Beginning in the fifteenth century, Africa, Europe and the Americas came together in the Atlantic to create new economies, new cultures and new societies. At the center of those societies was the plantation, a radically new unit of production that employed slave labor to grow exotic commodities for sale in distant markets. Atop the plantation strode a new class, men of enormous wealth and power, who–with good reason–preferred the title “master.” For the next 400 years, they were masters of the universe.
The masters’ rule extended to all corners of the Atlantic world. The shadow that their great houses cast over nearby slave cabins reached as far as the distant metropoles, so that few were untouched by the planters’ enormous presence. During the past three decades historians have unraveled much of the history of what Eugene Genovese once called “the world the slaveholders made.” Of late, historians have focused on the subalterns of the plantation world: slaves, free people of color, white nonslaveholders and even plantation mistresses. Perhaps spurred by the era of Republican dominance and a reassertive ruling class, historians have given new attention to the plantocracy.
Of course, there have been numerous studies of the planter class, as well as biographies of individual planters. However, they have produced little agreement as to its character. The result is a farrago of contradictory ideas, with visions of seigniorial patriarchs dueling with notions of upward-striving capitalists. On the one hand, planters have been depicted as perennial hotspurs–hard drinking, fast-living men whose hair-trigger tempers demonstrated little foresight and generated even less systematic thought. On the other hand, they have been portrayed as cultivated gentlemen, caring stewards whose hospitality became famous and whose book-lined drawing rooms oozed great ideas. The planters’ residence amid black slaves and their consequent fear of enslavement, according to some historians, bred a fierce independence that made planters into great apostles of liberty, if only for white men. One famously wrote that “all men are created equal.” Rejecting the idea that slavery was the great leveler, others have seen planters as hidebound aristocrats, and their commitment to chattel bondage as a prop for traditional hierarchies.
A plethora of new studies of the plantocracy offers an opportunity to revisit these masters of the universe. Two of the best are Rhys Isaac’s Landon Carter’s Uneasy Kingdom: Revolution and Rebellion on a Virginia Plantation and Trevor Burnard’s Mastery, Tyranny, and Desire: Thomas Thistlewood and His Slaves in the Anglo-Jamaican World. Each offers fresh insights into the character of the plantocracy and its evolution. Because they draw upon two different slave societies and address men of such different temperaments, they provide an opportunity to think broadly about the plantocracy.
Carter and Thistlewood presided over slave plantations at the pinnacle of the planters’ 400-year reign, the mid-eighteenth century. They received–as they expected–the full measure of wealth, privilege and respect due their place. Indeed, in many ways, they represented the finest attributes of the planter class, its driving ambition, commitment to human advancement (for whites, at least) and willingness to take responsibility for the world it had created.
Planters believed they represented the best, not merely for themselves but also for those they governed. For the most part, they were learned men, knowledgeable in letters and science. Carter read deeply in the literature of antiquity–naturally in the original Greek and Latin–as well as in the new novels of sentiment. He named his home plantation Sabine Hall and constructed one of the great libraries in colonial America. Thistlewood’s taste ran toward science, although the works of Milton and Pope found their way onto his bookshelf. Both men were devoted to the ideas of the Enlightenment. As compulsive improvers, they perused agricultural journals for more productive seeds and bettered their herds with blooded stock. They introduced new techniques to their plantations, reorganizing work routines in a manner that would make Frederick Taylor proud. As David Brion Davis long ago noted, the plantation represented not the encrusted sloth of the ancient regime but the sleek efficiency of the nascent capitalist order. Carter and Thistlewood, each in his own way, were cheerleaders of human progress.
Both men exhibited intelligence, shrewd judgment and, when challenged, admirable courage. Carter condemned the “Byg Men” who ran Virginia’s legislature as their personal fiefdom, refusing to partake in the corruption that passed for business as usual. Thistlewood, for his part, staked his independence from the great sugar magnates who dominated Jamaican society. To their dismay, they learned he was not a man with whom they could trifle. If independence of mind and love of liberty were prized ideals in the eighteenth century–as well as our own–it would be hard to find better exemplars.
Yet the perversities of slave society bent these otherwise commendable traits into heinous pathologies. Enjoying a monopoly of violence and knowing their own success rested on a willingness to employ it without compunction, the planters became twisted personifications of the tyranny they professed to despise. Carter became, at best, a dyspeptic curmudgeon, obsessed with his failed patriarchy; Thistlewood, a monstrous sociopath. But as Isaac and Burnard underscore, the real price was paid by the men and women who fell under the planters’ rule.
