Black Icarus: Slave Strategies in a Jamaican Hell

Trevor G. Burnard, Mastery, Tyranny, and Desire: Thomas Thistlewood and His Slaves in the Anglo-Jamaican World (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004).

Death in the sun-drenched fields or torture in the shade of the house? Resistance or collaboration? How did enslaved Africans cope with the trauma of life on Anglo-Jamaican sugar plantations in the eighteenth century? These are some of the very disturbing questions Trevor Burnard tackles in chapter six of Mastery, Tyranny, & Desire, where he sketches fragments of the life of three enslaved men who lived with planter Thomas Thistlewood in what the author calls “one of the most brutally dehumanizing systems ever devised” (Burnard: 178).

Burnard opens the chapter with an anecdote: an older white master is followed in death by his young slave, who presumably commits suicide with a gun (176). The anecdote serves three purposes; it perplexes us as to why a slave would suffer so acutely for his oppressor; it raises the question of slave resistance, or the lack thereof, by revealing that slaves had access to weapons; and finally, it makes us wonder why a white planter would trust a black slave with a gun in such violent and volatile system.

These conundrums get at the heart of the three slave men we glimpse – Johnnie, Chub, and Lincoln – who employ different strategies to survive their enslavement, from relatively autonomous but deadly field work, to easier house work that came with more frequent abuse. These accounts enrich the historiographical debate about slaves’ agency and acculturation in the Americas. Burnard sides with Orlando Patterson and those who, distressingly, see little evidence that Africans were able to escape the “dehumanizing effects of slavery” (178). Still, the author highlights moments of conflict and tension when Thistlewood was forced to bend, particularly with Lincoln, illustrating how Hegel’s dialectical relationship of master and slave was acted out in real life (207).

Our picture of Lincoln is the most complete and there we see both his active participation in oppressing his fellow slaves as well as his resistance when Thistlewood crosses a line, notably over control of his domestic affairs and the wages he thought belonged to him (199-200). Here, Burnard explores why so few whites were able to exploit so many blacks for so long (168). While his broad conclusion points to brutal and tyrannical violence, Burnard argues that private property played a role in weakening solidarity within slave communities. For example, by giving slaves plots to farm and a stake in the productive status quo, whites undermined support for Tackey’s Revolt (173-174).

Through Lincoln (and later Phibbah), the author highlights the difficult balance successful slaves had to achieve between getting close to their masters, but not too close that they alienated their fellow slaves and lost their ability to effectively serve as an intermediary. As Lincoln’s relatively long life suggests, the shade of strategic collaboration was bitter, but safer than escaping into the sun.

 

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