We might think of the 1600s and 1700s as the beginning of modern industrial farming. This was a period that saw rapid modernization in many realms of agriculture, from crop rotations, to processing technologies, to animal breeding. Planters in North America and the Caribbean, who often grew crops like tobacco, rice, and sugar, and who needed livestock and slaves to keep their enterprises going, were caught up in these transformations. While they didn’t always or everywhere adopt new agricultural methods, they did so enough of the time to allow us to test whether agricultural modernization influenced planters’ treatment of animals and slaves.
In reading these journals, it is clear that Thistlewood participated in a system that valued labor efficiency above all. To read Thistlewood’s journal is to realize that he viewed his plantation as a machine. Land, livestock, and slave labor made up the main components, and being profitable meant finding ways to squeeze the maximum output from each component. It is also to realize, however, that Thistlewood did not always get what he wanted from his laborers. By paying attention to these dynamics, we learn much about how the treatment of humans and livestock intersected on a typical Jamaican plantation.
Thistlewood had been a livestock trader before getting into the sugar business. While his entries on buying and selling animals tend to be terse, it is clear that his main concern was to extract maximum production from them in the form of meat (which he could sell at market), manure (which he could use as fertilizer), and muscle (which he could use to pull his perennially malfunctioning sugar-grinding mill). Yet one of the main obstacles to his doing any of this was that Jamaica’s hot climate, coupled with brutal work regimes, killed animals with astonishing speed. Mules on sugar plantations lived only six to eight years on average, and oxen four to six⎯less than half their potential lifespans.1 Given the difficulty of keeping livestock alive, it was important to buy strong, hardy animals, free from deformities or injuries.
As with livestock, Thistlewood learned to appraise slaves’ value according to their physical makeup. After spending more than a quarter century in Jamaica, he offered this advice to buyers in the market for slaves:
I would Choose men Boys, and girls, none exceeding 16 or 18 years old, as full grown Man or Woman Seldom turn out Well, and beside they shave the Men So Close & glass them over So much, that a person Cannot be Certain he does not buy old Negroes . . . Those negroes that have big Bellies, ill Shaped Legs & great feet, are Comonly dull and Sluggish, & not often good, whereas those Who have a good Calff to their Legg and a Small or Maderate Sized Foot, are Commonly Nimble, Active Negroes. Many Negroe Men are bursten [herniated] and are always the Worse for it, therefor one Would not buy them if perceptable, have also observed that many New Negroes, who are bought Fatt and Sleek from a board the Ship, Soon fall away such in a plantation, Whereas those which are Commonly hardier. Those whose Lips are pale, or Whites off their Eyes yellowish, Seldom healthfull.2
One might think that Thistlewood’s use of brutality to correct slaves’ wayward habits mirrored his similar treatment of animals. But in fact things were not so simple. Thistlewood cared deeply about the welfare of his livestock because, as with slaves, he wanted to profit from them. But Thistlewood often did not have direct charge over his animals. In each place that he lived slaves were the ones who saw to animals’ proper feeding and care, which often put them in a position where they had to place the welfare of Thistlewood’s animals above that of their own. Predictably, this conflict of interest bred resentment and sabotage. Thistlewood often complained about slaves who deliberately injured or killed his animals. His anxiety led him to punish slaves whom he suspected of harming his animals, as when he “flogged Strap” for allegedly “stabbing Mackey,” one of Thistlewood’s favorite riding horses.5 In so doing, Thistlewood may have deterred slaves from hurting his animals in the short term. But in the long term, he only fueled a dysfunctional system in which physical distance from his animals led him to rely on slaves, whose violence toward animals led to whippings, which in turn increased slaves’ resentment toward Thistlewood and made them more likely to harm his animals. In the end, everyone suffered: Thistlewood, slaves, and livestock.
Where Thistlewood explicitly conflated animals and slaves was in his accounts of their deaths. In particular, he used his diaries as account books in which he monetized human and animal lives, often making little or no distinction between the two. For example in mid-August of 1773, a particularly bad month, Thistlewood recorded:
Within this month past, have lost as follows:
A young boar gone (never learnt how) worth say £1.
A young barrow [male pig], his back broke and killed (can’t tell how), 10s.
Phoebe’s child, jaw fallen £5
Abba’s Neptune, near seven years old, £35.
A fine ewe, fit to lamb, found dead in a rock-hole, £1, 5s.
Rachael’s [the cow] young calf, say 40s, and young steer £8.
Nanny’s young child, jaw fallen £5.
Total £57 15s.
God’s will be done.6
If we trace the history of animal management from the early modern period forward, we notice that concerns with animal welfare played a very minor role. From the growth of slaughterhouses beginning in the early nineteenth century, to the development of industrial fishing beginning in the late nineteenth, to the rise of industrial agriculture post-WWII, humans usually treated livestock not as individuals, but as inputs into an ever-expanding commercial production machine. In The Jungle (1906), Upton Sinclair described the “high squeals and low squeals, grunts, and wails of agony” that filled Chicago slaughterhouses. The pig’s “wishes, his feelings,” Sinclair wrote, “had simply no existence at all; [the machine] cut his throat and watched him gasp out his life.” Sinclair’s novel also pointed to another important fact. The vast majority of those who worked in slaughterhouses were (and are) poor immigrants who had little choice but to take what work they could find, regardless of how dirty, dangerous, or uncivilized. Indeed, one of reasons why reformers wanted to build slaughterhouses in the early nineteenth century was that killing animals came to be seen as gross and uncivilized, an operation better done behind walls than in the open farmyard. Yet it’s precisely in distancing ourselves from industrial slaughter that we give ourselves permission to ignore the exploitation that makes it possible.8
It’s true that modern slaughterhouses differ in many respects from slave plantations. Unlike slaves, for example, slaughterhouse workers receive wages, and can quit if they want to (which they do quite regularly, as the annual turnover rate in the U.S. slaughter industry exceeds 100 percent). But we should recognize that on plantations and the floors of meat factories alike, workers and animals often experience mutual oppression through precisely the same mechanisms: a rationalized pursuit of profit, coupled with social and geographic distance between managers and workers, suppliers and consumers. Allowing ourselves to see these parallels may not be pleasant. But doing so is necessary if we hope to address how human and natural exploitation go hand-in-hand.
- Elizabeth Abbot, Sugar: A Bittersweet History (New York: Penguin, 2008).
- Diary of Thomas Thistlewood (DTT), Jul. 15, 1776, Thistlewood Family Papers, 1748–1792, American Philosophical Society (16 microfilm reels).
- See, e.g., Edward Long, History of Jamaica (London, 1774), II, 356-72.
- DTT, Jun. 11, 1752.
- Ibid., May 28, 1780.
- Ibid., Aug. 17, 1773.
- Ibid., May 12, 1751.
- See Timothy Pachirat, Every Twelve Seconds: Industrial Slaughter and the Politics of Sight (New Haven: Yale Univesity Press, 2011).