Landon Carter and Thomas Thistlewood shared much as members of the planter class, but it is hard to imagine two more different individuals. The distinction derived, in large measure, from differences between eighteenth-century Virginia and Jamaica, but the diverse personalities of men of radically different origins magnified those distinctions.
Landon Carter was born into the immense privilege of Virginia’s first families in 1710. The son of Robert “King” Carter, perhaps the richest man in the colony, he was educated by tutors at home and then, at age 9, sent to study in London. He returned eight years later to nurse his aged father and, when the old man died, the young Carter inherited his portion of the family estate. In the years that followed, Landon expanded his patrimony, so that eventually his domain became a small empire that reached into all corners of the Chesapeake and numbered some 400 slaves.
Like other grandees, Carter married into another prominent Virginia family (the Wormeleys). When his first wife died, he picked a second from another of Virginia’s first families (the Byrds), and when she died he did so yet again (this time a Beale). As he formed and re-formed his domestic life, Carter entered Virginia politics. Like most of the gentlemen of his class, Carter despised the hurly-burly of an electoral system that forced him to appeal for the votes of dirt farmers, whom he held in utter contempt. But he did what was necessary and eventually won a seat in the Virginia General Assembly. He became an early and strong advocate of colonial rights and a minor figure in the struggle for American independence. Along the way Carter kept a diary, which Isaac–whose earlier study of eighteenth-century Virginia won a Pulitzer Prize–suggests might be hailed as a “literary classic,” if only it had been a work of fiction. As history, sadly, it is only another source for the study of the past.
Isaac’s praise is perhaps a bit too fulsome, but there is no doubt about the importance of Landon Carter’s diary as a window on the planter class and Carter himself. It reveals a man who saw himself as a link in the long chain of patriarchy, whose history stretched back to time immemorial. For Carter, as for many members of his class, the patriarchal ideal justified his place in society, rationalized his actions and gave meaning to his life. As the father of “his people”–which included his slaves as well as his immediate family–he offered care and protection in return for deference, obedience and service, even if they had to be extracted by force. Unfortunately for Carter, he arrived at the pinnacle of patriarchal authority at the moment the ancient order of the ruling fathers was being undermined by the forces of modernity, not simply in the world at large but in his own household. Perhaps even more disturbing for Carter, he half-wittingly joined in the assault, cutting the ground from under his feet. His was, as Isaac declares, an “uneasy kingdom.”
Carter’s frustrations were played out in every corner of his domain. Carter considered himself an affectionate husband, a loving father to his children, a devoted master to his slaves and–when he obtained public office–a dutiful leader. Yet his efforts were for naught. Carter lived surrounded by unruly ingrates, who continually sabotaged his attempts to do right by them and himself. Although his various wives seemed to have been silently submissive, his children constantly challenged his best efforts, disregarding his advice and dismissing his authority. His son would have no part of his father’s disciplined world of work and study, and instead gambled, whored and drank to excess. Like Carter’s daughter, he married against his father’s wishes, and when Carter half-heartedly threatened to disinherit both of them, they and their spouses rebuked him in a most cutting manner. Carter’s grandson picked up on his parents’ disdain and mocked his grandfather. When Carter cuffed the disrespectful brat, his daughter-in-law viciously tongue-lashed the old man.
Carter similarly found that his authority carried little weight with his slaves. Wielding the lash, Carter could force them to work. The lash was ubiquitous on his plantation. According to Isaac, the Carter diary is a catalogue of violence reported in the most routine, offhand manner. “They have been severely whipd day by day,” reads one unaffected entry, as Carter hurries to the more important matter of manuring. Still, his “people” stubbornly rejected his rule. At every opportunity, they challenged him–malingering, breaking tools, plundering the storehouse and then selling the booty for their own benefit. They took to the woods–in effect, striking–when their labor was needed most. When the Revolution provided an opening, key members of his enslaved workforce abandoned him for British lines, making it clear that they too regarded his putative fatherhood as a sham.
For Carter, the traitors to patriarchal rule were everywhere. His inability to bend his “children” to his will left him in a chronic state of dissatisfaction. The cantankerous patriarch spent endless hours pouring “indignant stories of disobedience” onto the pages of his diary. Isaac rightly calls it a narrative of subversion.
The ultimate failure of Carter’s patriarchal rule came not at the hand of traitors within his household but from his own hand, and Isaac documents the delicious irony in fine detail. A jealous guardian of his liberties and those of his class, Carter became an early and ardent defender of American rights against the imposition of Crown tyranny. Slowly he was drawn into the growing opposition and finally into open rebellion against the monarchy, the very model of patriarchal rule that he so cherished. Even as he denounced the King and his ministers, he fulminated against the antimonarchical and regicidal impulse of the emerging republicanism. Landon Carter came to understand that he was “Sabine Hall’s George III.”
