The Anti-Canon: Douglas Hall's In Miserable Slavery: Thomas Thistlewood in Jamaica, 1750-86, by Yvvette Edwards

The Anti-Canon series is a collection of short essays focusing on writers less well known, positioned outside of the literary mainstream or simply deserving more attention. An alternative (but by no means definitive) list of works that have influenced the friends of Influx Press, offering a different perspective to what is, and what is not, considered ‘important’, and hopefully giving you some new books to read into the bargain…

I seem to have always had an interest in the slave trade. I find the subject mind-bogglingly vast, involving so many people from so many countries for so many centuries, that to have an expert understanding is probably beyond a lifetime’s work. Perhaps because of the author in me, my interest over the last few years has evolved into a passion for first-hand accounts of slavery, a desire to understand something of the experience of being a slave on an emotional and psychological level, to read authentic and realistic accounts of what a slave’s life was truly like. 

My passion has resulted in my reading a great many slavery narratives, autobiographies put together in the main by former slaves. However, although there are a few notable exceptions - 12 Years a Slave comes to mind - the bulk of the narratives I’ve read have been expedited by the abolition movement, as part of their worthy endeavours to expose the horrors of slavery, and therein lies the reason for some of my frustration. 

Because many former slaves were unable to read or write, many of these narratives were put together from spoken accounts, which makes it difficult to know how much of those narratives contain direct speech, and just how much has been inferred, reinterpreted or even neutralised by their ghost-writers. 

Even where the former slaves were able to read and write their accounts themselves, these were often written whilst the authors were being fed, clothed, housed and supported by abolitionist groups, so it may have been difficult to resist the pressure to produce a particular type of narrative, one focussing on the worst aspects of slavery, perhaps to the exclusion of other things those writers might have ordinarily included in their autobiographies, had they the freedom to write what they wished, with the security and independence of a lucrative publishing contract snuggly under their belts. 

On top of this, the ‘delicacy’ of the Victorian reading classes meant that some of the worst atrocities - like anything to do with sex or excesses of brutality - needed to be kept out of the text, or alluded to in such genteel terms that readers had to use their imaginations very powerfully indeed to have any idea what the writer was actually talking about. And it goes without saying it was very unlikely that the planter classes were producing honest, objective accounts of what day to day life was really like for their slaves. However, Thomas Thistlewood was an exception to this.

Thistlewood was the son of a Lincolnshire farmer, very well educated in Latin, mathematics and agriculture. At the age of 29, he arrived in Jamaica to seek his fortune, and worked for a number of years as an overseer, before eventually acquiring his own estate. 

In Miserable Slavery is an astonishing factual account of slavery in Jamaica from 1750 to 1786.  The book was researched and written by Douglas Hall, a lauded scholar and historian, the first West Indian professor to chair the History Department at the University of the West Indies, and a founding member of the Association of Caribbean Historians. The book consists of extracts and commentary on some 10,000 ‘close-written’ pages of Thistlewood’s diaries, which run to over 30 volumes, and are currently stored at the Lincolnshire County Archives.

One of the things that makes Thistlewood’s diaries and this book so remarkable, is that Thistlewood appears to have had no ulterior motive for keeping this diary, other than what Hall refers to in his introduction as an ‘aides-memoire’. What’s more, Thistlewood is meticulous in recording plantation activities of note daily, without commentary, and - for the most part - without feeling. As Hall writes in his introduction, Thistlewood:

‘… tells ‘what’ but seldom ‘why’… he rarely explains his or anyone else’s reason for doing – he merely notes the deed… There is therefore little reason to think that Thistlewood was writing in order to persuade or deceive, and we may reasonably accept the account as trustworthy.’

Thistlewood recorded on a daily basis his work, interactions, sex life and anything else that was of interest to him, which fortunately, because he was ‘remarkably active, inquisitive and intelligent’, happened to be quite a lot. One of the first things he does when he secures the overseer’s position at the sugar plantation, Egypt, is to record the names, sex, and ethnic origins of the slaves on that planation. From 1752 to 1759, because his diaries are so detailed, you are able to chart the unfolding of the lives of those slaves; daily rations, the work they perform, who they share their cabins with, relationships – including affairs – disputes, pregnancies, miscarriages and mortality rates. It is a direct window into the life of slave society on a scale I have never witnessed elsewhere.

