (botanē) meaning "pasture", "grass", or "fodder"; βοτάνη is in turn derived from βόσκειν (boskein), "to feed" or "to graze". Traditionally, botany has also included the study of fungi and algae by mycologists and phycologists respectively, with the study of these three groups of organisms remaining within the sphere of interest of the International Botanical Congress. Nowadays, botanists study approximately 410,000 species of land plants of which some 391,000 species are vascular plants, and approximately 20,000 are bryophytes.


Early Life and Migration to Jamaica

Thomas Thistlewood was born in Tupholme in Lincolnshire, England. The second son of a farmer, he was educated in Ackworth, West Yorkshire, where he received training in mathematics and in "practical science." He inherited 200 pound sterling from his father at the age of six, but the majority of the estate was given to his brother, thereby giving him the opportunity to leave England. After a two-year voyage on one of the East India Company's ships as a supercargo, Thistlewood returned to England briefly at 29 and decided to seek employment in Jamaica, emigrating in 1750. [2]

Tupholme village in United Kingdom

Tupholme is a village in the East Lindsey district of Lincolnshire, England. It is situated 11 miles (18 km) east from Lincoln, and is the site of the ruined Tupholme Abbey on the road between Horncastle and Bardney. The population is included in the civil parish of Bucknall.

Ackworth, West Yorkshire village and civil parish in West Yorkshire, England, UK

Ackworth is a village and civil parish in the metropolitan borough of Wakefield, West Yorkshire, England, situated between Pontefract, Barnsley and Doncaster on the small River Went. The village consists of four parts, High Ackworth, Low Ackworth, Ackworth Moor Top, and Brackenhill. According to the 2001 census it had a population of 6,493, increasing to 7,049 at the 2011 Census. There is also a City of Wakefield Ward called Ackworth, North Elmsall and Upton. At the 2011 Census this ward had a population of 16,099.

East India Company 16th through 19th-century British trading company

The East India Company (EIC), also known as the Honourable East India Company (HEIC) or the British East India Company, and informally known as John Company, Company Bahadur, or simply The Company, was an English and later British joint-stock company. It was formed to trade in the Indian Ocean region, initially with Mughal India and the East Indies, and later with Qing China. The company ended up seizing control over large parts of the Indian subcontinent, colonised parts of Southeast Asia, and colonised Hong Kong after a war with Qing China.

On 1 February 1750, he boarded the Flamborough to Savanna la Mar, Jamaica. He had letters of recommendation but no arranged employment. He arrived on the island on 4 May. [3]

Savanna-la-Mar town in Jamaica

Savanna-la-Mar is the chief town and capital of Westmoreland Parish, Jamaica. A coastal town, it contains an 18th-century fort constructed for colonial defence against pirates in the Caribbean.

Overseer at Egypt

He began his Caribbean life as an overseer, starting first at Vineyard Pen, which was a cattle pen which provided meat and vegetable provisions to sugar plantations. He then worked primarily at a sugar plantation named Egypt owned by John Cope and William Dorrill, where he was an overseer between 1751 and 1767. The plantation was in Westmoreland Parish, where he supervised numerous slaves in sugar production. Egypt comprised 1,500 acres of land, of which 1,200 consisted of water and morass, and was therefore unsuitable for sugar production. Only 150 acres were in cane, and Thistlewood's first crop was so poor that Dorrill almost considered switching Egypt from sugar to a cattle pen. [4]

Westmoreland Parish Parish in Cornwall, Jamaica

Westmoreland is the westernmost parish in Jamaica, located on the south side of the island. It is situated south of Hanover, southwest of Saint James, and northwest of Saint Elizabeth, in the county of Cornwall. The chief town and capital is Savanna-la-Mar. Negril, a famous tourist destination, is also situated in the parish.

