Thomas Thistlewood inherited £200 sterling on the death of his father Robert in 1727 when he was but six years old although the bulk of the Thistlewood estate was left to Thomas’ elder brother John. And so it was that when he became of age, Thomas Thistlewood made the decision to leave England , anxious to seek adventure and fortune.

In 1746, Thomas joined a voyage with the East India Company that lasted until 1748 and then afterwards went on a trading expedition to West Europe. After returning briefly to England, at the age of twenty-nine, he made the decision to go to Jamaica where he would remain for the next forty years.

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Map of Jamaica circa 1671 from Wikimedia Commons

In the early morning hours of Thursday, 1 February 1750, Thomas set off to board the Flamborough and prepared to sail for Savanna la Mar, Jamaica with letters of recommendation but no arranged employment. Throughout his time in Jamaica, Thistlewood would keep a diary detailing his years as an overseer and a property owner on the island.

On leaving England, he wrote:

…set out in the Gravesend tiltboat, got there about ½ past 9. For myself, and hammock, &c, boating, 1s. For boating aboard the Flamborough, 6d….Found my case broke open, my Arrack, Brazil rum and Lisbon wine gone. The looking-glass Mrs Gresham gave me, broke. Note, we are moored. Ready money 4 guineas, one ½ ditto, 3 shillings, sixpence and 5d of half pence = £14 18s 5d.

After a long and difficult voyage, Thomas Thistlewood arrived in Savanna la Mar on Friday, 4 May 1750.

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Old Port Royal

Project Gutenberg

For the first seventeen years in Jamaica, Thistlewood worked primarily as an overseer on the sugar plantation Egypt which was west of the town of Savanna la Mar in Westmoreland and owned by William Dorrill and then his son-in-law John Cope. While employed at Egypt, Thistlewood entered into a long-term relationship with a slave by the name of Phibbah, although he also engaged in many sexual encounters with other female slaves which he faithfully recorded in his journal. Whether all of the encounters were consensual, he does not indicate, but evidence would suggest that at least some of them were not.

One such slave, Sally, ran away repeatedly, presumably to avoid being intimate with her master but was found each time and returned to the plantation. She was punished and sometimes put in bilboes, an iron bar with sliding shackles at her ankles, but as soon as she was freed from the restraints, Sally ran again.

Flogged Lincoln for not bringing Sally Saturday evening, and Sally for running away, and news carrying.

And although Sally was eventually forced to submit to Thomas’ attentions, he often wrote afterwards about their encounters in Latin sed non nene or but not well. Even when Sally contracted venereal disease, Thistlewood continued to pursue her and it was commonly mentioned in his diary that he too suffered from bouts of the disease which he dosed with mercury.

Not contented with the role of overseer on a sugar plantation, from 1760, Thistlewood began preparing to buy a property of his own. Finally in 1767 he acquired 160 acres of property, called Brednut Island Pen, where he planned to raise livestock, vegetables and flowers. By that time, he personally owned some thirty slaves and a large part of his income was derived from hiring them out to neighbouring sugar plantations.

From Thomas’ diary:

Paid in full for Negroes hire 1167 1/3 days a 3 bitts per day.

In his journals, Thistlewood recorded his daily life on his planation and revealed much about the lives of his slaves, their treatment and their condition.

He wrote about purchasing several slaves, remarking that he paid £112 for two men and £200 for one boy and three girls. The two men were named Will and Dick. Will was about twenty-five years old and stood 5 feet, 3-2/10 inches and Dick was about twenty-two years and taller at 5 feet, 7-3/10 inches. The boy and girls were Coobah, aged about fifteen, Sukey, aged about 14, Maria, aged about 15 and Pompey aged about sixteen. All were branded with Thistlewood’s mark, a double TT on their right shoulders.

Thistlewood was strict with his slaves, often flogging them for minor offences. On one occasion, he noted:

Flogged my field Negroes for laziness, scolding, quarrelling, etc.

And on another occasion:

Flogged Fanny for fighting with Phoebe and twice after for her great impudence.

