Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners

Forgotten Slave Owners

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  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.

You can watch the BBC documentary at this link.  Part 2 is available at this link.

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.

If you want to read more about the history of slavery in the British Isles, click here and here.



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21 thoughts on “Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners

  1. All the more remarkable how most of today’s elites and comfortable affluents save their disdain for poor and lower middle class people in the South whose forebearers never owned or profited from slavery.

  2. Interesting. And it wasn’t just slave women! However, I have at least four black 4-5 cousins according to 23&Me. I have no indication of African blood in my own personal DNA. I tried to start a dialogue with my black cousins, but they won’t talk about it. So yes, there was hanky panky going on amongst our illustrious white gt gt gt gt grandfathers. Even if they didn’t own slaves. So goes the world. I also have the adultery papers on Malakiah Bonham, a preacher in NJ and my fifth gt. grandfather, a white man, who had an affair with one of his white parishioners, one Mary Fox, daughter of George Fox of Monmouth, NJ. Also slavery was much wider spread than just America….long before slavery came to America. I just wonder how my Neaderthal and Denisovan ancestors worked it.

  3. Roberta, Considering the hundreds of thousands of Irish that were sold to plantation owners in the Indies beginning with the English Civil War, and for a hundred years later, might Thistlewood’s slaves have been white? Wm Long ____________

  4. Talking about slavery and as a follow-up to the last comment, what most genetic anthropologists fail to take into account when formulating and then analyzing autosomal admixture samples, is the prevalence of slavery and indentured servitude in ancient times. When Rome conquered territory they brought thousands of slaves to be sold in their slave markets; Celts, Germans, Africans, Slavs. These people later accompanied their owners in settling those areas like Britain and Gaul Rome decided to colonize. And as the article shows, slaves had children, both with each other and with their masters. Their descendants are now spread literally throughout Europe, intermingled with the “native” populations. So when a Y-haplogroup E shows up in East Anglia or the Orkneys, or R1b in Sardinia, one can only guess where that Y-DNA originated. And genetic anthropologists love to guess!

  5. Brownie MacKie, I, too, have black cousins, but no black heritage. In these cases, one of our white grandfathers, had a white line with a wife from whom we descend; and he had another line with a slave which was a black line. Therefore, we have a cousinship with a black person, but no black heritage.

    Roberta’s expose is saddening. It is terribly hurtful to even think about the plight of female slaves. I cannot even go there in my mind. So happy, I am not related to Thomas Thistlewood.

  6. White guilt, more self loathing by European descended peoples. I would love to see some of the focus on the enslavement of Europeans, black Africans weren’t the only slaves. Irish, British, Germans, Slavs, Italians, and any other groups I left out have left out were abducted and transported into the slave system. Even Iceland has sagas referencing Barbary pirates under Murat Reis raiding and snatching up booty.

      • Yes, you’re right, but it’s probably not what you meant.

        From Wikipedia:

        “From the late 1700s to the 1860s, the Five Civilized Tribes were involved in the institution of African slavery as planters and several tribal members began acquiring African-American slaves for field work, domestic work, and various trades.[12] The 1809 census taken by Cherokee agent Colonel Return J. Meigs, Sr. counted 583 “Negro slaves” held by Cherokee slaveowners.[13] By 1835, that number increased to 1,592 slaves, with more than seven percent (7.4%) of Cherokee families owning slaves, a greater percentage than across the South, where about 5% of families owned slaves.[14] Slaves marched with Cherokee slaveowners and other citizens on the Trail of Tears, the forced relocation of Native Americans from their original lands to Indian Territory. Of the Five Civilized Tribes in Indian Territory, the Cherokee held the most enslaved African Americans.[15] Prominent Cherokee slaveowners included the families of Joseph Lynch, Joseph Vann, Major Ridge, Stand Watie, Elias Boudinot, and Principal Chief John Ross.”

        That’s one reason Stand Watie the leader of the largest group of Cherokees became a brigadier general in the Confederate Army and that a majority of Cherokees who took sides fought for the Confederacy.

  7. Thank you Roberta.

    The breeding by the overseer probably was part of his job description. Two things would be accomplish by that. First it would prevent any mature male slaves from being part of a family structure. Secondly, any light skinned, exotic looking female offspring could be sold at a premium price, perhaps even becoming the purchaser’s wife.

    One can find a lot of made up genealogies out there to cover up for such situations.

  8. which is one approximately every 3.38 days.

