What Slavery Was Really Like

By Gordon S. Wood

Mastery, Tyranny, and Desire: Thomas Thistlewood and His Slaves in the Anglo-Jamaican World by Trevor Burnard

Landon Carter's Uneasy Kingdom: Revolution and Rebellion on a Virginia Plantation

by Rhys Isaac

1.One of the greatest achievements of historical scholarship during the past half-century has been the imaginative recovery of at least some of the realities of slavery in the New World. Indeed, in the past several decades we have acquired knowledge of the size of the African diaspora and the nature of slavery in the Americas that was not even imagined by earlier generations of historians. Between 1500 and the mid-nineteenth century at least 11 or 12 million slaves were brought from Africa to the Americas. It is evident now, if it never was before, that the development and prosperity of the European colonies in the New World depended upon the labor of these millions of African slaves and their enslaved descendants. Slavery existed everywhere in the Americas, from the villages of French Canada to the sugar plantations of Portuguese Brazil.

Thanks in particular to the records of slave voyages collected and digitized by the Du Bois Institute at Harvard, representing perhaps 70 percent of all slaving voyages, we now have a much more precise and detailed knowledge of the transatlantic slave trade than we ever thought possible.[1] The international slave trade, which David Brion Davis and Robert P. Forbes have called "the largest involuntary movement of human beings in all history," involved all the maritime powers in Europe; they exchanged a wide variety of consumer goods with hundreds of African states and chiefdoms for millions of African slaves, most of whom ended up in the New World.

The Du Bois "dataset" not only gives us more accurate information about this slave trade, tracing, for example, 27,233 Atlantic slaving voyages, three quarters of which succeeded in bringing slaves to the Americas; it also throws new light on old issues concerning the mortality of the Middle Passage, the frequency of shipboard insurrections, and the ethnic origins of the enslaved Africans. All this new information about the slave trade is now available in a single source, a CD-ROM, published by Cambridge University Press.

Although the Du Bois Institute digital archive is an extraordinary resource that will generate new questions and new knowledge about the slave trade and slavery itself for decades to come, much of this new knowledge will necessarily be statistical. And important as numbers are, they do not tell us much that we want to know about slavery—the day-to-day lives of the slaves in the New World, for example, and their relationship to other slaves and to their masters. For that kind of information we need other sources, and in the absence of direct testimony by the slaves, personal and detailed writings by the slaves' masters will have to do.

In the case of the two excellent books under review, which are based on the extensive diaries of two very different eighteenth-century British slave masters, Thomas Thistlewood of colonial Jamaica and Landon Carter of colonial Virginia, we have as intimate a picture of African slavery in British America as we are ever likely to get. In fact, the remarkable diaries of these two slaveholders are probably the most important source we have for revealing the nature of the master– slave relationship in the eighteenth-century English-speaking world. These colonial diaries are especially important because most of our knowledge of slavery has come from the antebellum period of the United States. The nearly simultaneous publication of these two diary-based histories written by two superb scholars, Trevor Burnard, recently appointed professor at Sussex University in England, and Rhys Isaac, professor emeritus at La Trobe University in Australia, marks an important moment in our efforts to understand the character of slavery in the British colonial world.

Hereditary chattel slavery—one person owning the life and labor of another person and that person's heirs—is virtually incomprehensible to us. Yet, as David Brion Davis has been reminding us for the past forty years in these pages and in his many books, slavery existed in a variety of cultures for thousands of years going back even to before the first human written records. It was practiced by the ancient Greeks and Romans, the medieval Koreans, the Pacific Northwest Indians, and the pre-Columbian Aztecs. The pre-Norman English practiced slavery as did the ancient Vikings, the many ethnic groups of Africa, and the early Islamic Arabs. Indeed, beginning in the seventh century Muslims may have transported over twelve centuries as many sub-Saharan Africans to various parts of the Islamic world, from Spain to India, as were taken to the Western Hemisphere.[2]

Yet as ubiquitous as slavery was in the ancient and pre-modern worlds, including the early Islamic world, there was nothing anywhere quite like the African plantation slavery that developed in the Americas. Not only were nearly all the imported slaves Africans, but the numbers of slaves were very great in proportion to their masters or to non-slaveholders. In mid-eighteenth-century Virginia African or Creole slaves constituted about 40 percent of the population. In Jamaica at the same time African slaves made up nearly 90 percent of the population. Both colonies, in other words, were what historians call "slave societies" as distinct from "societies with slaves," where slavery was just one form of labor among many. In slave societies, by contrast, slavery was at the heart of the economy, and the master-slave relationship supplied the standard for all other social relationships.[3] Although both eighteenth-century Jamaica and Virginia were by this definition certainly "slave societies," this rubric nevertheless cannot do justice to the immense differences between these two slaveholding colonies.

