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TThe word Demerara probably doesn’t mean anything to you other than the name of a coarse-grained golden brown sugar. But Demerara is a place, or he was. Part of what is known today as Guyana, Demerara was a British territory rich in sugar cane plantations. It was one of the most lucrative colonies, owing to the high yield from the land and the high productivity of the slaves who worked there, productivity extracted by exceptional brutality. The slaves outnumbered the white settlers considerably, so it was believed that their treatment must be particularly harsh, in order not to encourage rebellion. It happened 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 non-fictional narrative work, it is an attempt to illustrate that Britain needs to recognize the “white debt”, how much of its greatness it owes to the exploitation of enslaved people.

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

Harding understands how much of Britain’s history is skewed towards narratives that portray her as the righteous protagonist of the slavery narrative, as the real protagonists, the slaves themselves, were never at the center. of their own stories. He corrects this by carefully researching the Demerara Slave characters and paying attention to how they are portrayed. It replaces “slave” with “male and female slaves”, as well as putting in quotes all property markers – “bought”, “owned”, “owned”. Those who participated in the uprising he calls “abolitionists” – the term “rebels” implies that they were challenging a legitimate system. The effect is striking, showing that slavery was not just what things were, but an everyday aberration in which one class actively suppressed another. With these small but thoughtful editions, Harding offers a masterclass on how history writers can take an active role, for better or for worse, in how these moral questions are framed.

The story of the uprising itself centers on its participants, their shattered bodies and shattered dreams, their domestic life and their hopes for emancipation. As the uprising surges and then is violently quelled, I found myself wondering: why was I not in the know? Why do we know so well (as Harding himself observes) the dragging accent of the American slave owner and the caricatures of slavery in films such as Django Unchained, but not the sheer number of British characters?

The answer is, these are the characters who made British history. And through slavery, they accumulated such wealth and influence that, like John Gladstone, Demerara’s greatest slave “owner” and a staunch anti-abolitionist, they managed to launch themselves out from there. relatively modest beginnings in the ranks of the land nobility and the political aristocracy. Gladstone’s fortune from slavery sent his sons to Eton, and one of them was Prime Minister William Gladstone.

The White Debt is written sparingly – there are no moralizing lectures on the evils of slavery or retribution from the British establishment for promoting a false version of history. Harding almost apologizes in his pleas to consider reparations, which he believes are due both in financial terms and as a formal recognition of the injustices of slavery. But the book is nonetheless infuriating for its wealth of information that should be but is not common knowledge, buried under the propaganda celebrating Britain’s abolition of the transatlantic slave trade. The uprising occurred after this abolition, because despite the fact that the British parliament passed a law in 1807 prohibiting the Atlantic slave trade, the transport and sale of enslaved people between the British colonies was still permitted and Demerara is become a flourishing market.

Harding argues that the Demerara uprising played a larger role than given in changing British attitudes towards slavery. But more broadly, the laundering of the violent repression of the uprising at the time, in the British press and parliament, seems disgustingly topical. White debt is full of details that will set you back. Michael M’Turk, one of Demerara’s most brutal slave “owners”, who executed one of the abolitionists during the uprisings and hanged his body as a warning to others, cleverly anticipated the moment. where the tide against slavery would turn. He presented false testimonies of his caring for Queen Victoria’s slaves and managed to secure a knight’s title and a place in the history books as a person on the right side of history. In his actions, there is no more appropriate metaphor for the country as a whole. Britain not only erased its own record of brutality against slaves, it presented itself as their savior.

White Debt by Thomas Harding is published by W&N (£ 20, Australia $ 32.99). To support The Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.

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