• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

What Slavery Was Really Like


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.

  1. 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. 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. 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.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print