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EP 10: Know Your Literature: Jamaica, Slavery & Ghost Stories

Updated: Jan 8, 2021

Season 1 - Foundations

Episode 10 - Know Your Literature: Jamaica, Slavery & Ghost Stories

Bonus: This episode breaks down the history of Jamaican slave society AND includes a Q&A with the author of These Ghosts Are Family, Maisy Card.

“Caught Maddie stealing honey from the kitchen this morning so I bade Ezra hold her before she could flee and then had him her put in the stocks. I could hear her calling for me during the hottest part of the day as I inspected the cane fields.”

History Is Stranger Than Fiction

When contemplating identity, it’s important to know your history. But learning about that history is possible in many forms. Today, on the first episode of its kind, we will examine history through the lens of a book. Specifically, we will discuss the history of Jamaica, slavery, and generational trauma through author Maisy Card’s debut novel – These Ghosts Are Family.

Mark Twain once said through a character that truth is stranger than fiction. And it’s true. Some of the most disturbing fictional tales are inspired by real life events. Further refining this point, I say that history is stranger than fiction. Made up tales of black origin stories steeped in darkness are virtually always inspired by a history that is much worse.

Take for instance the classic American novel, Beloved. Toni Morrison created this disturbing work of art after being inspired by unbelievable history. She found a newspaper clipping from the 1800s. It was short, but described an enslaved woman who had run away from a plantation. Moments before she was recaptured, the woman made a horrific decision. She chose to kill her children rather than see them live in bondage. Morrison was struck by the weight of such a decision and the haunting emotions that must have lingered long after the children left this world. And from that contemplation, Morrison created a novel that continues to touch the lives of readers generations later.

Maisy Card’s novel has the potential to do the same. From dark pasts she has created a wonderful multi-generational saga grappling with identity, ancestry, and untold black history.

Card was born in St. Ann Jamaica, but was raised in Jamaica Queens, New York. Her ties to these lands exemplify the first connection between her reality and the world she creates. Toggling between time periods, the novel spans from 2020 to 1813.

At first glance, the story seems to be about the consequences of one man’s deception. Jamaican immigrant, Stanford Solomon, reveals to his family that many years before, he faked his own death. So, in fact, Stanford Solomon does not really exist. Instead, his name is actually Abel Paisley and he left a family behind in Jamaica – a wife and young children.

Yet, as the reader is taken further back in time, it becomes clear that despite the enormous impact of Abel’s deception, the fractures in this family have a deeper root – slavery in Jamaica.

Jamaican Slave Society

The first inhabitants of the Jamaican island were likely the Arawak people. It is believed that they originally hailed from South America but not much else is known about them. Like many American Origin Stories, theirs is abruptly disturbed by the arrival of European settlers. Christopher Columbus is believed to have been the first arrive on the shores of what was then known as Xaymaca – the land of blessed gold.

Despite its name, there was no gold on the island. Still, the Spanish enslaved the locals and colonized the community. Eventually, nothing remained. The Arawaks were killed off either by being worked to death or from the spread of foreign disease. Soon the Spanish bored of the Xaymaca and left it vulnerable to outside attack. And on May 10, 1655, the British did just that and gained control of the island. This new British colony would come to be known as one of the wealthiest and wickedest in the world, with enslaved Africans and sugar production driving the economy.

Approximately 600,000 Africans were brought to Jamaica and enslaved. The colony was notoriously brutal, as was true of most colonies that thrived off of sugar exports. The intense heat and demanding labor required to create sugar, meant many of the enslaved died or were maimed during the processing.

History & Fiction

Two modern characters in the novel trace their ancestors to Jamaican slave society. One is a white woman named Debbie whose great ancestor was a British slave owner on the island. His name was Harold Fowler, and Debbie learns of her dark past through Fowler’s journal. The first entry that she reads sets the stage for the violence he inflicted.

“Caught Maddie stealing honey from the kitchen this morning so I bade Ezra hold her before she could flee and then had him her put in the stocks. I could hear her calling for me during the hottest part of the day as I inspected the cane fields.”

Fowler continues to describe the details of Maddie’s punishment in a matter of fact, and self-satisfied tone. For the minor offense of stealing honey, he has put Maddie in the stocks and made the experience incredibly painful.

“As I sit in my study and write this, I can hear her screams. If I cannot teach her, then the mosquitos, the rats, the fire ants swarming her feet will.”

