- Mastery, Tyranny and Desire: Thomas Thistlewood and His Slaves in the Anglo-Jamaican World by Trevor Burnard
The structure of colonialism provided a number of those who were relatively powerless in the Imperial metropole unique opportunities for (a qualified) social mobility and access to power undeserved and of an unprecedented magnitude. Where else could a non-descript second son of an ordinary eighteenth century English tenant farmer build a secure financial profile (with wealth held both in land and human property), and, at the end of his life, die in the knowledge that, having fetched up on foreign shores with precious little to his name his great expectations had been met? Where else but on the shores of an island that constituted one of Britain’s enormously profitable plantation colonies: Jamaica. For Thomas Thistlewood, certainly, Jamaica was the answer.
Trevor Burnard’s study of Thistlewood is a welcome contribution to the literature of the British Caribbean that includes scholars such as Hilary Beckles, Michael Craton, Richard Dunn, David Eltis, Stanley Engerman, Richard B. Sheridan and Sidney Mintz to name but a few. Their work is key to understanding the British presence and success in the Caribbean. Burnard’s approach combines a social history of Jamaica from the 1750s (when the young Thomas Thistlewood arrived) to the late 1780s (when, at the age of sixty-five, Thistlewood died), with a biography of Thistlewood as he “made sense of the strange environment he found himself in” (7). Thistlewood wanted the debt-free assurance of “competency” and to establish himself on the land (38). Providing us with rich detail, Burnard draws for us a map of Thistlewood’s life in Jamaica: his early success as an overseer shortly after his arrival, his stint as a pen keeper, his eventual membership in the club of Jamaican planters. Through Thistlewood’s own words, Burnard demonstrates that he was a man of contradictions: eager for success, yet of a prickly temperament; coldly calculating, yet capable of great wonder; as quick to use his female slaves for sexual gratification as he was to derive pleasure from gardening. In short, Thistlewood could be considered both unpredictable and unusual.
And, yet, for all of his insatiable and predatory sexual appetite, for all of his savagery (he was not the least bit averse to inventing and employing a mind-bogglingly disgusting punishment for transgressive slaves involving the forced ingestion of feces), for all of his distinct lack of self-reflexivity, Thistlewood, as author Trevor Burnard reminds us, provides us with an obsessively regular diary. Burnard does not suggest that Thistlewood and his diary-keeping was typical of eighteenth century white Jamaican planters. He argues, in fact, that, atypicality aside, Thistlewood’s diary can be mined for singularly detailed information about the interactions between the enslaved – male and female – and their master. At the core of those interactions, in silent operation, was power, and Burnard’s book is an inquiry into the action of that power.
When discussing slavery, it seems one can only be at a loss regarding the brutality of the institution; imagination fails us, doubtless because it brings us too close to our own dark capabilities. Still, portions of the physical and psychological reprisals have been well-documented, and so, in some small way, the violence and yes, the immorality of the inhuman systems of New World slavery are familiar. Mutilations can be detected easily, and the grisly catalogue coolly enumerated: a branding here, an amputation there, a psychopathological application of the lash elsewhere. We know a little of the language of horror – although it is more likely that, in our efforts at cultivating an historian’s detachment, we have largely anesthetized our minds, and certainly our modern bodies know no frame of reference. Even in its inaccessibility, we can consider slavery in terms of the physical manifestations. However, the discussion of power present us with challenges altogether different.
Embedded in the ability to mutilate, to dictate the comings and goings of lives that ought to have been thriving, self...