Thomas Thistlewood's Jamaica was not much like Landon Carter's Virginia. The sugar-producing island of Jamaica was by far the richest colony in all of the British Empire. Although Thistlewood was only of the "middling ranks" among whites in Jamaica and he was nowhere near as rich as Carter, who was one of the first families of colonial Virginia, still, at his death, this Jamaican planter had at least ten times as much wealth as the average white Briton in other parts of the empire. But it was not just the different levels of wealth in the two slave societies that distinguished them from one another; it was the different proportions of whites to African slaves that mattered more. Indeed, the extreme racial imbalance in Jamaica affected everything in the society. With whites making up only one in nine of the population, Jamaica was one of the most extensive racially based slave societies in history. During his first year on the island, Thistlewood lived in an almost exclusively black world. For weeks on end he saw no white people at all. Later he settled in the rural western end of the island where the proportion of slaves to whites was as high as fifteen to one.

Consequently, whites like Thistlewood lived in an Africanized society that rested on white fear, white equality, and white brutality. With almost no restraints placed on their personal freedom, whites ruled their slaves with a degree of violence that left outside observers aghast. Thistlewood routinely punished his slaves with fierce floggings and other harsh punishments, some of them sickeningly ingenious. One of his favorites was "Derby's dose," in which a slave was forced to defecate into the offending slave's mouth, which was then wired shut for four or five hours.

Thistlewood was not an unenlightened man. He was a prolific book buyer and reader; he practiced medicine on his slaves and was something of an expert in botany and horticulture—in other words, he was quite civilized by Jamaican standards. Although Trevor Burnard at one point calls Thistlewood "a brutal sociopath," he generally suggests that Thistlewood's treatment of his slaves was not that unusual. Unlike Landon Carter and other rich eighteenth-century Virginia planters, who often developed a paternalistic attitude toward their slaves, most Jamaican whites were convinced that only the severe application of brute force could keep the numerous African slaves under control.

And it was largely an African slave population, dependent on continual importations from Africa. The rate of mortality was so high and the birth rate so low among the slaves that they could not reproduce themselves. "As a result," writes Burnard, "white Jamaicans bought rather than bred their labor force and were the mainstays of the flourishing British slave trade." In fact, one third of all slaves brought to the New World in British carriers ended up in Jamaica. Such was the death rate that a half-million slaves had to be imported in order to increase the island's slave population by a quarter of a million.

The mortality rates for whites in Jamaica were nearly as severe. Over one third of white immigrants died—usually from tropical diseases—within three years of arriving in the Caribbean. If an immigrant could stay alive, however, as Thistlewood did, then he could prosper to a degree that he could never have matched in Britain or even in North America. Whites, especially if they could manage slaves, were in such short supply that they could write their own tickets. Thistlewood arrived in Jamaica in 1750 at age twenty-nine with very few possessions. He was immediately sought after as an overseer and his wages rapidly rose to three figures a year, an enormous sum when compared to the average salaries of white British or North American workers. He bought slaves and hired them out, and although he could have continued to make more money working for others, he decided in the mid-1760s to become an independent landowner, not as a rich sugar producer but as a modestly well-to-do market gardener and horticultural expert for the western end of the island. He acquired local respectabil-ity, often dining with the wealthiest planters in his parish, and served in several local offices, including justice of the peace.

Burnard suggests, maybe too strongly, that Jamaica was very different from colonial Virginia, where the political offices such as vestrymen and justices of the peace tended to be dominated by the big planters like Carter. Jamaica, however, did not have enough rich whites to fill all these kinds of offices, and thus had to draw on the services of middling men like Thistlewood, who generally did not hold such offices as justices of the peace or vestrymen in Virginia. Because of the relative scarcity of whites, says Burnard, Jamaica experienced a greater spirit of white independence, white pride, and white egalitarianism than existed in much of North America. As Burnard puts it, in Jamaica "poor whites had to be feted and treated with care because there were so few whites and so many slaves." When Thistlewood died in 1786 at age sixty-five he left an estate of £3,000, including thirty-four slaves—not great by Jamaican standards but quite substantial by North American standards.