During these years, Thistlewood gradually acquired slaves of his own, which he rented out to other planters. This is also where he met Phibbah, one of many slaves with whom he was involved sexually, but one who formed a long-lasting relationship with him. However, the relationship was a tempestuous one, and they often quarrelled. [5]

A lot of slaves ran away from Egypt, but like other plantation owners and overseers, Thistlewood often hired Jamaican Maroons to hunt runaway slaves. He writes about several meetings with Leeward Maroon leaders Cudjoe and Accompong in the 1750s and 1760s. [6] [7] In late 1752, when out for a stroll, Thistlewood came across Congo Sam, a slave of his who had runaway a month before, and he tried to recapture him. Sam attacked Thistlewood with a dull machete, and inflicted some minor injuries on the overseer, before another slave named London came to Thistlewood's assistance, and they captured Sam. However, two other slaves, Abigail and Bella, refused to help, and they supported Sam's attempt to gain freedom. In the trial that followed, Abigail and Bella were given 100 lashes each, but because London refused to testify against Sam, the latter was acquitted. [8]

Slaves on many Jamaican plantations were not properly fed, because of inadequate provisions grounds, and they often resorted to stealing canes in order to address their hunger during periods of drought. In 1755-6, a similar issue affected Egypt, and when a slave named Scotland was caught stealing corn and plantains, the watchman shot him and chopped him to death. [9]

Tacky's War

During Tacky's War in 1760, and subsequent slave revolts that decade, Thistlewood writes about the fear the planters felt about the possible success of this uprising. He commended the Maroons of Cudjoe's Town (Trelawny Town) for their bravery in fighting against the rebels. [10]

Thistlewood wrote about rebel slaves killing white men such as a Mr. Smith and a Captain Hoar. He was extremely anxious about the progress of the rebellion, and expressed disappointment at British sailors, who were supposed to fight the rebels, getting drunk. Thistlewood noted that several of his own slaves were becoming disrespectful towards him, and put it down to inspiration they were receiving from news of Tacky's revolt. [11]

In the years that followed, Thistlewood wrote about attempts to put down smaller, spin-off rebellions. [12]

Thistlewood wrote about John Jones' house being burnt by rebel slaves, who initially defeated a contingent of white militia, killing a number of soldiers. However, despite his anxiety, Thistlewood still found time to seduce several of his slaves. Eventually, the revolt was suppressed in both the eastern and western ends of the island. A number of slaves in western Jamaica, including some who belonged to Cope, were executed in the aftermath. Two of Thistlewood's Egypt slaves, Quacoo and Abraham, were sentenced to be re-sold as slaves to the Spanish Caribbean colonies, for their part in the rebellion. [13]

In 1766, Thistlewood was a part of the militia that put down another slave revolt, inspired by Tacky, this time in western Jamaica. In 1776, Thistlewood was again armed, as white Jamaicans heard rumours of another rebellion, which did not materialise. [14]

Owner of Breadnut

While he was still overseer of Egypt, Thistlewood began to acquire slaves, whom he then rented out to earn an additional income. [15] All of his slaves were branded with "TT" on their right shoulders. When Bess's son Bristol was seven, Thistlewood had him branded. When Mary was recaptured after running away, Thistlewood had her flogged, branded on her left cheek, and "put her on a steel collar with a few links of chain to it". [16]

By 1762, he owned 12 slaves, and he increased that number to 28 five years later. [17]

In 1767, Thistlewood completed the purchase of his own 160-acre plantation, Breadnut Island Pen, where about 30 slaves raised provisions and livestock, but that tally declined to 26 three years later. By 1778 however, he increased his slave population to 29, and a year later to 32. By 1782, Thistlewood had 34 slaves, of which nine were men, 12 women, and 13 underaged. Thistlewood lacked the capital needed to purchase a sugar plantation, which was the most lucrative crop of eighteenth century Jamaica. Instead, he settled for a venture that was less prestigious, but had the potential to be almost as profitable. Thistlewood hired out slaves during the crop season to larger sugar plantations, while on his land he planted a number of provisions, such as turnips, cabbages, parsley, nutmeg, coconuts, and coffee, which he then sold to the owners of sugar estates. [18]

Thistlewood also pursued a variety of scientific and intellectual interests. He acquired several hundred books, often on scientific and technical subjects; collected and described medicinal plants and other botanical specimens; and kept a detailed weather record for 34 years. He sent a detailed package to the wealthy colonial writer, Edward Long, containing these observations, but Long never acknowledged receipt in any of his writings, though they can be found among Long's unpublished manuscripts in the British Museum. [19]

