Thomas Thistlewood arrived in Jamaica in 1750 from England, having failed at farming, at age 29. He met with a plantation owner for dinner shortly after his arrival, and 2 months later became an overseer on that plantation.
Thomas kept an extensive journal of his entire life in Jamaica beginning with the day he arrived – including the horrific brutality that he inflicted on enslaved people, along with the other overseers in the same position he held. Thomas’s behavior does not appear to be unique.
As genetic genealogists, we sometimes wonder at the extent of sexual interaction between plantation owners, their overseers and enslaved women.
Thomas’s diary details his sexual encounters – over 4000 in total, mostly with enslaved women, over a period of 37 years. If you’re doing the math, that means that he had 108 encounters with women every year, on average, which is one approximately every 3.38 days.
If one can assume that he did not choose to engage in sexual activity with women who were menstruating, and that he probably did not select for women who were pregnant, that means that the women he was having sex with were fertile women who could have potentially conceived as a result of the encounter.
If we eliminate the one quarter of the month a woman is menstruating – that leaves 3 weeks. Of that, a woman is fertile for about 6 days per month, or about one third of the time she was not menstruating. Therefore, Thistlewood perhaps impregnated one women every three encounters, or about one female impregnated every 10 days, or 3 per month. If this is anyplace near accurate, Thomas Thistlewood could have had approximately 1333 children, roughly half of which would have been male, and all of whom would have been enslaved.
Not all of the children would have survived birth or infancy. In fact, the harsh and fatal discipline methods Thistelwood so routinely describes may have killed some of his own offspring on the plantation where he was overseer. The mortality rate of slaves at every point in life was exceedingly high. But some of those male children would likely have survived and reproduced, having direct line males living today. When they DNA test, they will match Thistlewood males from England. And they will wonder why.
Now, they need wonder no more. The answers are in the British Archive records listing slave owners and the records in the Caribbean. And not just for Thistlewood, but for other British surnames as well. Many, many other British and Scottish surnames. You can search at this link to find those records and they are also available on Ancestry.com. For once, I was very relieved to not find my family surnames included in a set of records.
In 1834, the British government recorded payments to British slave owners when Great Britain abolished slavery and owning slaves entirely. This effectively freed the slaves after they served another 6 years working for their former masters for free.
These records include more than 40,000 British who owned slaves, most of whom had never seen a Caribbean plantation where their slaves were located. These slaves were managed by overseers, like Thistlewood. There were more than 800,000 individual slaves named in 1834, which means the average number of slaves owned per British slave owner was about 20. Of course, the real numbers ranged from 1 slave owned to thousands for the most wealthy.
Before I watched this documentary, I never realized the massive extent of either British involvement in slavery into the 1800s, nor the level of abuse of power of slave-owners and overseers exploiting slave women. Seeing these almost unbelievable numbers and realizing that this sexual behavior lasted, for one man, for 37 years – and multiplying that behavior by thousands of other men – the level of chronic, systemic nonconsensual sexual exploitation is almost beyond comprehension. Of course, today we can expect to see the results in Y DNA testing.
Professor Catherine Hall lectures on “Britain and the Legacies of Slavery” and the project that produced the results upon which the documentaries above were based.
All three of these videos are eye-opening and well worth watching.