White Debt by Thomas Harding, review: is honest writing about British slavery now sadly impossible?

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As uprisings go, it was impressively non-violent, with plantation owners and overseers put in stocks, but otherwise left unharmed. Nonetheless, instead of agreeing to the hoped-for negotiations, the governor of Demerara declared martial law, gathered a militia and carried out a series of murderous reprisals culminating in the massacre of more than 200 “enslaved abolitionists”, as Harding characteristically prefers to call them.

Jack went on the run, but was arrested and put on trial for his life. Not long afterwards, so too was John Smith, charged with helping to incite the rebellion. Neither trial, it’s fair to say, was a just one. Yet, because Harding lays out what happened with such novelistic, page-turning (but still assiduously researched) flair, it would feel like a spoiler to reveal any more than that.

The continuing trouble, though, is that Harding doesn’t leave it there. His previous books of history have drawn on his own family’s past in a successful bid for emotional resonance. Hanns and Rudolf, for example, vividly described how the commandant of Auschwitz was tracked down by the Jewish Nazi hunter Hanns Alexander – who was Harding’s great-uncle. Legacy, his history of the Lyons food business, benefited greatly from the fact that his family had owned it.

Here, however, the family connections feel distinctly tenuous, and at times rather desperate. “In the 1920s,” he confesses, “my family ran the Trocadero in central London”, where the entertainment included “a dance troupe who put on blackface”. Not only that, but one of Lyons’ “marketing campaigns for cocoa used racist caricatures of Africans”, and his grandad was a friend of Enoch Powell’s. “Writing about all this,” he assures us, “makes me deeply uncomfortable. There’s also shame.”

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