The gardens at Breadnut Island were considered among the finest in western Jamaica before they were ruined in the hurricane of October 1780. A lot of Thistlewood's sheep were killed by the natural disaster, so he allowed his slaves to eat them. A year later, Thistlewood's slaves were still asking him for clothes to replace those lost in the 1780 hurricane. In 1781, another hurricane so damaged Thistlewood's own dwelling that he could no longer live there. The houses of his slaves were also damaged, Corn and plantain crops lost, and the gardens were agin destroyed. His slaves suffered from a shortage of food for most of that decade, even though Thistlewood grew crops for sale, and flogged any slave who stole crops. While his slaves complained of hunger and starvation, Thistlewood entertained guests such as William Beckford, where they dined out on lavish meals, including crabs, mudfish, shrimps, mutton, turnips, broccoli, duck, watermelons, and a variety of alcohol. [20]

In 1781, because of illness, Thistlewood tried to sell Breadnut Pen. However, he failed to find a buyer, and kept this property until he died. [21]


Thistlewood never married, but had one son, Mulatto John, by his slave Phibbah, who was originally a slave of his employer, John Cope. John was born on 29 April 1760, and was manumitted by Cope on 3 May 1762. An elder son, Thomas, born to Jenny, died in childhood. [22]

Thistlewood eventually purchased her from Cope and lived with her at Breadnut Island. Thistlewood bought a number of books for his son Mulatto John to read. However, as John grew up, he showed little interest in reading, proving a disappointment to his father. Thomas later accused John of stealing money from him. [23]

In 1775, Thistlewood apprenticed Mulatto John to William Hornby as a carpenter. However, John was unhappy with his apprenticeship, and looked forward to the time when he could serve in the militia, and get away from Hornby. One day in 1779, when Mulatto John refused to go to work, Thomas had his son flogged "pretty well" to persuade him to change his mind. When war broke out with the American colonies, Mulatto John joined the "Brown Infantry", a regiment for mixed-race Jamaicans, to prepare for a French invasion that never came. [24]

In 1780, Mulatto John took ill, and had to be brought home by his mother, Phibbah. Thistlewood wrote that John "is very weak indeed & not in his right senses." Doctors of European origin were called, and they prescribed doses of bark and rhubarb, and according to Thistlewood, "also laid blisters inside each thigh...They gave him a blister which brought away a great quantity of putrid blood." However, despite the attention of the doctors, or probably because of it, Mulatto John died of a fever on 7 September 1780. Thistlewood and Phibbah both believed that John was poisoned by a jealous slave, but the doctor insisted he died of a fever. [25]

Thistlewood seems to have enjoyed his powerful position over black female slaves, and showed very little interest in Mary Holmes when he finally met a white woman who came from his part of north-east England. [26] When slaves paired up, Thistlewood often disregarded such unions and forced himself on the female slave. When Little Mimber and a slave driver named Johnnie became an item, Thistlewood forced Little Mimber into his bed to celebrate the union. in 1764, Thistlewood's English nephew, John Thistlewood, joined his uncle in Jamaica, but when John took advantage of Little Mimber on a regular basis, Johnnie became angry, and in an attempt to maintain order, Thomas warned his nephew off, and delivered a harsh physical punishment to the hapless Mimber. Later that year, John Thistlewood was found drowned, possibly as a result of revenge by Johnnie. [27] A year later, Thistlewood's slaves blew shell horns and fired guns to celebrate the death of John Thistlewood. [28]

Life in Jamaica

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, especially in comparison to wealthy planters such as Simon Taylor (sugar planter). That said, he was at the time of his death still far wealthier than most British men in other parts of the British Empire. He acquired more wealth in Jamaica than he could have done if he had chosen to remain in Lincolnshire. Those white Jamaicans who survived tropical diseases were, on average, 50 times wealthier than residents of the British Isles, and they were certainly wealthier than their counterparts in North America. [29]

In 1750, a 29-year-old Thistlewood arrived in Jamaica with very few possessions but was immediately sought after as a plantation overseer, and by 1757 his wages had risen to £100 a year. Then, a year later, that was increased to £120 a year. [30] This was an enormous sum when compared to the average wages of white British and North American labourers. 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. After one such lavish meal in 1778, Thistlewood and his fellow planters played cricket. [31]

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 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.