Not only were whites in short supply but their sex ratio was skewed, with 3.1 adult men to one adult woman. Thistlewood never married an Englishwoman but satisfied his quite formidable sexual drive by exploiting the slaves who were all around him. During his thirty-seven years in Jamaica he dutifully entered into his diary his 3,852 acts of sexual intercourse with 138 women, nearly all of whom were black slaves.

Although Thistlewood was a sexual opportunist, he had a favorite slave partner, Phibbah, who essentially became his "wife" and with whom he had sex most often. Over the thirty-three years they were together Phibbah and Thistlewood developed what Burnard calls "a warm and loving relationship, if such a thing was possible between a slave and her master." Eventually Phibbah acquired property, including land, livestock, and slaves, and sufficient respectability even to entertain white women. By being Thistlewood's mistress, Phibbah, says Burnard, "accommodated herself so well to slavery that in the end she transcended it." She acquired a sense of self-worth and a greater sense of equality with Thistlewood than was possible for any other slave. In this respect, Burnard concludes, she undermined the Jamaican slave system more effectively than all the attempted slave rebellions.

Jamaica's history was punctuated by many slave revolts and rumors of slave revolts, the most serious being the revolt led by a slave called Tacky in 1760. But despite the fact that whites were outnumbered nine to one, none of the slave revolts was successful. Burnard takes great pains to explain why. Although he emphasizes the culture of terror and the brutal punishments meted out to the slaves, he realizes that the masters relied on more than force to keep the slaves in line. Otherwise they would never have allowed their slaves to move around the countryside unsupervised, carry guns, and gather at slave markets on Sundays where they traded and drank alcohol. The white planters, of course, had some British soldiers that they might call on, but they were not very reliable. The whites also counted on their uneasy truce with the Maroons, semiautonomous communities of people of African origin in the interior of Jamaica that often returned runaway slaves for pay. Ultimately, however, the whites maintained control, says Burnard, because "slaves accepted, albeit reluctantly and conditionally, that they were slaves and that masters had the right, or at least the capacity, to force them to do what they wanted them to do."

Despite the brutality of Jamaican slavery, Jamaican slaves possessed an economic power and a degree of autonomy that the slaves in the Chesapeake and elsewhere did not have. Along with producing the sugar that made the island so wealthy, the slaves maintained "provision grounds," independently owned plots of land that supplied the fruits and vegetables that fed both themselves and much of the white population. In colonial Virginia masters preferred to feed their slaves and themselves from rations produced on their own plantations, thus preventing their slaves from developing any substantial economic independence. By contrast, Jamaica's provision-ground system tended to free the slaves from the tight economic control of their masters and to turn them into proto-peasants committed to maintaining their own property while being property themselves. Thus during Tacky's rebellion, the most significant Caribbean slave revolt before the Haitian Revolution of 1791–1804, Thistlewood could arm his slaves, knowing that they would remain loyal to him out of concern for protecting their own patches of land.


Landon Carter's Virginia was very different from Jamaica. Although slaves in Virginia did not have provision grounds of their own to protect, they had other reasons to refrain from revolting. Not only did whites in Virginia outnumber the slaves, but by the middle of the eighteenth century most Virginia slaves had no experience of Africa or life outside slavery. Compared to slaves in the West Indies, who were generally concentrated in large sugar plantations with horrendous rates of mortality, most Chesapeake slaves had normal life spans spent on small farms with four or five slaves; their extended families were often within walking distance. In Virginia there was a great deal of passive resistance, much withholding of labor, and many runaways, usually slaves taking "vacations" for a few days or weeks, since as yet there were no free states to run to; but before the Revolution there were no major slave rebellions in eighteenth-century colonial Virginia.

The diaries of the two slave masters are as different from each other as the colonies they lived in.[4] Thistlewood, whom Burnard describes as "an inveterate list maker and collector of facts," regarded his diligently kept diaries as akin to account books, in which he made brief entries of the day's events, including his sexual exploits, with very little self-consciousness and self-justification. Carter, by contrast, told elaborate stories in his diary in order to vent his emotions and justify himself to what he assumed was a hostile and ungrateful world.

Just as the diaries are different from each other so too are the two diary-based histories under review. Burnard's book is a fairly straightforward and impersonal historical account befitting the unselfconscious diary entries on which it is based. Burnard does not tell a story in chronological sequence but instead introduces information about Thistlewood and his slaves through analysis of different aspects of their lives, their daily work, sexual relations, and methods of punishment, adding to our understanding of the central issues of Jamaican slavery. Although this leads to some repetition, it does result in a remarkably rich and full picture of white–slave relations. That is why Thistlewood's diaries are so significant. Indeed, Burnard writes, "We have few records that rival Thistlewood's diaries in regard to the extent of contact between a white man and black slaves."

