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
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-0-8078-9874-1
    Published: November 2009
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-7866-3
    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

“A brilliant and devastating work, and invaluable in developing my understanding of the brutal history of slavery in the Caribbean.”—Zadie Smith, New York Review of Books

"A subtle, compelling, and beautifully written study of the racial, social, and gendered power systems that characterized eighteenth-century Jamaica."—Betty Wood, Cambridge University

"Trevor Burnard's Mastery, Tyranny, and Desire is a detailed study based on a rather unusual and exhaustive diary of an English migrant who becomes a small slaveholder in eighteenth-century Jamaica. It probably contains more information than any single source on Jamaican society and on slaves and slavery, and provides many important insights into the lives of slaves and of whites. Given the subject and the materials, this book will be of interest to all concerned with the study of slavery as well as scholars of the Caribbean and of British Caribbean history."—Stanley L. Engerman, University of Rochester