Historian Trevor Burnard refers to Thistlewood as "a brutal sociopath", but he suggests that Thistlewood's treatment of his slaves was not unusual.[ citation needed ] Unlike other British colonies such as the Colony of Virginia, where slave owners often developed a paternalistic (yet still cruel) 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.

In 1753, Thistlewood writes about the trial of several slaves for the theft of goods from the Salt River estate, who belonged to his employer, Dorrill. "Oliver's Quaw hanged; Fortune's Quaw both ears cropped, both nostrils slit, and marked on both cheeks' Cheddar's right earcropped, right nostril slit, & marked on the left cheek." When a Salt River slave named Robin ran away with two boys from Egypt, Dorrill had Robin tried and executed, after which Thistlewood received Robin's head, and then "put it upon a pole and stuck it up just at the angle of the road in the home pasture." [32]

In 1771, another slave, Frazier's Beck, was tried for hosting a large number of slaves at a "supper", and she was punished by having "her ear slit, 39 lashes under the gallows, and 39 again against the Long Stores." Several other slaves received similar punishments as a result of the trial. [33]

Brutal punishment of slaves and Derby's dose

Accordingly, Thistlewood routinely punished his slaves with fierce floggings and other cruel and gruesome punishments. In 1756, Hazat was recaptured after running away, and Thistlewood "put him in the bilboes both feet; gagged him; locked his hands together; rubbed him with molasses & exposed him naked to the flies all day, and to the mosquitoes all night, without fire." Often, Thistlewood would have a slave would be beaten, and then salt pickle, lime juice, and bird pepper would be rubbed onto the open wounds. Thistlewood wrote that when two slaves named Punch and Quacoo were caught for running away, they were well flogged, "and then washed and rubbed in salt pickle, lime juice & bird pepper." A slave named Hector was whipped for losing his hoe, and Thistlewood "made New Negro Joe piss in his eyes & mouth." [34]

Then, another slave would be forced to defecate into the runaway's mouth which would then be forced shut via various methods (gagging) for hours. Thistlewood called this favoured form of punishment for runaway slaves and the eating of cane that belonged to the planter "Derby's dose". Thistlewood wrote, "Wednesday, 28th Jan 1756: Had Derby well whipped, and made Egypt shit in his mouth." Then in May of that year, Thistlewood wrote about Derby, "Had him well flogged and pickled, then made Hector shit in his mouth." Derby's crime was stealing and eating sugar cane. Later that year, another slave named Port Royal tried to run away, but was recaptured. Thistlewood wrote, "Gave him a moderate whipping, pickled him well, made Hector shit in his mouth, immediately put a gag whilst his mouth was full & made him wear it 4 or 5 hours." Another slave named Phillis was similarly punished twice in a month. In October of that year, three more slaves were punished that way - Hector, Joe and Mr. Watt's Pomona. [35]

In 1770, Coobah exacted some revenge for punishments received for attempting to run away, by excreting in a "punch strainer"in the cookroom. Thistlewood had the last word, by having the offended items "rubbed all over face and mouth". [36]

His systematic rape of enslaved girls and women was another aspect of his brutality. Enslaved women who ran away were whipped and put in collars, yokes or placed in field gangs, and raped by Thistlewood, who documented his activities in his journal. Some of the whippings were extremely severe, and for the most minor of infractions. Thistlewood had Dick flogged for planting potato slips at the wrong end of the ground. [37]

Coobah ran away 14 times between 1770-4, but each time she was recaptured. In 1771, when Coobah was recaptured after running away, Thistlewood had her flogged and "put a chain about her neck". On another occasion, Thistlewood "flogged her well & brand marked her in the forehead". In 1774, Thistlewood sold her to a ship bound for Georgia after one runaway attempt too many. In 1772, Thistlewood had three slaves whipped for damage caused by walking through his corn piece. In 1774, Thistlewood ordered the flogging of a party of slaves for not working hard enough. Between 1774-5, Solon failed to catch enough fish on several occasions, and Thistlewood had him flogged for his failures. After one beating too many, Solon ran away, but eventually returned, whereupon Thistlewood had him flogged and "a collar and chain put about his neck", after which he was immediately sent out to fish again! This was a punishment meted out to Solon on several occasions, often after he was recaptured following another attempt to run away. In 1776, when Lincoln failed to catch enough fish, Thistlewood ordered the unfortunate slave-fishermen to be flogged, and "put him in the bilboes". [38]

