When the author Thomas Harding was researching the history of his family he discovered that some of his ancestors had owned enslaved people. This naturally made him very uncomfortable and so he began to research further his family and the people they owned. The result is White Debt which is the story of the uprising of enslaved people who worked on the sugar plantations of Guyana – a country which was then known as Demerara and which produced the strong brown sugar which we still call by that name.
The author choses to tell the story by concentrating on a few key individuals and using their later accounts of what happened to outline the narrative of events. He is careful to remember that these accounts may not always be accurate and he uses other, contemporary material to fill in any blanks. As part of his research into the uprising he also visits Guyana and speaks to the descendants of those involved to learn how the events of the past have impacted on people of today.
The story is told through the eyes of an enslaved man, a white settler who owns a small business, a slaveholder and a missionary preacher. Using the four viewpoints he is able to show why people behaved the way that they did and the assumptions they held about each other. The book then follows the events of 1832 and describes what each of these people did and why they behaved that way. This story also shows us the prejudices and ignorance of people in power and the general public although, in fact, this failed uprising was one of the reasons for the eventual abolition of slavery.
The author also shows us his personal feelings about what he learns. He finds himself very moved by the injustices of the nineteenth century and the lengths that enslaved people were prepared to go to in order to gain their freedom. He finds himself angered by the residual poverty of the descendants of the enslaved people while the descendants of the owners of these people are comparatively wealthy. He has opinions about the necessity and possible difficulties of paying reparations.
This is a well written book which presents the facts of a little known uprising and some very desperate people. It left me with lots to think about in a way that isn’t preachy but is informative. I am glad that I read it.
I have read a few books recently about the slave trade and its effects and I recommend Mr Atkinson’s Rum Contract which is also about someone finding out about his slave owning ancestors (you can read my review here).