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Thomas Thistlewood papers

Call Number: OSB MSS 176

Scope and Contents

The papers consist of diaries, weather journals, commonplace books, reading notes and other material documenting the life, work and intellectual interests of the Jamaican plantation overseer and slaveowner Thomas Thistlewood. This highly detailed record of his activities as an overseer and later owner of numerous slaves contains information on his criteria for the purchase and sale of slaves, methods of assigning work, allotment of provisions, the illness and death rate among them, and detailed descriptions of Thistlewood’s brutal methods of physical punishment for any infraction.

Thistlewood also meticulously recorded his sexual exploitation of enslaved women, noting thousands of sexual contacts with over 100 women, as well as any punishments he ordered if they resisted. The diaries also describe his decades-long relationship with the enslaved Phibbah, whom he referred to as his “wife” and emancipated in his will.

Comments on “insolent” and “runaway slaves,” frequent news of slave uprisings on individual plantations, and rumors of broader slave insurrections and rebellions, including Tacky’s Revolt (1760), offer insight into the fears of the small minority of white colonists who ruled over but were vastly outnumbered by the enslaved Africans, as well as into the sustained resistance of the enslaved themselves. Thistlewood also describes his contacts with the Jamaican Maroons, escaped slaves and their descendants who inhabited the mountainous areas of the island.

Other topics include personal and professional relationships with other white Jamaicans, including his first employer, John Cope, and the Cope family; expenses and purchases: meals and other entertainment; and recreational activities, including Christmas celebrations.

Also contained in Series I is one diary by Thistlewood’s nephew John Thistlewood (died 1768). A manuscript treatise on planting, by John Palley Edwards, is bound with the diary for 1763.


  • 1748-1792


Conditions Governing Access

The materials are open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

The Thomas Thistlewood Papers are the physical property of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Literary rights, including copyright, belong to the authors or their legal heirs and assigns. For further information, consult the appropriate curator.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Purchased from Sotheby's London on the James Marshall and Marie-Louise Osborn Fund, 2011.


Organized into three series: I. Diaries, 1748-1786; II. Weather Reports, 1752-1786; III. Reading Notes and Other Papers, 1748-1792.


9.26 Linear Feet (13 boxes)

Language of Materials


Catalog Record

A record for this collection is available in Orbis, the Yale University Library catalog

Persistent URL

Thomas Thistlewood (1721-1786)

Thomas Thistlewood (1721-1786), was born in Lincolnshire, England. The second son of a farmer, he was educated in Ackworth, Yorkshire, where he received training in mathematics and in "practical science." After a two- year voyage on one of the East India Company's ships as its supercargo, Thistlewood returned to England and decided to seek employment in Jamaica, emigrating in 1750.

He began his Caribbean life as an overseer of sugar plantations, principally of John Cope's Egypt plantation in Westmoreland parish, where he supervised numerous slaves in sugar production. During these years, Thistlewood gradually acquired slaves of his own, whom he rented out to other planters. In 1767 he completed the purchase of his own plantation, Breadnut Island, a "pen" where his thirty or so slaves raised provisions and livestock.

Thistlewood also pursued a variety of scientific and intellectual interests. He acquired several hundred books, often on scientific and technical subjects; collected and described medicinal plants and other botanical specimens; and kept a detailed weather record for thirty-four years. The gardens at Breadnut Island were considered among the finest in western Jamaica before they were ruined in the hurricane of October 1780.

Thistlewood never married, but had one son, Mulatto John (d. 1780), by his slave Phibbah, who was originally a slave of his employer. Thistlewood eventually purchased her from Cope and lived with her at Breadnut Island; he called her his "wife" in the will that freed her. He never returned to England, and died at Breadnut Island, Jamaica in November 1786.

Custodial History

From the collection of William John Monson, Baron Monson. Deposited at Lincolnshire Archives in 1951.

Processing Information

This collection received a basic level of processing, including housing and minimal organization, in 2011.

The 92 volumes of the Thistlewood Papers were arranged and numbered in the nineteenth century while in the possession of William John Monson, Baron Monson, and this order has been preserved in this finding aid.

Information included in the Description of Papers note and Collection Contents section is partially drawn from information supplied with the collection by Sotheby's London. This finding aid may be updated periodically to account for revisions in arrangement and description.

Guide to the Thomas Thistlewood Papers
by Diane Ducharme
October 2011
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

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