In 1778, when the slave driver, a man named Dick, failed in his duty to force the slaves to work hard enough, Thistlewood ordered another slave, Jimmy, to have Dick flogged. But Thistlewood expressed dissatisfaction with Jimmy efforts in flogging Dick, and then ordered that Jimmy be flogged! Thistlewood demoted Dick to the field, and made the suitably-named Strap the new slave driver. However, Strap was overly fond of the use of the whip, and flogged Peggy so hard that she nearly lost the use of her right eye. Thistlewood had Strap flogged for his carelessness, and made Dick the slave driver once more instead. [39]

Mortality rates

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 to 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. While the black slaves and white planters died in large numbers from diseases and illnesses, the free towns of the Jamaican Maroons experienced large increases in population. [40]

There was a high mortality rate among children. Coobah's child Silvia died in 1768 at the age of one. In 1770, Maria gave birth to a ball who died a week later. In 1775, another of Maria's daughters, Rachel, died aged four. In 1771, Abba's son Johnie died at the age of six from lockjaw, and later that same year she lost another child at the age of one week. Two years later, her remaining son, Neptune, took ill and died after "a most violent cold". In 1775, Abba gave birth to a boy, who died a week later. In 1771, Nanny lost her six year old daughter, little Phibba from yaws, after Dr Panton prescribed mercury pills. In 1773, another daughter of Nanny died in a matter of weeks after being born. Between 1772-3, two children of Phoebe died within a week of being born. Fanny's daughter Patty died six months after being born. In 1777, Sally gave birth to a daughter who died the next day, and a similar bereavement happened to Abba three years later.In 1782, Damsel's baby died four days after birth, and a year later, Bess's mulatto child for Thistlewood's carpenter died after a week. [41]

In 1767, Thistlewood summoned John Hartnole to administer to his ill slave, Sukey, and he responded by bleeding her and rubbing her with water. In 1769, Phibba took ill, and Thistlewood resorted to a number of remedies, including a dose of salts, purging powders, and mercury pills. Hartnole also ordered that another sickly slave be "rubbed with spirits of turpentine", and be forced to consume "a drink of sea punch". Both slaves were given "hartshorn drops in water" to swallow. Hartnole, who then became overseer of Breadnut Pen, took Phibbah's daughter, Coobah, to sleep with, as his reward. When Thistlewood's slave developed a sore in her nose, Dr James Wedderburn recommended at least two "purges"! No wonder that Peggy feared she was going to die when forced to consume an unnamed liquid that another European medic, Dr Pugh, forced upon her. When Cudjoe became "lame of his hip", the doctor tried to cure his ailment by bleeding him. When Bess's young son Bristol took ill, the doctor bled him and gave him a mercury pill, but he survived the treatment. In 1775, both Phibba and her son, Mulatto John, took ill, and the European doctor bled them. [42]

When two of his slaves were affected by Yaws, Thistlewood gave them mercury pills, on the advice of his doctor. When Abba suffered from boils, Thistlewood followed the doctor's advice, and plied her with mercury pills. When Coobah suffered from a venereal disease, she was given mercury pills. She had to take so many mercury pills, "till her mouth begun to be sore". Not satisfied with the treatments meted out by European doctors, Coobah resorted to myal prescriptions, for which Thistlewood reprimanded her. Franke was also given mercury pills as a cure for the "clap". In 1770, when Jimmy developed a "violent itching", the doctor prescribed brimstone, grease, salts, and, of course, mercury pills. In 1771, Phoebe's leg broke out into sores, after which the doctor gave her mercury pills. That experience must have been unpleasant, because when her leg broke out into sores the following year, she hid it from Thistlewood, instead opting for obeah remedies. When Thistlewood found out, he had her flogged and "put in the bilboes". Similarly, that same year, Damsel was bitten by a dog, but dreaded the European medical practices, and tried to hide the injury from Thistlewood, who, when he discovered, "flogged her well & put her in the bilboes". Damsel instead put her trust in a slave named Will, who was owned by a Mr Wilson, and happened to be an obeah man. Many slaves had more confidence in creole "doctresses" than in what was European medicine at the time. In 1772, when Pompey had a fever, the doctor first bled him, and then "dosed" him with a mercury pill. In 1779, when Sukey had a fit, she was given burnt wine and, of course, a mercury pill. [43] It seems mercury pills were considered the fix-all medical practice of European doctors in eighteenth-century Jamaica!

