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Optimism vs Truth
Slavery in the 18th century is has been examined and looked at for quite some time now. It is one of the major concerns involving ethnical and racial prejudices in today’s society. Slavery, seen as a touchy subject by many, is an issue in which no one really likes discussing injustice brought upon by early Europeans to many cultures and not just blacks. Were the accusations justified or was the truth twisted? Diaries of the plantation owners, educated slaves, tradesmen as well as historical documents are all used to paint us a picture. The diary of Thomas Thristlewood is one of these resources two distinguished writers looked at and examined. Two very different views emerged out of the same diary concerning humanity, love and relations between people.
The quote “Love is a journey, not a destination” was clearly not questioned by either writer, though love in its deranged sense was the main topic argued in their works. Neither author stops to give us a definition of what they see love as. D. G. Hall introduces Thomas as a son of an English well to do farmer who after some travels settles on the island of Jamaica. He is assigned to Vineyard, where he’s the only white person, leaving him no one to rely on but the slaves. Hall leaves us with an impression that his encounter during this time plays a role in how he treats his slaves in the future,: “And so, in a very real sense, Thomas Thristlewood, newcomer, was seasoned by a first year of apprenticeship among a long-resident slave population.” They gave him recipes, cures, and told him stories and secrets, leading towards a bond unlike any other between whites and slaves. D.G. Hall sets out to prove that this bond is the key in Thomas’ love life, which is why he uses it at the beginning of his article. According to him, Thomas Thristlewood, though he had other women, loved only one truly with his heart, by the name of Phibbah, and cared for her despite the fact that she was someone else’s slave. By someone else’s slave, one means that she was almost undoubtedly sexually active with her master. Sexually active with her master and ten others would be the response of Hilary McD Beckles, the opposing author of the diary. Love was not even close to being a factor in those times, according to Beckles.
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Admitting that the word love was never uttered by Mr. Thristlewood, Hall explains that Thomas cared for Phibbah deeply favoring her over all the other slaves. In the defense of “love” between slaves and whites, Hall adds more examples of other white men having “affectionate relations with slave women” (Hall, 20). Apparently, buying a slave and letting her live in your home resembled a wife. According to Thristlewood’s diary, there was Mr. Mordiner and Quasheba; Mr. Hartnole had Little Mimber, among others. Hall does not deny the occasional forced sexual interference as well as prostitution but he firmly believes that “within the slave society, there was room for real affection between men and women, free and slave”. Occasional forced sexual labor is exactly what Beckles attacked. Thomas Thristlewood was a man out to make a name for himself in Jamaica. Beckles sees him as a “sexually promiscuous colonist” (Beckles, 40) involved in rape and prosperous sexual acts, prosperous for the slaves that is. As an early form of prostitution, gifts were given to the slave women as payment for sex. We know this to be true due to the fact that gifts would be taken away if the women did not do it willfully and on more than one occasion. This gave him enormous supremacy over these women empowering his masculinity. And even though D. G. Hall claims that,: “The nature of the diaries suggests that they were not intended for the information of future generations, or even his contemporaries…Thristlewood tells us what and when, but very seldom why.”(Hall, 15), one still wonders about the real reason for the diary. This does prove Hall’s point in that Mr. Thristlewood had no reason to lie about his life on Jamaica, but looking at the piece by Beckles, it is clearly noticeable that Hall chose to leave out some of the details, and with reason.
The diary was kept to record occurrences on the plantations, but by the looks of it, that same diary was not much more than a sexual memoir. It was as if Thristlewood had a goal to sleep with the most women on the island and then to prove it he could use his diary as a proof. He had names, dates, how many times and sometimes even where. The sexual attack on the black women was an important part of the white culture due to the shortage of white women on the island. According to Beckles, there were 170,000 slaves working for 18,000 whites over the course of 5 decades. “… ‘love’, like labor, was an integral expectation of the package of benefits derived from mastery.” (Beckles, 40) Hilary sets out to prove her view using Thomas’ own diary against him. Not denying his “care, sympathy and desire” (Beckles, 47) for his ‘wife’ Phibbah, she proceeds by adding that when he defined Phibbah as his wife, Mr. Thristlewood had other sexual partners. In the twisted minds of the whites residing on the plantations, rape was not possible. They considered it a right to have sex with their slaves since slaves were nothing but possessions. Punishment, bribery and prostitution were all “voluntary” ways of getting sex.
Humanity was never on a high level. In fact there was no humanity in slavery. Everything slavery stood for was morally and ethically wrong. Forced labor, obligatory sexual intercourse, punishments for disobedience, among other treacherous ways of diminishing one’s pride and spirit, were all undeniably enforced on Jamaica. Collars and chains were put on slaves to establish property and when they escaped, the owners’ initials were immediately were engraved on their cheeks upon their return. Some were caught by the search parties, some came back due to the lack of food and resources for survival, and some were brought back by the Maroons. A tribe that made a deal with the plantation owners that in return for their freedom, they would not accept any other runaways but would bring them back to the plantations. The Maroon tribe itself was made up of runaways that did not get caught and managed to come together in the wild. Punishments ranged from fogging to gagging, whipping to murder, as well as some others better left unsaid. Yet some of these spirits were never broken. “Like Mary, Sally was a free spirit who resisted and rebelled in ways she knew best, despite the regime of brutal punishments.” These are the kind of people who helped rebellion start and soon after, slavery ended.
Both authors present decent and equally possible hypothesis, yet both are contaminated with biases. Douglas G. Hall is a retired male professor in Jamaica. His view is factually correct but as we see in Hilary’s work, he leaves out important information that would clearly negate his arguments. It is a male point of view trying to deny that most of the sexual interactions done on the plantations were rapes. Maybe the sex was not completely voluntary, but the women did not complain when they got money and gifts for it. ‘Love’ must have played a factor in those times because jealousy emerges among white men and not just because it was someone else’s possession, but because feelings come in play. Maybe Hall is/was one of those people who believed love makes the world go round and strived to find love even in slavery. This might be a bias on my part but Hilary McD Beckles writes as a feminist. With background knowledge of slavery, Hilary sees all the white men on the island as sexually deprived sadists and rapists. She skims over some emotional parts involving Phibbah and Thomas, while she jumps to elaborate on the smallest aspect concerning sexual detail. She fails to acknowledge his tender care and sleepless nights during her sickness described in Hall’s article, “I got up and tended her, had her arm rubbed with British oil, &c. I got no rest this past night…”(Hall, 28).
The two works are clearly an opinion of an optimist versus an opinion of a pessimist, and though I would like to take Hall’s side in this matter, the numbers and the passion behind Hilary’s work do not lie. As beautiful as his view is that people are just people no matter in what time or society, I believe that slavery was truly as brutal and demeaning as the worst crimes in history. With my knowledge of history, I believe that only German genocide was worse than slavery in all of history. So when Beckles calls his diary “an account of one type of white masculinity in action, at the levels of labor management, sexual engagements, cultural education, and the authoritarian manipulation of ethnic, imperial and gender power.”, I stand behind her view in every way. Slavery was inhumane not only because of its deathly labor and gendered tyranny, but also because innocent people were torn apart from the only life they knew where some were kings, and brought into an environment where they were forced to live inferiorly to everyone else. Children born into slavery are the ones that suffered the most. Born into something so lifeless and derogatory, some never knew the life outside it.