Thomas Thistlewood: Dirty Diary of a Slave-King (book review)

Recently, I reviewed the saga about the ousting of Martin Bershir over a comment he made about Sarah Palin’s behavior. Beshir’s remarks for someone to “poop” in Palin’s mouth was not, I believe, a literal suggestion, but rather a figurative one. Basically, his angst was in response to Palin’s and others in the Republican Party’s continual attempts to trivialize the acts of slavery in American history. Even now, these same individual continue to compare such a vile and inhumane treatment of people to present day political issues like the state of the economy and the use of food stamps. Beshir, merely pointed out that there is no comparison. He did so by bringing up Thomas Thistlewood’s use of a punishment he invented called: “Derby’s Dose“. After all, if one is going to make comparisons like these as if to say slavery wasn’t that bad, then why get offended when someone else brings out specifics that show the opposite?

Being an activist and history buff, I decided to read and review the book detailing the events and creator of “Derby’s Dose“. That being the case, I won’t say Thistlewood’s dirty diary is a good read, but rather a must read if one is to understand the true degradation and inconceivable ugliness of slavery (see also “The Willie Lynch Letters and The Making Of A Slave” –video below)

By volume, this dirty diary is a 14,000.00 page account of one slave-owners almost 40-years of tortuous abuse, both physical and mental, against a people. Also included are 3,852 acts of rape and sexual exploitation of 138 black female slaves.

WARNING!! The following review will be graphic, so it’s NOT for the weak of stomach, easily offended, and/or sensitive:

Book Review: Mastery, Tyranny, and Desire: Thomas Thistlewood and His Slaves in the Anglo-Jamaican World

Around 1750, Thomas Thistlewood moved from England to Jamaica. Notably, but not uncommon, he and others like him lived in an ungoverned society of White Supremes attitudes. In their quest for supremacy, they forged the concept of violence and stereotypic fears as a means to rationalize the brutal torturing of those enslaved.

Thistlewood’s personal account of his slave relation practices is abhorrently sickening as he boast details of regularly flogging and even ‘pickling’ slaves. However, one of his favorite forms of punishment is coined “Derby’s dose“, named after the punished slave Derby it was first used. Derby’s dose is described as the enforcement of a slave to defecate (i.e., discharge feces, have a bowel movement, poop and etc.) into the mouth of a punished slave. Afterwards, the punished slaves’ mouth is wired shut for four or five hours.

Basically (and graphically), life as a slave could be summed up as to literally “Eat Shit, and Die.” Death rates were high and births low to extremes for slaves owned by the likes of Thistlewood. So much so, that over a half million slaves were imported (mostly from the African Continent) just to keep the population rates from dying out.

Ironically, the white re-population in Jamaica didn’t flourish much better; resulting in a 3/1 ratio of white men to white women. This may account for Thistlewood’s so-called “marriage” to a black slave named Phibbah. It is believed Phibbah basically “played” the slave-owner for the foul and foolish cretin his life portrays. Phibbah eventually became an accomplished landowner and person of wealth!

I recommend Thistlewood’s dirty diary as a tool of enlightenment on the history of human enslavement & practices….and most especially to anyone making flippant political comparisons about slavery in order to instigate division, or create/infuse the notion it ‘just wasn’t that bad.’

In my opinion: One mistake Martin Beshir made was seemingly in endorsing the practice of the “Derby Dose,” a thing I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. Perhaps Bashir would have fared much better had he just awarded the instigating party(ies) with the title of being a “Derby Doser.”

The book can be purchased from Mastery, Tyranny, and Desire: Thomas Thistlewood and His Slaves in the Anglo-Jamaican World

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


6 thoughts on “Thomas Thistlewood: Dirty Diary of a Slave-King (book review)

