“Mastery, Tyranny, and Desire” by Bernard Trevor


Mastery, Tyranny, & Desire is a book written by a historian Burnard Trevor and published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2003. The book addresses the subject of slavery, white privilege, and abuse of power by white plantation owners in Jamaica in the 18th century. The author seeks to illustrate the hardships and suffering of slaves under an oppressive regime of white slave-owners as well as demonstrate the casual brutality and excessiveness with which they were dispensed and contrast with how slave owners treated themselves and each other.

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The overarching goal was to demonstrate what part did slave oppression play in the life of an average white plantation owner and how the possession of power over others leads to the most horrifying examples of exploitation, oppression, and brutality. Despite the author doing a superb job at bringing the dry facts and reports from various historical sources to life and highlighting the hardships of slaves (especially women slaves), it failed to recognize the agency and desire to obtain freedom from the slaves. Burnard significantly downplayed slave resistance and willingness to challenge authority, despite the evidence provided in the book pointing to the contrary.

Sources Used

The book is largely based on the primary source, which is the diary of Thomas Thistlewood, a British plantation owner and overseer, who lived in the 18th century. His diary is one of the very few sources about the history of the land during that time period. The diary was written in a very dry, report-like language, with no persona thoughts or feelings cropped into the writing. In order to bring the stories to life and to give the reader a historical, economic, and philosophical context, Burnard provides references and citations from other primary sources, such as various slave codes practiced in Jamaica as well as in North America.

Other sources included the British code of laws of the 18th century as well as modern and contemporary records and reviews of the history of slavery. There is an overreliance on Thistlewood’s diary, but such a measure is forced because, as was mentioned, there is very little primary source information about the history of Jamaica during the time of Tacky’s Revolt of the 1760s. However, the rest of the sources are academic and reliable, having been published in peer-reviewed scientific journals.


The book describes the life of Thomas Thistlewood and his management of the plantation during his time in Jamaica. The diary itself followed his day-to-day activities in the form of reports about business, acquisitions, personal life, punishments, scientific endeavors, and sexual activities. Burnard synthesized the information from the diary in a more structured way, separating certain activities one from another and dividing them into thematic chapters.

These chapters are following one another in groups of two, in order to cover particular topics and episodes of Thistlewood’s life. The first two chapters describe his personal history and rise to power. The second two chapters are largely dedicated to his academic pursuits and relationships with other white owners. The transition of focus from slavers to slaves comes in chapter five, which described the alleged “unseen war” between slaves and their masters, with the latter doing their best to keep the slaves down. The next two chapters describe how male and female slaves fared under Thistlewood. The last chapter is a verdict to the man, his accomplishments, his ethics, and morals.

Dissemination of Arguments

Burnard makes several arguments in regards to what shaped Thistlewood into what he became to be, starting from his rather humble beginnings as a second son in a fatherless family. The first chapter is dedicated to describing his life on the mainland, where he was found rather inadequate for employment or marriage (Burnard 2003, 12).

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However, his value as a worker and a human being significantly rose in Jamaica, where the majority of the population was black, and where whites were suffering from a demographic crisis (Burnard 2003, 19). The second chapter further supports that idea, stating that Thistle received quick promotions and was invited to parties and balls, despite being of relatively low rank.

Using these facts, Burnard establishes the idea that Jamaican plant owners a kind of egalitarian society, which was very advanced for their century. However, these perceptions of egalitarianism and pursuits of intellectuality did not spread on the slaves, as another thing that united the white community in Jamaica was their treatment of slaves (Burnard 2003, 83). Chapter 5 presents how plantation owners viewed their slaves.

It was a mix of brutality, utilitarianism, and fear, as they made sure to keep the slaves down in order to prevent any attempts at revolt. Burnard (2003, 150) states that the slavers had ample reasons to fear a slavery uprising. Nevertheless, at the end of the chapter, he draws a conclusion that Jamaican slaves were too psychologically damaged to engage in a violent or nonviolent struggle against their owners.

Chapters 6 and 7 describe the suffering of slaves as well as the labor they engaged in. Burnard (2003, 210) states that female slaves were significantly worse-off than male slaves, as, in addition to backbreaking labor, they were also the targets of sexual advances and bore the burden of mothering children. The last chapter summaries the author’s conclusion about slavery and intellectual development in Jamaica. As presented by Thistlewood, his way of life and his proclivities towards slaves, enlightenment, humanity, and equality were aimed only towards the “master race,” which was why the memory of Thistlewood would that of a sadistic tyrant and not a scholar (Burnard 2003, 271).

The greatest controversy in Burnard’s analysis is his underplay of slave resistance to the pervasive society they were forced to live in. He avoids the term “resistance” throughout the book, replacing it with “opposition.”

According to him, the population was psychologically bruised to challenge white authority (Burnard 2003, 178) despite providing evidence to the contrary. Thistlewood’s area was the one most affected by Tacky’s Revolt, and his own diary demonstrates the presence of rebellious slaves and runaways, such as Sally, Coobah, and Phibbah, who managed to transcend the limitations of slavery and rise to a position of power (Burnard 2003, 217). His argument about whether the slave-master relationship was a negotiation, a submission, or a long-term battle, is confusing, especially considering the overarching argument that slaves had little to no agency in the first place (Bernard 2003, 212).


Burnard does a great job of systematically portraying the life of slaves and masters in the Caribbean. Although some of his interpretations and views on the matter are questionable, the book leaves plenty of opportunities to learn about slavery and the history of Jamaica in the 18th century. It should be considered a required reading within the subject of Caribbean colonial history. It also shows how much did skin color mean on the frontiers of the British Empire. The thesis of the book remains undisputed, as even the most enlightened and egalitarian of the colonists turned tyrants and psychopaths when exposed to power over others. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

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Burnard, Trevor. 2003. Mastery, Tyranny, & Desire. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

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