White Debt by Thomas Harding

Review by Liz Dexter

As a child, I was taught that Britain had been the first nation to abolish slavery, that the effort had been led by the politician William Wilberforce, that we were the ‘good guys’, the great emancipators. I began reading articles and books and was quickly shocked at how little I knew. That it had been British captains commanding British boats operated by British sailors who had transported around 2.8 million captive Africans to the British Caribbean. That it was British families who owned plantations in the Caribbean run by British managers and overseers where hundreds and thousands of enslaved men, women and children were forced to work and die. That it had been British businesses that had transported the cotton, tobacco, sugar and other crops cultivated by the enslaved people to the consumers back in Britain.

Thomas Harding is an established author whose last book studied the fortunes of the Lyons Tea Houses. When he realised that his maternal ancestors had made money from slave plantations, he decided to find out more about Britain’s role in slavery – not just as the abolisher, which he’d learnt at school, but as an instigator and prime mover in the trade and ‘ownership’ of people. He picked on the slave uprising in Demerara as an example he could present in full, as good records survive of the event, including contemporary accounts in the newspapers and the personal papers of people who were involved. He weaves these together with his own account of the research and writing of the book to make a fascinating and accomplished whole, hard to read in many parts (of course) but necessary at the same time.

The first thing to note about this book is the author’s care. As a White man writing about Black enslaved people’s lives, as well as the White people who ‘owned’ them or worked in various capacities in Demerara (now Guyana), he is aware of his difference and privilege. Starting from the Author’s Note, where he explains his use of terms, he also puts words like ‘owned’ in inverted commas (something I’ve followed in this review, out of respect) and searches his half-written book to change ‘rebels’ into ‘(enslaved) abolitionists’. He makes sure to talk to and attribute quotes to Guyanese activists, historians and political scientists rather than use their work but claim it for himself, as others have done in the past. He goes as far as to commission new portraits of the leaders of the uprising from Guyanese artists in the UK and Guyana, when he realises, when he wants to add illustrations, that of course none exist except of the White men who were on the other side (he is also missing a portrait of Jane Smith, wife of the missionary John Smith who was accused of fomenting rebellion and killed by the process, so commissions a pencil portrait of her). 

In addition to all this care and attention, he also interleaves the chapters of straight history, well-done in themselves, with shorter chapters about the process of writing the book, from discussions he had with cousins about the legacy of slavery in their family to meetings with activists and the descendants of enslaved people in Guyana. This running commentary is often moving and builds the impression of his sincerity and decency; it also allows him to discuss the contentious topic of reparations, given that the only reparations to come out of the slave trade and its subsequent activities was money given to slaveholders who had had their ‘property’ removed from them. 

Opening with the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol, he moves to his inspiration for researching and writing this book: the fact that he found when researching his last book that his mother’s family had made money from the slave trade. Interestingly, this was at a time when he was also working in Germany on a lake house that the Nazis had taken from his father’s Jewish family, after receiving money from the German Government as a “token of restitution” for the loss of his relatives in the Holocaust. If he took one kind of reparation, he needed to then consider and understand Britain’s role in slavery and the idea of reparations in that context. He takes his responsibilities seriously. White Debt is the cultural debt “acknowledging and apologising for the horror that was British slavery” – a financial debt, a debt of gratitude for the freedom fighters who won liberty for all from slavery. It’s not only White people but they (we) have an additional or special responsibility. He issues his own apology for the actions of his family, straightforwardly, and shares examples of reparations made in America and the call for reparations from CARICOM, the Caribbean Community organisation, as well as what his own family has gathered together to do. 

He doesn’t centre his experience as the most important aspect of the book, but tells the story of the uprising and the story of how he writes about it. All the details are drawn from contemporary accounts, well-referenced and explained – including the crucial initial detail that when the trans-Atlantic slave trade was prohibited, it was still permitted to transfer enslaved people between British colonies, and the fact that there were many British colonies that used enslaved people, as well as the better-known American plantations. Using records about and by John Smith, the enslaved man Jack Gladstone, the politician and slaveholder John Gladstone (who owned the plantation where Jack lives) and John Cheveley, who went out to work in a shop, was hesitant about committing violent acts and came home and wrote a memoir, Harding puts together a comprehensive historical document, recording in (sometimes horrific) detail the background, uprising, trial and outcomes. 

Harding is also good on the shifts of public opinion that were manipulated or happened around the suppression of the uprising, with John Gladstone working from political expediency but the turn of public opinion moving in favour of the innocent John Smith and the enslaved abolitionists. He makes a compelling argument for this marking a turn in the tide of anti-slavery work and the move to outlaw slavery. The epilogue explains what happened to the remaining characters of the story in the aftermath of the uprising, bringing a good clear arc to the story. 

Endnotes (we will forgive Harding using the method of quoting a chunk of text in the actual endnotes rather than breaking up the story with numbers), a good bibliography and an index are added to the illustrations of notable characters and events that were illustrated at the time, a set of maps of Demerara and the plantations involved, and a list of what happened to all the abolitionists ensure this is a useful academic history work as well as a readable account. A highly recommended and worthwhile book with interesting things to say about reparations and the legacy of empire and slavery. 

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Liz Dexter blogs about reading, running and working from home at http://www.librofulltime.wordpress.com

Thomas Harding, White Debt: The Demerara Uprising and Britain’s Legacy of Slavery (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2021). ‎ 978-1474621045, 300pp., hardback, ill.

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