An 18th century plantation owner in Jamaica, Thomas Thistlewood might well remain unknown were it not for his extensive 14,000 page diary, which has survived to this day. It provides insights into many details of plantation life including farming practices, but also shows the man’s own particular brand of depravity. Thistlewood’s writings serve as harrowing proof of the abuses of power carried out by plantation owners, and just how accepted those abuses were. We might tend to hesitate to believe both the scale and viciousness of their brutality, yet in Thistlewood’s own egotistical account we see the excruciating detail.
Thomas was born in Tulpholme, Lincolnshire. The second son of a farmer, he was educated in Ackworth, West Yorkshire, where he studied mathematics and practical sciences and trained as a surveyor. When Thistlewood’s father died when Thomas was only six he inherited £200. This money would later give Thomas the opportunity to travel.
While Thomas was working as a surveyor one of his colleagues (also a close friend) went mad and took his own life by throwing himself to the sea. Following this traumatic experience Thomas decided upon a change in career. At the age of 29, after a two year voyage on an East India Trading Company vessel, he migrated to Jamaica, travelling with letters of recommendation but no arranged employment. Thistlewood left England on the 1st of February, 1750 and arrived in Jamaica on the 4th of May.
Upon his arrival in Jamaica Thistlewood found work as an overseer at Vineyard Pen, a cattle pen that supplied the sugar plantations. He later moved on to Egypt Plantation, working there from 1751 until 1767. During this time Thistlewood gradually purchased his own slaves and increased his wealth by renting them out to other plantations. He met Phibbah, a slave woman that he became sexually involved with and whom he later rented off William Cope (the owner of Egypt Plantation) for £18 a year. During his time at Egypt a slave revolt broke out and many slaves fled the plantation. Thistlewood paid the Maroons to recapture escaped slaves at a bounty of $2 dollars a head. This was part of a treaty after the first Maroon war (1728 to 1739/40), and the Maroons also aided the colonial militias in suppression of the revolts.
In late 1752, while out for a stroll, Thistlewood was attacked by an escaped slave named Congo Sam. Using a blunt machete Sam inflicted several minor injuries on Thistlewood, who was saved by a slave named London. Two other slaves also witnessed the attack, however when Congo Sam was tried in court he was released due to the refusal of London to testify against him, whilst the two witnesses (Abigail and Bella) both received a hundred lashes for refusing to help Thistlewood and attempting to aid Congo Sam’s escape.
In 1767 Thistlewood purchased Breadnut Island Pen. From here he continued to rent out his slaves to work on other plantations, branding “TT” on their left shoulders to mark his ownership. If a slave attempted escape, they would be rebranded on their left cheek – both a punishment and an undisguisable identifier. Slaves as young as 7 years old were branded. Thistlewood used his land to grow provisions and livestock for sugar plantations, lacking the capital to purchase a sugar plantation of his own. In 1767 Thistlewood owned 30 slaves; this number decreased to 26 three years later, but by 1779 he owned 32 slaves.
Back in 1760 Thomas had fathered a son with Phibbah, who was still owned by William Cope. The boy, whom Thomas named ‘Mulatto John’ was freed from slavery by Cope and placed into the care of his father. Mulatto John was a disappointment to his father, showing no interest in the books Thomas bought to encourage him to learn to read. In 1775 John was apprenticed as a carpenter but he showed no interest in this. When John refused to go to work he was flogged by his father until he complied. Thomas also accused John of stealing money from him. In 1780 Mulatto John took ill and had to be brought home for treatment, which included dosing with bark and rhubarb and – according to Thistlewood’s diary – he was also blistered on each thigh as a means to draw out putrid blood. Mulatto John died in September of that year despite (or more probably because of) the doctors ‘care’. Despite this Thistlewood and Phibbah believed John’s death was the result of poisoning by a jealous slave.
Throughout his time in Jamaica, Thistlewood was responsible for the rape and torture of many slave women. 3852 acts of sexual assault are detailed in his diary. He records sexual acts involving 138 different women, most of whom were slaves. Thistlewood systematically raped slave women (sometimes multiple women per night), after which he would leave them some coin “for their troubles”. When Thistlewood arrived at Egypt plantation he had started raping the young slave girl Ellin (who was possibly underage for the period). He then moved on to another woman named Dido, but afterward contracted a venereal disease which was treated by mercury pills, balsam drops, bloodletting, and “bathing the infected organ in milk at night and in the morning”. Despite his infection Thistlewood continued to rape many more women. The sexual abuse only got worse once he purchased Breadnut Pen – here he systematically raped slave women, attempted to pair off couples (probably for his own gratification), and then raped the women after a match had been made. Horrifically, his actions were legal in Jamaica at the time.
When Thomas’ nephew John Thistlewood arrived in Jamaica he found work on his uncle’s estate, and soon joined in the sexual abuse of the enslaved women and girls. John repeatedly raped “Little Mimber” – a woman whom his uncle had previously raped to “celebrate the union” between her and the slave Jonnie. When Thomas tried to warn off his nephew due to Jonnie’s growing anger, John Thistlewood ignored his uncle. Soon afterwards John was found drowned – presumed to be killed by Jonnie in revenge for the sexual abuse inflicted on Little Mimber.
Thistlewood also practiced brutal punishments on his slaves, usually as flogging and putting them in chained collars after attempted escapes. He also made use of what is known as the “derby dose”, a humiliating and sadistic form of punishment which involved putting escaped slaves in stocks, forcing another slave to defecate into their mouth, and then clamping their mouth shut for hours or days at a time. Thomas also forced slaves to urinate in other slave’s eyes during this process. This was usually done after flogging. Not content with the flogging alone, Thistlewood liked to exacerbate the pain with a process he called “pickling” – rubbing a mixture of salt pickle, lime juice and bird pepper into the open wounds.
Unfortunately Thomas Thistlewood’s treatment of his slaves was commonplace in 18th century Jamaica. His actions, and those of others, shocked the slave owners in British held American colonies who supposedly developed a more “paternal” (but still cruel) relationship with their slaves. In Jamaica the whites were outnumbered nine to one by the slaves in the towns, increasing to fifteen
to one in the countryside. So outnumbered, the white slaveholders believed that their continued power was reliant on fear and brutality.
Thistlewood died in 1786 – presumably due to various sexual diseases he contracted, or to tropical disease. In his will he named the slave woman Phibbah as his wife and £80 was paid to William Cope for her in 1792 by one William Tomlinson, acting on behalf of Thistlewood’s estate. Although Thistlewood’s estate was very modest by Jamaican standards, his £3000 holdings (equivalent to £250,000 today) made him wealthier than most British landowners throughout the colonies