By contrast, Isaac's book is about Carter and his relations not just with his slaves but, equally important, with his family and the larger Virginia society. It is a poignant tale of crumbling patriarchy in a world of revolutions, a tale suitable for ethnographic "thick description," in which slavery is only one issue among many. As with his earlier Pulitzer Prize–winning book, The Transformation of Virginia, 1740– 1790 (1982), Isaac uses anthropological or ethnographic techniques in this study of Carter. Unlike most historians, including Burnard, who try to maintain the appearance of objectivity, Isaac, like many anthropologists, feels that his personal perspective and subjective reactions should be made explicit. Since, as he puts it in his preface, he is "to be the scriptwriter and theater director of a major historical stage show" presenting this prominent Virginia planter and his times to readers, he needs to introduce himself as well. After describing himself and his background as a South African émigré, he continues to make his authorial presence felt throughout the book ("I shall interrupt the narrative a moment," he writes characteristically). In effect, he becomes Carter's "literary editor," quoting extensively from Carter's diary but intervening extensively as well, even breaking into Carter's sentences in order to make the texts of the diary "more clear and intelligible."

The result is a very personal and intimate portrait of a Virginia patriarch, for whom Isaac seems to have real affection. The fact that he refers to Carter throughout as "Landon" while Burnard always calls Thistlewood by his surname tells us something about the different approaches of the two authors to their subjects. Of course, to begin with we know much more about Carter than we know about Thistlewood, who left no remains but his diaries. Carter was a much more prominent person, one of the ten or twelve richest planters in colonial Virginia, and he exists in many records. From a painted portrait we know what he looked like, and his home, Sabine Hall, in Virginia still stands.

But most important, Carter's extraordinary diary reveals him as nothing else could. Unlike Thistlewood's diary entries, which were cool and matter-of-fact, Carter's were often expressions of indignation and rage at his ungrateful dependents, including his slaves. Much of his diary is filled with vigorously told stories or vignettes that spluttered off his angry pen. In fact, Isaac believes that Carter is such a superb narrator and literary figure in his own right that his diary "deserves a prominent place in American literature."

Because ethnographers study the stories people tell about themselves, and Isaac is himself a skillful ethnographic storyteller, he inevitably organizes his book as a series of stories, concentrating on the problems of his Lear-like character as he struggled with the authority-defying world that was developing in eighteenth-century Virginia. The result is a tour de force of imaginative historical reconstruction. Carter emerges from Isaac's artful account as vividly realized as any character in a novel by Fielding.

Carter, like Thistlewood, read widely and possessed a large library. Unlike Thistlewood, however, he gives us his reactions to what he read. Carter, too, was a medical practitioner and amateur scientist, interested in horticulture and scientific farming, who continually sought to improve the agricultural practices on his plantation. Unlike Thistlewood, however, Carter was born and bred a gentleman, and he was very self-conscious about the liberal values of the genteel culture of the age. He knew about the new emphasis in cultivated circles on "sensibility" and "sympathy" and he prided himself on his plans for self-improvement and his "unexceptionable character." He always sought to do the right thing both for himself and for those dependent on him, including his slaves. Yet somehow his "unexceptionable character" was not enough to command the esteem of those beneath him—including not only several generations of his family living in his household but also the slaves on his plantation.

Unlike Thistlewood, Carter was never able to take his authority over his slaves for granted. He thought about them constantly, filling his diary with what Isaac calls "gentry lore"—masters' tales of forced labor recalcitrance that resemble the ancient stories feudal lords told of their insubordinate peasants. Carter worried about his slaves' ingratitude and lack of respect for him and pondered ways to exact their deference and obedience. He sometimes even got into unbecoming wrangles with his slaves, and then became angry when they spoke impudently or sarcastically to him. "I will repay this treatment," he told his diary after one such incident with a slave. All his insolent slaves were "rogues," "rascals," and "villains" and never beneath his contempt; he had too many doubts about his patriarchal authority for that. In fact, the real question was whether he could in any degree rise above their contempt. He was continually anxious about their apparent lack of submission. He tried persuading and pleading with them; he scolded them and threatened them—"all shall pay for it tomorrow"—and then often forgave them. And sometimes in frustration he had them stripped and whipped and tied neck to heel all night.

