- Mastery, Tyranny, and Desire: Thomas Thistlewood and His Slaves in the Anglo-Jamaican World
"The main value of this book is to introduce to a modern reader the world of an ordinary white Englishman living in a historically interesting society" (259). Such is Trevor Burnard's modest claim for his engrossing study of the 37-volume-two-million-word-diary that Thomas Thistlewood diligently maintained from 1748 until his death in 1786. For 37 of those years, Thistlewood was, first, a slave plantation overseer and, later, the owner of his own slave "pen," or farm, in Westmoreland parish in far western Jamaica. The diary provides one of the most detailed accounts of the operation of slavery in "one of the most extensive slave societies that ever existed" (7). Burnard's study complements Douglas Hall's work on the diary (In Miserable Slavery: Thomas Thistlewood in Jamaica, 1750- 1786, London: Macmillan, 1989) and gives the student of early American and early Caribbean culture a chilling and fascinating picture of the richest British colony in the New World at the very height of its wealth and importance. It is also a key text for the study of African culture in the New World: "No other eighteenth-century diary contains the wealth of material that Thistlewood's diaries offer about Africans and people of African descent." [End Page 202] He notes that enslaved Africans "did gain some measure of self-expression within an overall structure of fierce repression, social disruption, and constant uncertainty. They developed a rich cultural life, exemplified by their language, music, and religion" (16).
The name of Thistlewood is perhaps best known because his diaries are as frank about his sexual life as Pepys's or Boswell's. Burnard has analyzed the data thoroughly: "Thistlewood engaged in 3,852 acts of sexual intercourse with 138 women in his thirty-seven years in Jamaica" (156). All but two of these partners were enslaved women. Burnard points out that, although Thistlewood's diary suffers from an "extreme lack of self-consciousness" or reflection, it does provide an extraordinarily detailed view of exactly how white Jamaicans exercised their brutal tyranny over the lives and bodies of their slaves (26). Besides a rather full analysis of Thistlewood's sex life, Burnard closely examines the lives of four women with whom Thistlewood had the most intimate and long-lasting relationships. In doing so, he gives his reader an example of how one might try to read between the lines-to overcome the tyranny of a master's point of view-and uncover usable knowledge of the lives and cultures of the Africans upon whom the Jamaican and the British imperial economies depended.
Burnard also provides a close study of several of Thistlewood's male slaves, including his mulatto son, John. Burnard makes a strong case for the value of the diary to the project of fully understanding the nature of American slavery and its influence on the culture not just of the slaves themselves but also white settler society. Burnard's exposition on "white egalitarianism" helps answer Samuel Johnson's famous question, "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?" By reference to mountains of details, Burnard demonstrates not only that Jamaican whites were even more passionate defenders of their liberties than were their North American cousins but also that the great wealth of Jamaicans helped make their peculiar commitment to individual liberty more influential throughout the English-speaking world. In his excellent introduction to the colonial society into which Thistlewood immigrated from his native Lincolnshire, Burnard shows just how rich Jamaica was:
In 1774, per capita white wealth [in Jamaica] was £2,201, with white men having average wealth amounting to £4,403. By contrast, wealth per free white was £42.1 sterling in England and Wales, £60.2 in the thirteen [End Page 203] colonies, and just £38.2 in New England. The average white in Jamaica was 36.6 times...