Unsurprisingly, these treatments did little to arrest the increasing death rates among both white planters and black slaves. Still the white men came, as a male white immigrant could prosper much more than his counterparts in England's other American colonies.

Sexual abuse and Phibbah

Though Thistlewood never married, his sexual exploits were prolific, with his diary chronicling 3,852 acts of 'consensual' and nonconsensual sexual intercourse with 138 women, nearly all of whom were black slaves.

However, his habits were formed in England, where he wrote about sexual intercourse with prostitutes at places such as Drury Lane and Fleet Market. He also had a sexual relationship with Bett Mitchell, but his proposal of marriage was rejected by her parents. He also had an affair with a married woman named Elizabeth Toyne. However, his lack of steady employment meant that he could not form a meaningful relationship, and contributed to his decision to migrate to Jamaica. [44]

He had a life-long romantic relationship with a slave named Phibbah, a Coromantee who essentially became his "wife" (as she was called in the will) and had his only son, Mulatto John. Over their thirty-three-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." [45] [ citation needed ] In 1768, Thistlewood succeeded in hiring Phibbah from Cope, for the fee of £18 a year, and brought her to Breadnut Pen. [46]

Phibbah would eventually acquire property including land, livestock, and slaves. Even when she was a slave, Phibbah acquired property, such as a filly which she sold for £4.10 shillings, and a mare she sold for nearly £6, both in 1760. [47]

But Phibbah was not Thistlewood's only "wife" among his slaves. At Vineyard Pen, shortly after he arrived in Jamaica, he took one female slave named Marina to be his concubine, occasionally having to escape her complaints about his sexual exploits with other slaves he supervised. Thistlewood would sometimes have intercourse with more than one slave in a night, after which he would sometimes give them some coins for their troubles. [48]

Within days of becoming overseer of Egypt, he was having intercourse with the slaves, starting with a possibly under-aged girl named Ellin. After Ellin, Thistlewood moved on to Dido, but shortly afterwards he began to notice the appearance of red spots that indicated the appearance of "the clap". Dr Joseph Horlock used the traditional European cures of the eighteenth century, by having Thistlewood "blooded", and then gave him 24 mercury pills and a bottle of balsam drops to take. The doctor also required Thistlewood to bathe his infected organ "a long time in new milk night and morning". His venereal disease did not deter him, and he took to bed another slave named Jenny, before returning to the infected Dido several times. He had a tempestuous relationship with Jenny until late 1753, during which he bought her several gifts, but that did not stop him from bedding Susannah, Big Mimber, Belinda, and of course, Dido in places like the morass, on the plantain walk, and in the curing-house and boiling-house. When he finally dropped Jenny, Thistlewood was "in sad pain with the buboes". [49]

However, by the time he began his relationship with Phibbah, his venereal infection had abated somewhat. While he was involved with Phibbah, he still demanded sexual favours from slaves such as Phoebe, Egypt Susannah, Mountain Susannah, Ellen, Violet, Mazarine, Warsoe, Little Mimber, Abba, Mirtilla, Frankie and Sabina. Phibbah argued with Thistlewood over his frequent visits to another slave, Aurelia. After a visit to a slave name Fanny, Thistlewood suffered from another venereal infection. Thistlewood even took sexual favours from slaves belonging to other people. However, what was good for the goose was good for the gander, and Thistlewood suspected Phibbah of having sexual relations with another slave named Egypt Lewie. [50]

At Breadnut Pen, Thistlewood made attempts to "match" his male slaves with female partners, with varying degrees of success. However, that did not stop him taking sexual favours from female slaves he had already paired off. Although Thistlewood approved Abba's pairing with Cudjoe, Thistlewood demanded and received sexual favours from her 39 times during the course of 1771 alone, and over a seven-year period 155 times. Thistlewood did not approve of Abba changing partners from Cudjoe to Jimmy. When he caught them in the act, Thistlewood "put both of them in the bilboes, and when light flogged them". Despite being paired with Lincoln, Sukey was taken by Thistlewood 39 times. [51]