The parallels between the struggle within Carter’s household and those within the British Empire can be easily overdrawn into a vast psychodrama. But Isaac is too good a historian to detach Carter’s predicament from the material and ideological realities of the revolutionary crisis. In arguing “the symbolic pulling down of patriarchal monarchy as the keystone of the cosmic arch of public and private authority,” Isaac appreciates that patriarchy withstood that blow and the many that followed. With American independence, the father King was quickly replaced by the Founding Fathers. Still, Isaac’s larger point that the Revolution was a central event in the decline of patriarchy is incontrovertible.
As Carter’s world deteriorated under assault from his children, his slaves and his own antimonarchical politics, he compensated for his double loss–his own and the King’s–by turning the full weight of his patriarchal energies on Nassaw, his personal attendant and most intimate companion. He “formed now a great project of redeeming Nassaw from the fires of hell.” Isaac’s rendition of the struggle between Carter and Nassaw is nothing short of brilliant, for it demonstrates in close detail the havoc patriarchy wreaked upon its subjects. A man of considerable parts, Nassaw was a healer of great skill. Carter, who regularly doctored his people, had enormous respect for Nassaw’s ability as a physician, for, in truth, Nassaw was one of the finest surgeons in colonial Virginia. Carter’s determination to save Nassaw from the bottle was more than matched by Nassaw’s powerful resolve. The struggle was intense. Carter had Nassaw “tied Neck & heels all night” and threatened to “send him to some of the islands.” Nassaw petitioned, prayed and promised, but the requisite change was not forthcoming. Again Carter whipped, and Nassaw gave “the solemn Promise.” When Nassaw’s pledges came to nothing, Carter–certain that he was “justified both to God and man”–pressed ever harder. Although Nassaw survived, the old doctor paid an extraordinary price. As Isaac concludes, “the social and psychological cost…to Nassaw would never be reckoned.”
Those who lived in the shadow of Thomas Thistlewood also suffered, and the price they paid was far higher than anything Nassaw and his compatriots endured. Thistlewood’s diary is an extraordinary document, not merely because it reports two of the great events in Jamaican history–Tackey’s revolt in 1760 and the great hurricane twenty years later–but because of its extensive account of the daily life of a middle-sized planter. While it provides none of the self-conscious moralizing and endless rationalizations that can be found in Carter’s journal, it offers concrete evidence of a planter’s behavior and–by extension–beliefs. Burnard, who teaches at England’s Brunel University, employs it brilliantly to penetrate the mind of a man of unfathomable complexity.
Unlike Landon Carter, Thomas Thistlewood was born with no silver spoon. The son of an English tenant farmer, he received a good education and little else in the Lincolnshire community where he grew to manhood. Unable to duplicate his father’s meager achievement, Thistlewood doubtless would have remained a struggling member of the struggling class had it not been for the opportunities afforded by the rise of the plantation. Burnard demonstrates how the growth of slavery was a godsend for ambitious Englishmen of the middling sort. Arriving in Jamaica in 1750 at age 29, this “foot soldier of imperialism” began his upward climb through the ranks of overseers and petty slaveholders to become the owner of a small “pen,” a Jamaican designation for an estate for raising livestock.
Thistlewood became a significant figure in his corner of Jamaica. He held a commission in the parish constabulary and was a magistrate of the local court. In time, he ranked in the top fifth of Jamaican planters in wealth. Thistlewood’s extraordinary garden became a showcase for visitors to Jamaica, and his reputation as a horticulturalist spread beyond the island. While Thistlewood neither enjoyed Carter’s extraordinary wealth nor gained his great eminence, at his death in 1786 he had achieved every bit of the success and recognition he desired.
The differences between Carter and Thistlewood were more than degrees of wealth and status. They reveal the stark differences between slavery in Jamaica and Virginia and consequent differences between the planters of the islands and mainland. Within days of Thistlewood’s arrival, he witnessed a slaveholder severely whipping a runaway and then rubbing pepper, salt and lime juice into the open wound. When an unfortunate fugitive died, the planter cut off his head, stuck it on a pole and burned the body. Two weeks later Thistlewood watched some 300 lashes laid on a mulatto overseer “for his many crimes and negligences.” Another slave was “hang’d upon ye lst tree immediately ([for] drawing his knife upon a White Man) his hand cutt off, Body left unbury’d.”
