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Mastery, Tyranny, and Desire

Thomas Thistlewood and His Slaves in the Anglo-Jamaican World

By Trevor Burnard

336 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 12 illus., 3 tables, notes, index

Not for Sale in the Caribbean

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-0-8078-5525-6
    Published: May 2004
  • eBook ISBN: 978-0-8078-9874-1
    Published: November 2009

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Awards & distinctions

A History Today Best History in 2008 Selection

Eighteenth-century Jamaica, Britain's largest and most valuable slave-owning colony, relied on a brutal system of slave management to maintain its tenuous social order. Trevor Burnard provides unparalleled insight into Jamaica's vibrant but harsh African and European cultures with a comprehensive examination of the extraordinary diary of plantation owner Thomas Thistlewood.

Thistlewood's diary, kept over the course of forty years, describes in graphic detail how white rule over slaves was predicated on the infliction of terror on the bodies and minds of slaves. Thistlewood treated his slaves cruelly even while he relied on them for his livelihood. Along with careful notes on sugar production, Thistlewood maintained detailed records of a sexual life that fully expressed the society's rampant sexual exploitation of slaves. In Burnard's hands, Thistlewood's diary reveals a great deal not only about the man and his slaves but also about the structure and enforcement of power, changing understandings of human rights and freedom, and connections among social class, race, and gender, as well as sex and sexuality, in the plantation system.

About the Author

Trevor Burnard is professor of American history and head of the Department of American Studies at the University of Sussex, England. He is author of Creole Gentlemen: The Maryland Elite, 1691-1776.
For more information about Trevor Burnard, visit the Author Page.


"A chilling and fascinating picture of the richest British colony in the New World. . . . Essential reading for anyone interested in early American history and culture."--Early American Literature

"Manages to paint an utterly convincing mental and physical portrait of [Thistlewood's] life and times by careful anthropology, imaginative reading and, not least, really good writing."--History Today

"[An] engaging and welcome addition to the literature on eighteenth-century Jamaica. . . . Sheds light not only on Thistlewood the man, but on the culture that developed among the white population of Jamaica during the peak of the sugar plantation economy."--The Americas

"Lest scholars grow too complacent about what slavery entailed, Mastery, Tyranny, and Desire remains a remorseless reminder of the savagery needed to maintain the unholy alliance of slavery and empire."--William and Mary Quarterly

"A careful study of the social, intellectual, and cultural worlds of a brutal slave owner. . . . A vivid and penetrating portrait of late eighteenth-century Jamaica."--American Historical Review

"Morbidly fascinating and compelling. . . . Enable[s] us to understand more clearly the limited range of choices left for [people] of African descent to make under the tyranny of Thistlewood and his ilk."--Itinerario