"We need to acknowledge and take responsibility for White Debt.” Over the past decade, Thomas Harding has written a series of enthralling narrative non-fiction books—including The House by the Lake, shortlisted for the Costa Biography Award, and Hans & Rudolf, which won the JQ-Wingate Prize for Non-Fiction—which employ aspects of his own family story to illuminate wider sweeps of modern history.
In his latest book, White Debt: The Demerara Uprising and Britain’s Legacy of Slavery (W&N), he turns to historical events with which his family were only tangentially connected. But his riveting re-telling of the story of the slave revolt of 1823, in the former British colony of Demerara-Essequibo (now the South American nation of Guyana), enables him to confront the ways in which his own ancestors profited from the slave trade and, in the process, interrogate and challenge our received perspectives on slavery and colonialism.
Harding felt compelled to write about slavery after researching Legacy, his most recent book, which charts how his maternal Jewish forebears escaped the pogroms of Eastern Europe and settled in Whitechapel in London’s East End. They established a small tobacco factory that quickly grew to become the largest catering company in the world: J Lyons. “I found myself wondering: ‘Where did the tobacco come from?’ And I discovered that it almost certainly came from North America, and from plantations worked by enslaved people,” Harding tells me via Zoom from his home in Hampshire.
As he continued his investigations, Harding found himself shocked by how little he knew about British involvement in slavery. “I was profoundly embarrassed by my lack of knowledge. I spent 10 years living in the US, including in West Virginia, and if you had asked me what I knew about plantations, I’d have thought you were talking about the Deep South of the US, as depicted in ‘Gone With the Wind’ or ‘12 Years a Slave’. The plantations of the British Caribbean would never have occurred to me. And because I was brought up in Britain, I decided it was British slavery I needed to write about.” While looking for a way into the story that would place enslaved people at the centre of the narrative, Harding read the few existing memoirs of former slaves, and accounts of slave rebellions. “And then I came across the Demerara rebellion. I had no idea Demerara was even a place—I just thought it was a type of sugar”.
It was across the sugar plantations of Demerara in 1823 that an uprising took place among the 77,000 people enslaved there. Starting on a plantation called Success, the rebellion quickly spread, before being brutally crushed by the British colonial militia. Harding tells the story from the viewpoints of four men: John Gladstone, father of four-time prime minister William Gladstone, a Liverpool merchant and one of Britain’s largest slaveowners, who was greatly enriched by the profits from several Demerara plantations, including Success; John Smith, a young British missionary sent to Demerara, who abhorred slavery; eyewitness to the uprising John Chieveley, a young white British man who hoped to better his prospects by taking a clerkship in a general store in Georgetown, the capital of Demerara; and at the centre of it all, Jack Gladstone, a slave from Success plantation (named for his owner) who led the uprising with his father Quamima.
Harding shows how the Demerara insurrection led directly to the revival in Britain of the abolition debate which had lapsed after the 1807 act passed to abolish the trade in slaves, but not the right to own them. And he demonstrates how the courage of the enslaved Demerara freedom fighters became a key factor in the abolition of slavery across the British Empire, by helping finally to change public opinion when the appalling details of their treatment became widely known. The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 heralded an end to plantation slavery in most British colonies, freeing more than 800,000 enslaved Africans, including those in Demerara-Essequibo.
Harding’s wide-ranging research for White Debt was aided by the existence of valuable archives both in the UK and US, including the slave registers held in the National Archives in London, where he found the names of both Jack Gladstone and Quamima. “Seeing their names inscribed in these huge, red, leather-bound registers had an overwhelming emotional effect on me,” Harding says. He also drew on the court records of the trials that followed the uprising’s brutal suppression by the colonial militia, which enabled him to read the testimonies of those directly involved. “I was so fortunate to be able to do that because it’s incredibly rare to hear the voices of enslaved people.”
Harding also managed to travel to Guyana via the US (he has an American passport) between the 2020 lockdowns, with the consent of the Guyanese government. There he walked the land formerly worked by slaves, and talked to local historians and to the descendants of enslaved people, finding the legacy of slavery “very much alive”. He points out that the present-day descendants of slaves do not have the privilege of delving in the archives to discover their family history, as he is able to do. “Where do I come from? Who were my great-grandparents? These questions are hard to answer if you’re from Guyana and of African heritage, because your lineage has been broken, your history is truncated. That has a profound impact, people there told me, on their confidence and their identity and their self-belief.”
The historical chapters in White Debt are interspersed with such present-day reportage, along with Harding’s reflections as he begins to acknowledge the weight of his own family connections to slavery. Did he at any point question his right to tell the story of enslaved Africans? “I thought about it a lot and I felt a particular responsibility because of my own family story. I’ve tried my best to be respectful and sensitive and I’ve also tried to acknowledge the perspectives of other historians and researchers who have talked and written about the Demerara uprising. But ultimately I think it’s important for white people to write about slavery and acknowledge how much they have benefited, and continue to benefit from it.”
Lessons from history
While Harding is careful to avoid drawing inappropriate parallels between the treatment of those enslaved by the British to that of the Jews during the Holocaust, his intimate knowledge of his own family history has also given him some insights into intergenerational trauma, and empathy as to how the legacy of slavery might be experienced by the descendants of African slaves alive today. “There is no question that the trauma of Nazi Germany impacts me in a very real way; in terms of anxiety, fear, hyper-vigilance, of wanting to keep my head below the parapet and not causing a fuss. The Holocaust is more recent than the slave trade, but not much more so. Historically, it’s the same ballpark”.
Yet while the Holocaust is a fixture on the National Curriculum in state schools, the history of British slavery is not. Why does he think some white British people are still so reluctant to engage in any meaningful way with the legacy of slavery? “I genuinely don’t understand what the fear is. To me the fact that history is fluid and ever evolving is both interesting and exciting, and we need to embrace that. And while the question of how we might repay our White Debt to the descendants of slaves and make reparations means having some difficult conversations, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be having them.”
This is the story of everyday industrialised cruelty and damaging legacies that still devastate the lives of the descendants of enslaved Africans, despite the ending of slavery almost two hundred years ago. It is the story of a group of people, almost entirely white, who benefited from this system of slavery and whose wealth, both economic and cultural, continues to be enjoyed today. It is the story of courage, of a small group of people who, out of sight of empire, increased freedom not just for themselves, but for all humanity. And it is an attempt to answer the question: what is the impact today of Britain’s historical involvement in slavery and what, if anything, should we do about it?