White Debt by Thomas Harding review – the history they didn’t want you to know

A brilliant account of the Demerara uprising, a key piece of the jigsaw puzzle that is Britain’s relationship to slavery

The word Demerara probably means nothing to you, other than being the name of a large-grained golden brown sugar. But Demerara is a place, or it was. Part of what is now called Guyana, Demerara was a British territory rich in sugar plantations. It was one of the most lucrative colonies, owing to the high yield of the land and high productivity of the enslaved people who worked on it, productivity extracted via exceptional brutality. The enslaved outnumbered the white colonists significantly, so it was thought that their treatment needed to be particularly harsh, so as not to encourage rebellion. That came anyway, in 1823. Thomas Harding tells the story of one of the lesser known uprisings of the colonial era, but his book is not just a work of narrative nonfiction, it is an attempt to illustrate that Britain needs to acknowledge the country’s “white debt”, how much of its greatness it owes to the exploitation of enslaved people.

For Harding, it’s personal. His ancestors, through trade in tobacco and other commodities grown on plantations, benefited from slavery. But Harding is also Jewish, and descended from Germans who either perished in the Holocaust or were forced to flee and had their property stolen. Harding received a sum in restitution from the German government, and these reparations compelled him to examine the other part of his family’s legacy. “If I was willing to identify as a victim in my father’s family, to receive reparations from the German government, then surely I had better understand Britain’s role in slavery,” he writes.

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