In response to:
What Do We Want History to Do to Us? from the February 27, 2020 issue
To the Editors:
Zadie Smith’s interesting review of the artwork of Kara Walker [NYR, February 27] contains a large section on the life and diaries of Thomas Thistlewood, a slave owner in Jamaica between 1750 and 1786. She claims in a footnote that she derived her information from reading three entries in the diaries of Thomas Thistlewood at the Beinecke Library, where Thistlewood’s papers now reside, having previously been at the Lincolnshire Archives in England, where I examined them and obtained a transcript of the diaries.
It is clear to me, however, from the details in her review, that her information about Thomas Thistlewood is derived from my 2004 book, Mastery, Tyranny and Desire: Thomas Thistlewood and His Slaves in the Anglo-Jamaican World. The wording of the punishments meted out to enslaved people that she notes follows very closely what I wrote on p. 261 of Mastery and her enumeration of Thistlewood engaging in 3,852 sex acts appears to be derived from my counting of such acts (from the whole diaries, not just the three diary entries noted in her footnote) on p. 156 of Mastery.
The rest of her comments on Thistlewood also seem to have been obtained from a reading of my book. I appreciate that Ms. Smith has found my book a valuable source of information. It would be nice if she acknowledged that she got the information about Thistlewood from work I have done rather than from her own researches. It is possible that Ms. Smith has read the original diaries, but my confidence in her having done so is diminished by her assertion that Thistlewood wrote about Enlightenment matters on the recto side of the diaries while he wrote about his sexual depravities and how he punished enslaved people on the verso side. Thistlewood did not, however, divide his diaries into a recto and a verso side but used both sides of his diary notebooks to write daily entries in which philosophical reflections were mixed with his activities as a slave owner.
I hope that Ms. Smith can make an acknowledgment of her indebtedness to my work on Thomas Thistlewood.
Wilberforce Professor of Slavery and Emancipation
University of Hull, UK
Zadie Smith replies:
I’m really very sorry for the omission. I placed no footnote at all on those sections when I wrote the essay. The footnotes came at the end of the process, at the request of the magazine’s editors, who asked where they had come from, at which point I told them to check the wording of the quotes in Thistlewood’s diaries. The footnote was theirs. I never claimed to have gone to the Beinecke Library and indeed I never have. I did, however, read Professor Burnard’s excellent book, several years ago—which is when I made notes on it, evidently inaccurately in the case of the recto/verso error—and I would like to take this opportunity to recommend it to the readers of this journal. I found it to be a brilliant and devastating work, and invaluable in developing my understanding of the brutal history of slavery in the Caribbean.