And yet, despite frequent mentions of flogging and other cruelties, on Christmas day Thomas treated his slaves to food and liquor:

Christmas Day. Served my Negroes 18 herrings each, likewise gave Lincoln, Dick and Abba each a bottle of run, Cudjoe and Solon a bottle between them, Caesar and Pompey ditto, Chub and Strap ditto, Fanny Damsel and Bess ditto. Rest of the women 2 bottles among them.

At another time when smallpox was prevalent, Thistlewood had a local doctor visit the planation and inoculate seventeen of his slaves against the disease. As often happened during the early days of smallpox vaccination, the smallpox ‘came out’ on many of the slaves and lasted a couple of weeks. Thistlewood had the doctor return several times until he was certain that they were all recovering from the pox.

Thistlewood died on his plantation and was buried in the parish church, Savanna la Mar, 1 December 1786. In his will, he made a provision for £80 to purchase Phibbah’s freedom from John Cope. If the manumission was secured, he further bequeathed to Phibbah his slave Bess, her son Sam and any future issue of the two and an additional £100 to purchase a property and build a house for Phibbah. The remainder of his estate was to be divided between his nephew William and his niece Mary, both children of his brother John.

Twenty years after Thistlewood’s death, Britain’s parliament would pass an act to abolish the slave trade, although it would be another twenty-six years after that before slavery itself was abolished in the British Empire.

The Abolition of the Slave Trade Act of 1807

The Abolition of the Slave Trade Act of 1807 was an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom and was finally passed into law on 25 March 1807. Many of the Bill’s supporters thought the Act would lead to the end of slavery, although it would be another twenty-six years before slave ownership would be abolished. But with the 1807 law in place, the Atlantic slave trade that supplied Britain’s colonies was stopped. The Royal Navy, which then controlled the world’s seas, established the West Africa Squadron in 1808 to patrol the coast of West Africa, and between 1808 and 1860 they seized approximately 1,600 slave ships and freed 150,000 Africans who were aboard. The Act created fines for captains who continued with the trade. These fines could be up to £100 per slave found on a ship. Captains would sometimes dump slaves overboard when they saw Navy ships coming in order to avoid these fines.

Abolitionists Campaign for the Abolition of Slavery

Nature and Effects of Negro Slavery as it Exists in the Colonies of Great Britain

Hampshire Telegraph, Monday 12 May 1823

  • 800,000 human beings in a state of personal slavery
  • many, maybe all are branded by a hot iron on the shoulder or other conspicuous part of the body with the initials of the master’s name
  • driven to hard labour by whip
  • during crop season, many work not only throughout the day, but during half the night, or the whole of every alternate night.
  • work under the lash, without wages.
  • as chattels of their master, they may be seized in execution for their master’s debts, regardless of family ties, and may be transported, regardless of family ties, to a distant colony
  • have no access to Christian instruction or the sanctions of marriage and the lack results in degrading, disgusting and depopulating promiscuous intercourse.
  • not only can the slaves in the Colonies of Britain not purchase their own freedom, voluntary manumission of slaves by owners is obstructed, and made all but impossible by large fines.
  • liberty of free persons of colour is threatened since it is a universal principal of Colonial law that any person of colour is assumed to be a Slave and the onus is on the person of colour to prove he or she is free.
  • when British Slave Trade was abolished in 1807, it was expected that the rapid mitigation and extinction of colonial bondage would result but that has not been the case.

Notwithstanding those solemn denunciations, thousands of children are still annually born slaves within the British dominions, and upwards of 800000 of our fellow creatures (the victims of the Slave Trade, or descended from its victims), are still retained in the same state of brutal depression. They are still driven like cattle to their uncompensated toil by the impulse of the lash. They are still exposed to severe and arbitrary punishments. They are still bought and sold as merchandise. They are still denied the blessings of the marriage tie, and of the Christian Sabbath. And in a variety of other respects, they continue to be an oppressed and degraded race, without adequate participation in the civil privileges, or in the religious advantages, to which, as British subjects, they are unquestionably entitled.

