White Debt, by Thomas Harding

Camilla Bolton

An evocative insight into the role of British slavery in Guyana in the nineteenth century.
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Thomas Harding White Debt focuses on the vital case of the Demerara Uprising in 1823, Guyana, which has been largely underrepresented in historiography. Told from the viewpoint of four very different, but essential protagonists in the Demerara Uprising, Harding’s narrative demonstrates the power of primary sources to induce a distinctive historical outline.

We are firstly introduced to Jack Gladstone, arguably the central character and the leader of the Uprising at Success Plantation in Demerara.  Secondly, we are introduced to John Smith, a London missionary who arrives in Demerara, providing religious freedom for over 6,000 of his congregation at Bethel Chapel as he reveals that he ‘abhors slavery’. Thirdly we are introduced to John Cheveley. After his once affluent family loses their fortune in Essex, he is unemployed and looking for a fresh start, he arrives in Demerara and works as a store clerk and unbeknown to him is coerced to join the militia. Cheveley later takes part in supressing the insurrection of Demerara, fighting against Jack Gladstone. Lastly, John Gladstone is the last and perhaps most integral part of the narrative. He is a prominent politician as well as economically benefitting greatly from being a slaveholder, owning land and ‘owning’ people. Harding has successfully tied all of these different lines of narrative together to result in a moving and consistent trajectory in White Debt.

Furthermore, at the end of each chapter, Harding has included an account of parts of his research method for this novel. This proves insightful and complements each chapter’s subject matter aptly. At the end of chapter nine, Harding confesses his struggle with the correct terminology to use for the revolutionaries, abolitionists, demonstrators or rebels that took part in the Demerara Uprising. He conducts a thought experiment, comparing the following sentences: “British militia shot two hundred rebels” and “British militia shot two hundred abolitionists”. Harding explains, as the reader simultaneously realises, that we are much more sympathetic to the second sentence. Terminology is indescribably important when writing, but it also allowed Harding to reflect that “as a white man who grew up in Britain, I am struck by the dramatic difference in my responses”; there is no such thing as objectivity when reading a piece of history and it is essential that this does not go unnoticed.

Harding invites the reader to understand how, as a white member of British society, people have personally benefitted from British slavery in one way or the other. How can an individual engage in amending this atrocity that is prevalent in current society? One way, Harding notes, is through reparations. Towards the end of the novel, Harding recalls meeting Eric Phillips, the chairman of the Guyana Reparations Commission. The most common argument against providing reparations would be ‘why should I care about something that happened hundreds of years ago?’. To which, Eric Phillips concisely shuts down in a poignant thought: “I can understand that question, because they have their own problems and struggles…but the society they live in, the society that they are benefitting from…has a historical platform…it has created a global hierarchy of race that impacts everything we do, from the pandemic to debt relief.”

Affronted with our collective amnesia, we are reminded that the legacy of British slavery is still very much alive.

White Debt: The Demerara Uprising & Britain’s Legacy of Slavery by Thomas Harding is out now.

Camilla Bolton is an Assistant Editor at Aspects of History.