It isn't openly talked about in socially respectable circles anymore, but there was a time when Southern apologists would lament about how slavery was actually beneficial to people of African decent. The usual- and highly flawed- argument by the apologists involved how Africans were living like savages in their native lands. That by forcibly bringing them into bondage would both civilize them and have the added benefit of delivering them to Jesus.
More to the point, Southern apologists love to push the idea that the slave master actually cared about his chattel. In fact, one old and deluded individual that taught me literature in the sixth grade would go as far and essentially say that slave masters would take good care of the African people they held in bondage because they made them money. Truth be told, this teacher's reasoning sounded wrong to even my young, unaware ears at that time but being white and raised in the south the topic of slavery and its ramifications are mostly ignored.
Thinking back on it now, it truly disturbs me that a supposedly educated and gentile man could rationally equate the evil of human bondage to something akin to an employer/employee relationship. Understand, this teacher I write about was in his late 60's back in 1978 and whose appearance can best be described as looking like Albert Einstein without the mustache and with a deep southern drawl. I can't begin to excuse this teacher, but I am well acquainted with the deluded culture that produced his beliefs.
Southern slavery apologists were put on the defensive with the broadcast of the miniseries Roots the previous year and it was a beginning of my understanding of the monstrous terror that was slavery. It continues even now with me watching America's Long Struggle against Slavery offered on the Great Courses Plus streaming service. These lectures, taught by Richard Bell, PhD go deep into the origins of African slavery and its true horrific nature. This is where I learned about the monster that was Thomas Thistlewood.
Born in 1721, Thomas Thistlewood was a British citizen who migrated to Jamaica to become a plantation overseer and eventually a land and slave owner himself. What makes Thistlewood “special” was the detailed diary he kept documenting his treatment of slaves, including graphic accounts of rape. This diary would grow over the years to over thirty-seven volumes and over 14,000 pages.
Thistlewood's diary chronicles the purchases and sale of slaves, their work assignments, illnesses and death rates. Where things really delve into the monstrous, Thistlewood records in meticulous detail his brutal methods of punishment for the most minor infractions. One of Thistlewood's favorite punishments was something called “Derby's dose.” This involved another slave defecating in the offender's mouth and then having him gagged for several hours.
That's still not the worst part, Thistlewood even goes as far as to document the sexual exploitation of enslaved women in his control. This consisted of thousands of sexual contacts with around one-hundred women, with him making special note of the punishment he inflicted if they resisted. Thistlewood continued this practice even after becoming infected with a venereal disease.
Thistlewood became part of the plantation culture in 1750 that was rapidly developing in British-held Caribbean islands and South Carolina. The development of plantations revolved around the mass production of certain products, like sugar cane, tobacco, and rice with slave labor being the backbone. Because the plantation owners were pushing for ever greater economies of scale, that meant more slaves and harder work. This required the white masters to ensure their slaves were docile and controllable. The white slave owners did this by horrific and brutal treatment of their human property.
The brutality practiced by the plantation owners was also meant to prevent slave revolts. The owners promoted a system of having their human chattel inform on any plans among the other slaves that might harm them, their families and white overseers.
Moving further into the horrific, but typical behavior for plantation owners, Thistlewood had an almost spousal relationship with a particular female slave named Phibbah. Over the course of thirty-three years Phibbah was able to play her special relations with Thistlewood to acquire her own property which included land, livestock, and slaves. Phibbah even gave Thistlewood his one acknowledged heir, named Mulatto John. While Thistlewood gave Phibbah her freedom at his death, she was not the only female slave he had a near spousal relationship with.
Another woman, named Marina, also suffered his attentions but felt empowered enough to complain about his sexual abuse of other slaves. It appears, according to Thistlewood's diary, that he would often force his attentions on more than one slave a night and would sometimes give them a few coins afterwards for their troubles.
It would be nice to think Thistlewood was some sort of horrific exception, that few others would not take such special pleasure in dehumanizing other people. The trouble though is that by all accounts Thistlewood was typical of slave owners in the eighteenth century and beyond. From his diary Thistlewood appears to even consider himself something of an enlighten man. He was quite knowledgeable in the fields of botany and horticulture and read numerous books on religion and estate management. He also recorded his amazement of Halley's Comet swinging around the Earth in 1759.
I came away from learning about Thomas Thistlewood feeling dirty and disgusted. To a certain degree we in the twenty-first century cannot judge the actions of such people with our standards. Not with Thistlewood, he and everyone like him are guilty of the worst crimes against humanity imaginable. Luckily for Thistlewood, death prevents him from ever facing judgment for his actions.
While Thistlewood lived in Jamaica, the practices he detailed in his diary were common throughout the slave owning regions of North America. Some will certainly say it was different during the Antebellum era of the American South. Even if conditions for slaves in the nineteenth century American South were somewhat better, how can any sane person ever attempt to justify holding another human in bondage for economic gain?
America's original sin is something that will haunt this country until its very end.