But, as far as we know, he never engaged in the kinds of extreme sadistic punishments that Thistlewood did. When he promised himself that lazy or insolent slaves would be "severely punished," he added that it would be done only "by every method not barbarous." Although he ordered his slaves flogged, Carter himself, unlike Thistlewood, never seems personally to have whipped them. Once in anger he did strike a slave on the shoulder with his walking stick ("one small rap," he said defensively) for which the slave made him pay: that evening the slave complained of a sore arm that prevented him from working. Finally, unlike Thistlewood, Carter never suggests he had any sexual relations with his slaves.

Isaac is not content to deduce the ideas and attitudes of the slaves from the master's diary. Instead, in order to find out what Carter's slaves might have been thinking he resorts to an ethnographic technique called "upstreaming," which allows the ethnographer to infer the culture of earlier generations of a people from the stories passed on in the collective memory of the group and told by a later generation. So in his case he has used the testimonies of former Virginia slaves recorded in the 1930s under the auspices of the New Deal's Federal Writers' Project to get at the thinking of these eighteenth-century slaves. It's a tricky procedure, describing the attitudes of eighteenth-century slaves from the testimony of their heirs nearly two hundred years later, and one wonders whether the results, which are not all that informative, are worth the controversy that the practice will arouse among historians.

When he died in 1778 Carter had 401 slaves, more than ten times the number Thistlewood possessed at his death. Despite the much larger numbers to manage, however, Carter seems to have maintained tighter control over many of his slaves than did Thistlewood. Carter was closely involved in the day-to-day work of his estates, often diligently supervising his gangs of workers and overseeing his overseers ("I visited my gangs three times today—staying with them about a couple of hours each time"). One cannot imagine Carter giving his slaves guns and allowing them to hunt in the neighborhood as Thistlewood did his slaves. Although Carter, like Thistlewood, had to negotiate and renegotiate constantly with his slaves, they did not have the same ability to earn money and carve out a measure of autonomy for themselves that Thistlewood's slaves did.

Although both Carter and Thistlewood knew that their slaves were radically different from Europeans, especially in their skin color, both Isaac and Burnard think it would be anachronistic to label the slave masters they write about as racists. The hierarchy they lived in was not racial but social: some were born to rule and others to be ruled. Neither master expressed any doubts about the rightness of holding slaves, and both simply assumed that slavery was part of the natural order of things and that Africans were naturally suited for slavery. Yet at the same time neither Thistlewood nor Carter seems to have doubted that the slaves were individuals like themselves with personalities, desires, and the capacity for impudence. The fact that both of the two masters so often referred to their recalcitrant slaves as "rogues" and "villains" at least suggests that they saw some degree of humanity in them.

Although Thistlewood did not express much interest in the American Revolution, Carter immediately sensed its radical implications for his patriarchal world. In November 1775, Lord Dunmore, royal governor of Virginia, fearful of the growing power of the patriot militia, promised freedom to all slaves who would flee their masters and rally to the King's cause. In June 1776 eight of Carter's slaves ran away to join the royal governor's forces. There was a new day dawning, and Carter, though an American patriot, dreaded it, foreseeing a threat to all forms of patriarchal authority. The revolutionary talk of liberty could not be confined to white men, but necessarily spilled over and affected all social relationships, especially that of master and slave. Suddenly, Carter, who, like masters for thousands of years, had taken slavery for granted, now had to justify it as he never had to before. "Slaves are devils," he wrote a few months before his death in 1778, "& to make them otherwise than slaves will be to set devils free." But free they would be.


[1] The entire issue of The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 58, No. 1 (January 2001), is devoted discussing the Du Bois Institute "dataset" and its implications for our understanding of slavery in the New World.

[2] As Davis points out, a "French scholar, Raymond Mauny, estimates that as many as fourteen million African slaves were exported to Muslim regions" between 600 and 1800. See David Brion Davis, Challenging the Boundaries of Slavery (Harvard University Press, 2003), p. 10.

[3] See Ira Berlin, Many Thousand Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America (Harvard University Press, 1998), p. 8, for a discussion of this difference between societies with slaves and slave societies.

[4] Thistlewood's extensive diaries have never been published, but see Doug-las Hall, In Miserable Slavery: Thomas Thistlewood in Jamaica, 1750–86 (London: Macmillan, 1989), which contains many excerpts from the diaries. Carter's diary has been published: The Diary of Colonel Landon Carter of Sabine Hall, 1752–1778, edited by Jack P. Greene (2 volumes, University Press of Virginia, 1965). The edition contains a superb introduction by Greene in which he investigates the personal and social values of the eighteenth-century Virginia gentry.