We become familiar with the common diseases of the day – crab yaws, lockjaw – not just amongst the slaves, but amongst the planter classes, including the gonorrhoea that plagues and eventually kills Thistlewood, which doesn’t halt his promiscuous activities, and is being treated on and off for the entirety of the 36 years the book covers:

‘Also took many papers of salts and cooling powders, a large gollypot of electuary, a bottle of balsam drops, etc; beside bathing the penis a long time in new milk night and morning…’

Despite his illness, he has frequent sex with the female slaves, which he records in Latin throughout:

‘Friday 1st March: p.m. Cum Phibbah…and, in the evening, Cum Susanah in the curing-house, stans.’

Catalogue of Thistlewoods material and diaries at the Osborn Collection

Catalogue of Thistlewoods material and diaries at the Osborn Collection

In the foreword to the book, Brian L Moore notes that Thistlewood’s libido:

‘…is so well recounted by Hall that it raises new questions about sex and power in master-slave relations.  Did Thistlewood rape these women or were they consenting, if unequal, partners within the restricted parameters of a patriarchal slave system?’

Phibbah is the head slave of the cookhouse at Egypt. Thistlewood becomes attached to her early on, regularly has consensual intercourse with her, and he documents all of it, in addition to those occasions when one might infer she was unhappy with him or his actions, where she stays away from his bed, denying him sex. Their relationship is a particularly interesting one. Whilst Thistlewood is living at Egypt, Phibbah sleeps in his quarters, cooks for him, ministers to him when he is ill - and vice versa. Phibbah’s owner refuses to sell her after Thistlewood resigns from Egypt to begin running his own estate, yet Phibbah is given permission to visit Thistlewood at the weekends, and Thistlewood regularly sends a wagon to collect her and drop her back to Egypt at the end of each stay. Eventually, Phibbah is contracted to Thistlewood for £12 a year, and she takes up her permanent position on his estate, as his ‘slave-wife’.

There are regular mentions of gifts passed between them, including cash:

‘…Phibbah made me a present of £10 18s, 1d, all in silver, money she has earned by sewing, baking, cassava, musk melons and water melons out of her ground, etc.’

For a number of reasons, including having purchased tough grounds to cultivate, inclement weather, and what appears to be a silently-waged resistance to ownership on the part of his slaves – including the carrying out of acts of sabotage – Thistlewood is frequently broke, and on many of those occasions, it is Phibbah who financially bails him out. In his will, after Thistlewood dies, he leaves Phibbah sufficient money to purchase her freedom and a plot of land to comfortably live out the remainder of her days.

The reader is able to build up a picture of runaways, the frequency with which they ran, how long they stayed away, punishments meted out to them on their return, the frequency of pregnancies, miscarriages, still births, and what may have been medical problems arising from this gruelling cycle:

‘Last night Sus[ana]h piss the bed again, makes 3 times, will bear no more.’

On a prolific scale, over a 36 year period, Thistlewood records the weather, hurricanes, punishments, astronomy, famine, the maroons, the fluctuating prices of food, slaves, rum, furniture.  He documents civil unrest, the mass of literature he reads, the families he visits, what he ate, the liaisons between other slave-owners and their slaves – including the resulting marital strife – horticulture, and much more, so consistently and concisely as to render this book the most brutally raw and comprehensive first-hand account of slavery in the Caribbean - or anywhere else – that I have ever read.

It is a testament to Hall’s acumen and talent that all this information - over 10,000 pages of it originally - has been so rigorously, astutely distilled, laid out with its information gaps plugged by interesting, intelligent and perceptive commentary, in a style that makes In Miserable Slavery not only a compelling account, but a wholly educational and accessible one. 

This is a book for anyone interested in slavery in the Caribbean, whether scholar or layman, a profound and fascinating read, and one that wholly merits its place on the Anti-canon.

Yvvette Edwards is a British writer of Montserratian origin. She has written a story for the forthcoming Influx Press anthology, An Unreliable Guide to London.

Her debut novel, A Cupboard Full of Coats, is based in Hackney where she grew up. It was nominated for the Man Booker Prize, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the Writers’ Guild award. Her second Novel, The Mother, was published in 2016.