28 January 1756
We catch a shocking glimpse of some of the sadistic punishments inflicted on slaves through the journals of Thomas Thistlewood, a plantation overseer in the British colony of Jamaica. He held slaves under his charge in utter contempt. He used many of the women for his own sexual gratification and flogged both the men and women with abandon and he also devised a particularly disgusting and humiliating punishment.
On Wednesday 28 January 1756, Thistlewood caught a famished slave eating sugar cane. He noted in his diary the revolting details of the chastisement he meted out. ‘Had Derby well whipped, and made Egypt shit in his mouth.’ The penalty however didn’t deter Derby or other hungry slaves from continuing to forage. Derby was caught again on 26 May and Thistlewood noted that he ‘made Hector shit in his mouth.’1
On 23 July, the punishment was inflicted on Port Royal, a slave who was caught attempting to run away. Thistlewood records that he ‘gave him a moderate whipping, pickled him well (rubbing the body with salt, lime juice and bird pepper), made Hector shit in his mouth, immediately put in a gag whilst his mouth was full and made him wear it for 4 or 5 hours.’2
The next day another slave, Phillis, also suffered the same though he was spared from being gagged afterwards and the following month, Egypt who had been forced to apply the penalty to Derby in January, was himself compelled to receive the same from Derby. Shortly afterwards, Derby failed in a desperate attempt to run away. Thistlewood had the slave’s face mutilated with a machete so severely that his right ear, cheek and jaw were almost sliced off.3
These brutal punishments typified the suffering of slaves on sugar plantations across the British Caribbean and it is unlikely that slaves under most other overseers fared any better. Thistlewood himself notes in his journals that he lost two white men, James Rogers and John Groves, who worked under him because they treated the slaves too harshly even by his own ruthless standards, explaining that Groves left ‘because he might not flog the Negroes as he pleased,’ and that likewise Rogers was dismissed for the reckless zeal with which he beat the slaves. A month after Roger’s dismissal, Thistlewood heard that he had ‘been hired to lived upon Quasheba’s Mountain and has Chop’t Some Negroes sadly, the Constable is after him.’4
- Trevor Burnard, Mastery, Tyranny and Desire: Thomas Thistlewood and His Slaves in the Anglo-Jamaican World, The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill and London, 2004, pp. 260-261.
- Ibid., p. 261.
- Matthew Parker, The Sugar Barons: Family, Corruption, Empire and War, Windmill Books, London, 2012, p. 274.
- Trevor Burnard, Op. cit., pp. 52-53.
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