Thistlewood took advantage of Sally several times, and on occasion she ran away after one such experience. Thistlewood had her captured, brought back to Breadnut Pen, put her in the stocks, and had intercourse with her again. Sally ran away several times, after which she was often recaptured and flogged. In 1775, despite being heavily pregnant, Franke was forced by Thistlewood to have sex with him, and she miscarried a week later. [52]

While Thistlewood and other overseers and white employees chose their concubines from slave women, many white planters in Jamaica kept mulatto "free coloured" women as mistresses, such as Dorrill and his mistress Elizabeth Anderson. However, while white planters had the benefits of a white wife and a mulatto mistress, they often took sexual favours from black slaves. White men such as Cope and Thistlewood even took advantage of slave women who had regular male slave partners. In 1754, William Crookshanks was hired by Dorrill to assist Thistlewood, and he immediately took to bed a slave named Bess, but within three months he was complaining of having contracted "the clap". In 1757, another white employee, Thomas Fewkes, caught the same disease from a slave named Little Lydde, who also slept with Thistlewood. [53]

Unsurprisingly, Thistlewood's own beloved Phibbah developed a venereal disease in 1761, and on the advice of his European doctor, Thistlewood plied her with mercury pills. Thistlewood himself took laudanum on doctor's orders. Thistlewood and Phibba continued to suffer from venereal diseases throughout the 1760s and 1770s, and both took mercury pills in an attempt to tackle the diseases. Thistlewood apparently passed on his venereal disease to an underaged slave, Mulatto Bessie, whom he had taken 11 times, but decided that most of those occasions were not to his satisfaction. He gave her mercury pills to combat her illness. [54]

In 1768, even though Coobah's daughter had recently died, Thistlewood took sexual favours from her. [55]

Thistlewood's personal sexual abuse was not uncommon in Jamaica under slavery. In 1756, Thistlewood wrote that when female slaves Egypt, Susannah and Mazerine refused the advances of his employer Cope, the plantation owner had the three slaves whipped "for refusal". Instead, he summoned two other female slaves, Eve and Beck, for his sexual gratification. [56] Unsurprisingly, Cope also suffered from venereal disease. [57]

From 1781, Thistlewood complained of regular illnesses, and his sexual activity declined as a result. Consequently, Thistlewood observed that his beloved Phibbah was looking elsewhere for sexual gratification. [58]

Death and will

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. Working class white men behaved as if they were the equal of the wealthiest white planters, in stark contrast with the class system that was entrenched in Britain, their country of origin. [59]

In 1784, Thistlewood became so ill that he had difficulty writing in his diary. Thistlewood never returned to England, and died at Breadnut Island, Jamaica in November 1786. [60]

Thistlewood called Phibbah his "wife" in the will that freed her. William Tomlinson, acting on behalf of Thistlewood's estate, paid £80 to Cope to free Phibbah on 26 November 1792. [61]

When Thistlewood died 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. [62]