  1. Have you actually read Thomas Thistlewood’s diaries ? I suspect you have not. You describe ‘Darby’s dose’ (I notice you refer to ‘Derby’s’ dose) as one of his favorite punishments that he invented. Is this true ? How many times does it occur in his 40 years as an overseer and eventual pen owner ? Do you know the answer ? For it to have happened at all is disgusting but ‘favourite’ ? No, it was not. You describe Thistlewood’s ‘so called’ marriage and speculate that Phibbah ‘played’ Thistlewood. On what do you base this speculation – they were a couple in a term relationship. He was unable to purchase her freedom despite several attempts but was able to rent her for the huge sum of eighteen pounds per year. In his will he set aside a sum to allow her to purchase her freedom and establish herself. I could go on but what’s the point ? You have clearly never read the diaries and merely make use of them to reinforce your own prejudice – if you had read them you would realise that slavery on a Jamaican plantation in the 18th Century was barbaric and cruel – but it was also full of contradictions. Had you read the diaries you would know that the slave brought to trial on Thistlewood’s evidence for attempted murder (of Thistlewood) was acquitted (by a white magistrate); you would know that a few slaves were able to acquire significant wealth. They were so wealthy in fact that they loaned Thistlwood money at interest when times were hard; When Thistlewood left Egypt plantation and went to work elsewhere many of slaves of Egypt would come and visit him on their days off. This continued when he eventually bought his own snmall farm. The 18th century was a cruel time, especially so if you were unfortunate enough to be a slave. Thomas Thistlewood was a cruel man (sometimes) but he was a man of his age. The times were cruel for most people – soldiers, wives, children, apprentices and indentured labourers were regularly flogged and treated very badly. People were forcibly conscripted into the Royal Navy and endured years of misery at sea. It is a bad mistake to judge the past by contemporary standards without being able to place events within their context. You ought to read his diaries (look up ‘In miserable slavery’ on Amazon, I urge you to buy it and read it.) If you do I am sure you would regret the rather hasty denunciation of Thistlewood as a ‘foul and foolish cretin’.

    1. Yes, Mr. Mendes, I have reviewed the diaries. The question is have you? I think we will politely agree to disagree as to whom is prejudice here 🙂 I am not here to re-write history or re-teach it…the culture and a man’s (albeit disgusting madman with inhumane tendencies–in my opinion) words speak from the grave and for history, posthumously for him. However, if one wants to take a mouthful of compost and make it look–taste– like cake, then that’s his/her prerogative. Thank you for your comments…apologies for the lapse.

  2. Thomas Thistlewood’s diaries provide an account of daily life on his Egypt Plantation in Jamaica. Maybe he never expected the diaries to ever see the light of day, but Thistlewood’s writings are almost an unwilling and at time apathetic confession of life for slaves at the hands of an overseer…the all powerful slave-owner. The diaries show how, when people are stripped of basic and essential freedoms, their lives are at the mercy of unimaginable cruelties. The life of a slave appears to be one of constant turmoil, never knowing what’s going to happen, but it won’t be good. Each day of survival is one met with violence, drudgery, oppression, and suffrage of a people.
    In May 1756, the diaries chronicled a particular ugliness of Thistlewood’s contemptuous behavior and attitude toward those he had enslaved. He made an entry about that he “gave the Negros molasses but they destroyed the cane [by eating it] sadly.” Now, to make this entry into a diary, the issue of the slaves “eating the cane” clearly bothered Thistlewood. Perhaps the slaves felt more the natural cane was safer to eat being that it came out of the ground than taking sustenance from a being like Thistlewood that they thought to be wholly evil. Whatever the reason, their eating of the cane apparently angered Thistlewood as noted by his own hand on May 25, 1756 when he decided to punish a slave named Derby. The Thistlewood entry on this date reads:
    “Derby [a slave] catched by Port Royal eating canes. Had him well flogged and pickled [vinegar or salt put on the lacerations], then made Hector [another slave] shit in his mouth.”
    Not only was this a most vulgarly inhumane and unconscionable action, the entry appears to be made so mater-of-fact as to imply it was a form of punishment often used by Thistlewood! Adding to that interpretation, reported accounts from Ward were that, “this treatment was subsequently referred to as “Derby’s dose” (Ward 1988:27), which backs up the theory that this became a habitual and frequent punishment used to discipline slaves.

    Some may attempt to argue that there is actual evidence identifying Thomas Thistlewood as the sadistic maniac he so clearly makes himself out to be in his diaries. However, I contend that one does not have to eat compost and know the difference between cake and shit!

    WARD, J.R., 1988. British West Indian slavery, 1750-1834: The process of Amelioraüon. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

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