This week, in GCS410 (Gender, Race & Imperialism), we read and discussed the book Mastery, Tyranny, and Desire: Thomas Thistlewood and His Slaves in the Anglo-Jamaican World, by Trevor Burnard. Thomas Thistlewood was the younger son of a farming family back in England who ventured into Britain’s colonial territories in search of a better life. He ended up in Jamaica where he worked as an overseer on several plantations before eventually buying his own land and becoming a moderately successful planter and master of slaves. Over the course of his nearly forty years in Jamaica, he kept a minutely detailed (if emotionally opaque) diary, detailing in list form such things as the punishments meted out to his slaves, the books he read, money he owned, and each of his many sexual encounters.
What I thought of when reading the book was how similar 18th century Jamaica seemed in its system of violent domination to Deadwood, at least as portrayed in the HBO series which tells the story of (largely white) settlers in the Black Hills during the late 19th century. Jamaica was a dangerous proposition for European immigrants–people tended to live fast and die young. You really would have no incentive to move there unless you had nothing to lose. Thistlewood would have been right at home working for Swearengen or Cy.
Some of the students in class questioned the utility and ethics of spending so much time examining the life of a violent white imperialist. When does such scrutiny of such a person, they seemed to be asking, tip over into forgiveness? When does explanation pave the way for apologia? I don’t know what this says about me, but I believe it is often the examination of those historical characters whom we find the most abhorrent or the most inexplicable that prove the most valuable in understanding the past. Texts such as Thistlewood’s diary–precisely because they are problematic–require our attention as historians. If we limited our historical inquiry to those people with whom we sympathized entirely, we would probably find ourselves with a very short list of acceptable topics. And we would learn nothing we did not wish to know about the human condition.