  1. Douglas Hall, In Miserable Slavery: Thomas Thistlewood in Jamaica, 1750-86, Macmillan, 1999, pp. 85-7.
  2. Douglas Hall, In Miserable Slavery: Thomas Thistlewood in Jamaica, 1750-86, Macmillan, 1999, pp. 1-9.
  3. "The Journals of Thomas Thistlewood - The Social Historian". Retrieved 3 July 2017.
  4. Hall, In Miserable Slavery, pp. xviii, 16-19, 26, 48, 138-9.
  5. Hall, In Miserable Slavery, pp. 25-91.
  6. Hall, In Miserable Slavery, pp. 14, 17, 24, 28, 57, 60, 63, 101, 110, 133.
  7. Michael Siva, After the Treaties: A Social, Economic and Demographic History of Maroon Society in Jamaica, 1739-1842, PhD Dissertation (Southampton: Southampton University, 2018), p. 60.
  8. Hall, In Miserable Slavery, pp. 55-6.
  9. Hall, In Miserable Slavery, pp. 69, 74.
  10. Hall, In Miserable Slavery, pp. 92-113.
  11. Hall, In Miserable Slavery, pp. 97-9.
  12. Hall, In Miserable Slavery, p. 122.
  13. Hall, In Miserable Slavery, pp. 100-8.
  14. Hall, In Miserable Slavery, pp. 141-2, 242-4.
  15. Hall, In Miserable Slavery, p. 121.
  16. Hall, In Miserable Slavery, pp. 82-3, 120, 124, 135, 155, 206, 254, 272, 286.
  17. Hall, In Miserable Slavery, pp. 125, 143.
  18. Hall, In Miserable Slavery, pp. xviii, 115, 148, 163, 173, 178, 262, 293.
  19. Hall, In Miserable Slavery, pp. 241, 246.
  20. Hall, In Miserable Slavery, pp. 277-8, 285-6, 308-9.
  21. Hall, In Miserable Slavery, pp. 281-2.
  22. Hall, In Miserable Slavery, pp. 91, 237, 314.
  23. Hall, In Miserable Slavery, pp. 130, 215, 219-220, 230-1.
  24. Hall, In Miserable Slavery, pp. 237, 249-250, 261, 267-8.
  25. Hall, In Miserable Slavery, pp. 275-6.
  26. Hall, In Miserable Slavery, p. 53.
  27. Hall, In Miserable Slavery, pp. 121, 131-2.
  28. Hall, In Miserable Slavery, p. 133.
  29. Christer Petley, White Fury (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), pp. 40, 96.
  30. Hall, In Miserable Slavery, pp. 81, 84.
  31. Hall, In Miserable Slavery, p. 256.
  32. Hall, In Miserable Slavery, pp. 30, 59-60.
  33. Hall, In Miserable Slavery, p. 226.
  34. Hall, In Miserable Slavery, p. 73.
  35. Hall, In Miserable Slavery, pp. 70-3.
  36. Hall, In Miserable Slavery, p. 190.
  37. Hall, In Miserable Slavery, pp. 137, 281.
  38. Hall, In Miserable Slavery, pp. 176-7, 182-3, 189-191, 195.
  39. Hall, In Miserable Slavery, pp. 257, 273.
  40. Siva, Michael (2018). After the Treaties: A Social, Economic and Demographic History of Maroon Society in Jamaica, 1739-1842 (PDF) (PhD). Southampton: Southampton University. pp. 238-246.
  41. Hall, In Miserable Slavery, pp. 183-9, 195, 208, 212, 251, 272, 288, 296.
  42. Hall, In Miserable Slavery, pp. 144, 152-3, 201, 212, 219, 238-9.
  43. Hall, In Miserable Slavery, pp. 156, 184, 194-6, 203-210, 217, 269, 279.
  44. Hall, In Miserable Slavery, pp. 4-9.
  45. Patterson, Orlando (2012). "Trafficking, Gender and Slavery–Past and Present" (PDF). In Allain, Jean (ed.). The Legal Parameters of Slavery: From the Historical to the Contemporary. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 324–26. ISBN   0199660468.
  46. Hall, In Miserable Slavery, p. 162.
  47. Hall, In Miserable Slavery, p. 94.
  48. Hall, In Miserable Slavery, pp. 17-20.
  49. Hall, In Miserable Slavery, pp. 29-33, 37, 43, 51.
  50. Hall, In Miserable Slavery, pp. 62, 79, 81-8, 95, 122, 124, 155, 177, 250.
  51. Hall, In Miserable Slavery, pp. 179-180, 185, 195.
  52. Hall, In Miserable Slavery, pp. 199-200, 210.
  53. Hall, In Miserable Slavery, pp. 13, 21, 62-3, 76, 88, 93, 99.
  54. Hall, In Miserable Slavery, pp. 117-8, 131, 222, 260.
  55. Hall, In Miserable Slavery, p. 153.
  56. Hall, In Miserable Slavery, pp. 71-2.
  57. Hall, In Miserable Slavery, p. 128.
  58. Hall, In Miserable Slavery, pp. 283, 302.
  59. Christer Petley, White Fury (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), p. 41.
  60. Hall, In Miserable Slavery, pp. 297-8, 312.
  61. Hall, In Miserable Slavery, p. 314.
  62. Christer Petley, White Fury (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), p. 40.

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