Slavery Abolition Act 1833

The Slavery Abolition Act had it’s third reading in the House of Commons on 26 July 1833 and received Royal Assent on 28 August 1833. When the act came into effect on 1 August 1834, all slaves under the age of six in the British Colonies of the Bermuda Islands, the Bahama Islands, Jamaica, Honduras, the Virgin Islands, Antigua, Montserrat, Nevis, Saint Christopher’s, Dominica, Barbados, Grenada, Saint Vincent’s, Tobago, Saint Lucia, Trinidad, British Guinea, the Cape of Good Hope, and Mauritius were immediately freed.

Slaves over the age of six were designated apprentices for a period of four to six years until they would be completely free. Compensation for slave owners who would be losing their enslaved property funded by the British Government from a sum of £20 million Sterling set aside for the purpose.

Further Reading

Jamaican Family Search, Genealogy Research

In Miserable Slavery: Thomas Thistlewood in Jamaica 1750-1786 by Douglas Hall

Jamaican History Jamaica Information Service, Government of Jamaica

Thistlewood Archive, Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University

22 thoughts on “The Journals of Thomas Thistlewood

  1. This is ridiculous. I’m pretty sure this man was a pedophile and a rapists. To claim his sexual abuses were merely “encounters” is disrespectful.

    1. I couldn’t agree more that seen through our 21st century eyes, Thistlewood’s behaviour in a great many respects was totally reprehensible and inexcusable but I think that when looking back into history in another time and place, we need to consider ethics and morals of the period and try to see the stories through the lens of the past. Certainly, Thomas Thistlewood’s life story is probably no different from the accounts of other plantation owners of the time. Thistlewood did at least redeem himself ever so slightly in my eyes when he left the money to purchase Phibbah’s freedom in his will and enough funds to purchase a house to secure the futures of her, Bess and Sam, which is likely more than could be said of many of his peers.

      1. It was because of Thistlewood’s behaviour, those more morally and socially conscious were motivated to end this heinous system of labour. The British and European empires chose to ignore it as this was an Industry which was cash rich and beneficial for these empires. The Slave Trade and sugar/tobacco/cotton industries provided a substantial amount of the capital of the Industrial revolution. The British public that was aware of this evil trade closed a blind eye to this system that was worth at least £77 Trillion ( at least ) in today’s money. And look at the legacy it has left, a culture of white privilege, discrimination due to colour and the likelihood of people of colour being the poorest, unhealthiest and most likely to die in these societies. Thistlewood’s behaviour is just one example of cruelty went on during that time. It is a shameful period of history that to this day.Through any lens his behaviour was abhorrent.

        As for racism being a 20th-century concept, I would disagree. Racism is a social construct that was designed by the anti-abolitionist lobby as part of its arsenal of propaganda to justify the system. Prior to slavery and the slave trade and industry, I have seen little historical evidence which supports a system of racism ( caste and feudalism yes ). Racism is closely tied to the slave trade as is Colonialism. Darwinism also provided the basis for the idea that the paler skinned man was the fully evolved man. Cartoonists, exaggerated black features and often parodied the black man to the figure of the ape. Racism as a culture was very much alive before the 20th century. I would, however, agree that racism has grown as a morally repugnant position in society during the 20th century.

      2. Elizabeth Brownrigg was hanged in Tyburn (currently near Marble Arch in London) in 1767 for the torture of a servant who later died of her injuries.

        So looking back to the 18th century through a 21st century lens reveals that if the victim was English, the perpetrator could expect the full weight of the law to apply. If Thomas Thistlewood had carried out his abhorrent behaviour in London he would have been hanged.

        Reading the diaries it becomes apparent that Thistlewood’s methods were widespread on Jamaica & the other “slave” islands. He didn’t even think he was the worst.

        If the victim was an African, the law simply did not apply.

        1. Thanks for your comment Andre. You bring up a very good point. That which is considered to be abhorrent behaviour vs acceptable has varied greatly not only by time period but also by place. The psychology of oppression is both disturbing and fascinating. I find it hard to understand why the behaviours that were prevalent on the islands and elsewhere were not challenged by those societies.