Maisy Card was inspired to create "Master Fowler" after researching Jamaican slave culture and discovering the journals of real-life figure, Thomas Thistlewood.

"Thomas Thistlewood (1721-1786) was born in Lincolnshire and emigrated to Jamaica in 1750. He began his life there as an overseer of sugar plantations, principally of John Cope’s large Egypt plantation in Westmoreland, and in 1767 purchased his own plantation, Breadnut Island, where his slaves raised provisions and livestock. Thistlewood also pursued scientific and intellectual interests, keeping a detailed weather record and collecting a substantial library. He 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 and lived with her at Breadnut Island; he called her his 'wife' in the will that freed her.

The papers consist of diaries, weather journals, commonplace books, reading notes and other materials documenting Thistlewood’s life, work, and intellectual interests. His 37 diaries contain daily entries dating between 1750 and 1786. Topics include Thistlewood’s work as an overseer, and later owner, of slaves, including his methods of assigning work, allotting provisions, and discipline; his personal and sexual relationships with several slaves, including his lengthy relationship with Phibbah; and slave rebellions and rumors of rebellions, including Tacky’s Revolt (1760). There are also thirty-four annual weather journals containing daily summaries, including precipitation measurements, and diaries from 1764-1767 that contain separate lists of daily Fahrenheit temperatures and rainfall amounts."

Historian, Trevor Burnard, gives an insightful analysis of Thomas Thistlewood's horrific description of life on Jamaican plantations in his text, Mastery, Tyranny, & Desire. Among many other crimes against humanity, Burnard explains that Thistlewood wrote of coercing enslaved women into sex by offering not to punish them in exchange for their bodies. When enslaved men and women would marry, he would force some of the women to have sex with him first, as a sick celebration of their union. The enslaved under his ward had little agency to refuse his advances - and when they did, Thistlewood's punishments were swift and harsh.

Still, no matter how sociopathic he seems, we must remember that Thistlewood was no an anomaly; he was representative of men in his time, with his power.

The other character in the novel to find his roots on this Jamaican plantation is Abe Paisley – great grandson of Abel - who is tracing his family history. But, he is limited. Unlike Debbie, Abe doesn’t have the opportunity to read his ancestors' thoughts in a journal. His traceable ancestors were enslaved, leaving him only newspaper clippings and scatter documents to draw from. At one point, Abe summarizes how little he knows about her - how little history is left.

“The story is short: it begins with a woman getting fed up; it ends with her dying. That year is 1817.”

The woman he references is named Florence. In the novel, she is described by Master Fowler as a fair skinned beauty. But as Abe constructs the Paisley family tree, there is so much he can’t determine, including Florence’s parents. Like most descendants of enslaved people, Abe has incredibly limited documentation to source from. Still, he is determined to make a connection to the past.

“He doesn’t understand why he wants it so badly, for Florence to be his ancestor, his great-grandmother many times over. He feels an inexplicable connection to this woman.”

In a defiant move meant to grant herself emotional freedom, Debbie destroys her ancestor’s journal before it can be fully reviewed and archived by a historian. Although Debbie provides the historian with notes she took from the journal (to ease her guilt for destroying it), the complex details of that history are lost in the words of Master Fowler, are forever lost.

Real Origin Story

In a conversation with the author, Maisy Card described to me that much of her novel is based on people in her real family and memories from her own life. So while the book isn’t factual, it is true in a sense. And in her work, she uses fiction, folklore, and history to bring this truth to life.

These Ghosts Are Family is a complex compilation of stories, bound by familial connection. Bound by ancestry. Although Abel Paisley’s lie has enormous consequence for his descendants, he is a part of a larger system, a larger history. And the most damaging aspect of the Paisley legacy is not deception but bondage. Jamaican slave society and what it did to Florence haunts the family for generations to come.

My hope is that Abe, and those among us tracing our history, can finally lay these ghosts to rest by learning of them and sharing their untold stories.

Check out the episode for more analysis on the history embedded in These Ghosts Are Family. Available on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google Play, and more!

About the Author

Maisy Card

​Maisy Card is a writer and a public librarian. Her writing has appeared in Lenny Letter, School Library Journal, Agni, Sycamore Review, Liars’ League NYC, and Ampersand Review. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

​Maisy was born in St. Catherine, Jamaica, but was raised in Jamaica, New York. Maisy earned an MLIS from Rutgers University and a BA in English and American Studies from Wesleyan University.

(Photo Credit: Marian Calle)


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