    Having sex twice a week seems both reasonable and not excessive…

    (My maternal gg-grandmother was a mulatto from the D.R.)

  9. My 6 great grandfather, Samuel III, had 4 sons, the youngest was Samuel Marksberry IV. Samuel IV was apart of the, Bank’s Admin’r v Marksberry. Samuel IV wanted to let his daughter Rachael take his slave’s daughter for Rachael’s own. The fact was, that the daughter hadn’t been born yet. This caused outrage which was brought before the Court. The Court then voted it to where children of slaves couldn’t be treated like property. Which protected the slaves children’s rights. This inspired the author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Of Samuel Marksberry 4 sons, I am related to his son William Marksberry. On it seems that I do have some 5-8th African American cousins. I just found out about this recently, I am glad the Court voted against Samuel IV.

  10. Most of the comments here “I have no African” ancestry are ignoring what deep DNA yells us; that humans originated in Africa and gradually branched out. Having a R-M69 y-DNA doesn’t mean that way back when your line didn’t come from Africa. Another thing people haven’t caught up with is that about 10,000 ago Europeans had very dark skin. There is an article in the Smithsonian magazine about it.
    Since there was a very thin upper crust, warriors, religious leaders etc. we can just assume that most of our ancestors labored and lived in servitude to someone. It is shameful that the worldwide slave trade that came with the Age of Exploration exploited so many whose descendants are still trying to eke out a living.
    The texts used in grades 1-12 don’t even hint at this..

  11. When given the chance, humans will eventually trade, fight, and/or have sex in nearly any sustained community. This applies to colonies, expeditions, armies, prisons, pirate ships, slave plantations, office workplaces, university dorms, and so on. Even in prisons and pirate ships, which are mostly unisex compartments with intermittently restricted access to to the outside world, you absolutely find all three behaviors.

    So you can be guaranteed that trading, fighting and sexing were going on between and among slaves, overseers, owners, and anybody else hanging around the community long enough. Add in the strong legal and social position that overseers and white workers held over slaves and of course many slaves were going to be victimized in this way.

    The British had a long and early association with slavery and an extended internal controversy over eliminating slavery. And the number of British slaveowners may be undercounted if you don’t remember that some companies in Britain sold shares based on slave plantations or the slave trade. Of course, many aristocrats, including royalty, owned either slave plantations or shares in a company that profited from slavery. Think about that when you watch Jane Austen movies and hear something like “Mr. Bottomsworth has ten thousand a year” and consider that some of that income may have come from a Caribbean sugar plantation worked by slaves.

  12. And, yes, there have been slaves from the beginning of time, in all of history, over most of the world. And, as a male doctor friend of mine two decades ago stated, “Men are animals”. Thankfully, most are upstream of animals. Are men hardwired to behave in certain ways? It is in their DNA?…..Survival of the fittest, procreation of the species, warrior mentality…… And is this where religion steps in to mitigate man’s (and woman’s) behavior as a form of social control.

    And will our behavior ever change? Or, at the least, will it be hopefully modified?

  13. Pingback: African DNA in the British Isles | DNAeXplained – Genetic Genealogy

  14. Although there are inaccuracies and imbalances in current “conversations” about New World Slavery ; and many of them reflect modern wishes and prejudices not merely better truer truths. The conversations good and bad are the only path forward to an eventual narrative of reasonable accuracy. The appalling truth of chattel slavery was that it relied on nearly everyone involved to begin, grow, and thrive…and though it is understandable to cleave along color lines and select who was victim and who perpetrator of the Great Evil…The African trading nations and many other partners all share responsibility even to the brothers and senior elders of a particular slave’s family or tribe. The Africans were in control and served as brokers and final arbiters of all transactions and the notion that slavery was based solely on racial kidnapping is false (though understandable) Not merely was African complicity fact but African dictation on the most minute details of these transactions prevailed. There were some dissenters some honorable ones but most were not. The last parties to join the anti slavery movement were the slave states themselves. (and the Spanish)
    Incidentally white indenture in the West Indies was harsh and often a death warrant and in the early islands was a major tool for clearing land and manning new estates…but the relationship between indenture and slavery as it evolved between 1400’s and the 1720’s in BWI is complex and at times surprising. Although horrible by its own right White slavery/indentureds be they Irish, Scots or Anglo prisoners (or volunteers) do not number or rate as the African institution did. There is a lot of good work on the subject and everyone can benefit from reading some of it. None of us would wish to be there!

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