A quick study of planter rule, Thistlewood was soon wielding the whip with the best of Jamaica’s plantocracy. Not content with the conventional mechanisms of terror, he invented his own gruesome tortures, such as the Derby’s dose, in which one slave defecated into the mouth of another, who was then gagged. Thistlewood “Picketted Douglas’ Coobah on a quart bottle neck, till she begged hard,” and punished his slaves by forcing them to urinate into one another’s mouths. It did not take long for Thistlewood to become a most inventive sadist.
Thistlewood also learned that his white skin gave him unimpeded access to black women, and he quickly took advantage of his prerogative. During his first year in Jamaica, he slept with thirteen black women on fifty-nine occasions, keeping track of who, when, where and how with great precision. In the nearly forty years that followed, Thistlewood would have sex with 138 women–nearly all of them black slaves–3,852 times, according to his own obsessive accounting. While he was a man of substantial–although, Burnard insists, not inordinate–sexual appetites, Thistlewood’s sexual predation was not merely a means to satisfy his desires. He employed rape to demonstrate his absolute dominance by demoralizing his slaves and destabilizing slave society. Although he attempted to prostitute his victims by sometimes paying them small sums, rejecting Thistlewood’s advances was not a realistic option for these women or those who dared protect them.
Thistlewood ruled by unmediated force, awing slaves with what Burnard calls “fierce, arbitrary, and instantaneous violence.” Beyond their subordination, he cared little about their lives. He evinced no interest in the patriarchal ideology that drove Landon Carter. Carter’s attempt to reform a slave drunkard would be inconceivable on Thistlewood’s pen. While Carter desired to incorporate his slaves into his larger family, Thistlewood simply wrote his slaves out of the social contract. As Burnard notes, Thistlewood was not a racist of the scientific sort who condemned black people as biologically inferior. He lived and worked closely with slaves. He knew them as men and women. He appreciated differences in their abilities and personalities and employed those distinctions for his own purposes. However, he believed his rule could only be secured by mind-boggling terror.
Burnard exposes the monstrous results of Thistlewood’s rule, but he also notes the ironies. Thistlewood’s vicious physical assaults insulated his slaves from the kinds of psychological imposition of Carter’s patriarchal regime. Thistlewood allowed slaves their own family and religious lives to the extent they could establish them within his regime. His slaves were freed from the kinds of imposition that made Nassaw’s life a living hell. Thistlewood’s slaves enjoyed a measure of independence Nassaw might have envied. Again ironically, while Thistlewood rarely entered into his slaves’ lives, he himself became part of a slave family.
Early in his stay in Jamaica, Thistlewood established a lifelong relationship–some thirty-three years–with his slave housekeeper, Phibbah, although he continued to force himself upon other women. Together they had a son, and upon his death he granted Phibbah her freedom. If Thistlewood ever showed affection for another human being, it was for Phibbah. Phibbah used her relationship with Thistlewood to her own advantage and that of the larger slave community, but she also appeared to have deep affection for Thistlewood. When they were apart, Thistlewood noted–perhaps projecting his own feelings–that she was in “miserable slavery.”
The relationship of Phibbah and Thistlewood, like that of Carter and Nassaw, demonstrates the difficulty of penetrating the mind of the master. Historians–Isaac and Burnard among them–have explained these divergent styles of mastership from the extraordinary differences of the demography and economy of a sugar island like Jamaica and a mainland colony like Virginia. Where slave masters lived surrounded by an overwhelming black majority–some 95 percent of the population in Thistlewood’s portion of the island–whose numbers were constantly augmented by newly arrived Africans, planters believed that only raw terror could sustain their rule. In Virginia, a white majority and an African-American population allowed for other strategies. But Isaac’s and Burnard’s close reading of the diaries of Carter and Thistlewood make it evident that there is more involved than these structural differences.
Yet emphasizing Carter’s struggle with his fellow physician and intimate companion and Thistlewood’s relationship with his lifelong mistress also has its dangers. While much of the masters’ lives is revealed in these telling relationships (and those of other slaves who lived and worked in close proximity to their owners), Carter and Thistlewood did not know most of their slaves, perhaps in part because their slaves did not want to be known. As Burnard emphasizes, slaves might find real rewards in living close to their owners–if only because it saved them from the harsh, often killing, regimen of field labor–but there were dangers too. Many slaves found it the better part of wisdom to keep their distance and take their chances in the fields. Most, of course, did not have a choice. These anonymous men and women shaped the masters’ world as much as the Nassaws and the Phibbahs.
Rhys Isaac’s penetrating interpretation of Landon Carter and Trevor Burnard’s extraordinarily thoughtful rendering of Thomas Thistlewood suggest how much more is to be learned about those who ruled the universe in the age of the plantation. The planters’ achievement in expanding wealth and creating new polities has been rightly acknowledged; their legacy of inhumanity remains to be addressed.