      3. Seen through any eyes, his behaviour was reprehensible. To say that at the time it was seen to be acceptable is also reprehensible. If you say that, you might as well say that Hitler’s treatment of the Jews was acceptable because it’s being seen through 20th century eyes. And yet, that was NEVER acceptable was it? How is the systematic murder, rape, etc of Africans ever acceptable through certain lenses? There was no way Thistlewood could seem to redeem himself as far as I am concerned – his treatment of Africans and especially the punishments – I read that he fed them faeces as a punishment – no amount of purchasing freedom for slaves redeems him.

        1. Thanks Elaine. I totally agree, his behaviours were reprehensible and beyond comprehension. My point was, although it saddens me, is that in his time and place, these behaviours were not seen to be that way by his peers.

    1. Hi Maria,
      The original Thomas Thistlewood papers including his diaries are held by the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library which is part of the Yale University Library. The catalogue entry there indicates that they purchased his private papers from Sotheby’s in London in 2011. Prior to that, they were held by the Lincolnshire Archives in England since 1951. My guess is that they were sent back to England after Thistlewood’s death, probably to his family, and were donated to an archive office at some point. The diaries have been digitized though (November 2015), and you can view the pages. The handwriting is a struggle to read.

  2. Hello Barbara

    A question. Where can i read the diary digitized? Yale University Library?

    A comment. I like to agree with Noway. It should not be downplayed with expressions like ” encounters”. I say this because racism is very much alive today and it has its roots in the past creation of this social construct of race (biased). This racism serves a purpose for the rich and privileged, back then and now. I say it’s better to exagerate racism then downplay it. The worst thing about racism is that it is not the strongest, brightest or most constructive it serves, but the cowardly. Just my thoughts.

    1. If you have a look in the reply to the previous comment, you will find a link to the digitized diary which is available online through the Yale Library.

      The story of Thomas Thistlewood was written from the point of view of his diaries and most certainly does not in any way mean that I personally agree with his attitudes.

      But I’m grateful that I live in a time and place where Thistlewood’s actions and views are considered to be repugnant, since I personally find them so. It was only with the greatest of difficulty that I could describe the events in his life from his point of view without colouring the story with my own beliefs and feelings. Slavery, and the racism, cruelty and hatred that went along with it, were completely outrageous, reprehensible, indefensible and intolerable. Please feel free to add your own adjectives, since I don’t feel those listed fully describe my feelings on the subject.

      However, in Thistlewood’s time, his actions and views were not considered to be racist; in fact, the word racism is thought to be of 20th century origin. I do not in any way defend him, only attempt to tell his story through the lens of the past.

      1. I respect your opinion and agree with much of what you write. However, the word racism and it’s appearance is not the subject in matter here. Looking through his lens I would say Thomas Thistlewood was proud to be a racist (even though the word did not exist at the time), because it was recommended to express superiority towards black people, i.a. to be racist. Correct me if I am wrong on that.

        I believe that nobody is capable of complete objectivity and in this case what would be the point – to understand the logic of slavery and torture? That’s already well-documented.

        I am interested to read his diary to draw parallels to present day racism.

        1. I would like to hear your opinion on the parallels to today after you’ve had a chance to read his diary. I would like to think I would feel the same as I do now had I been born back in those days but I wonder how much we are a product of the time and place we are born into.

  3. Unfortunately, I can’t get access to Yale library ( live somewhere else and have no affiliation to the university). Wish I was allowed to gain access to the digitized pages somehow.

    1. Hi Mary, I believe I recall mention of Phibbah’s daughter Coobah (who changed her name to ‘Jenny Young’) in addition to Phibbah and Thistlewood’s son Mulatto John, but I only read some of his diary.

    2. Mary, funny how today Western folks discuss the women and children who were being forced into sex, brutally raped, as if they had a relationship with their attackers. What madness is this?

  4. This discussion would be greatly advanced if the ideology that manifests as racism were specifically identified and recognized; white supremacy; a construction with roots going far back in Western European history, “white” being added to the recipe by the good Christians of North America in the 17th century.

  5. From an African point of view, Thistlewood was just a rapist and a kidnapper, who eluded justice alongside other British accomplices, with the help of the Crown and the British government, as well as all of Europe, North America and Canada.

  6. Don’t weep people! Thistlewood and all of his peers will make it to heaven without the burden of the sight of the heathen Africans. They always make it to heaven even if you and I don’t!

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