is it now impossible to write honestly about British slavery?


As the uprisings progressed, it was impressively nonviolent, with plantation owners and foremen put in storage, but otherwise unharmed. Nonetheless, instead of accepting the hoped-for negotiations, the governor of Demerara declared martial law, assembled a militia and carried out a series of deadly retaliations culminating in the slaughter of over 200 “enslaved abolitionists”, as Harding typically prefers to call. them.

Jack ran away, but was arrested and tried for his life. Soon after, John Smith too, accused of helping to incite rebellion. Neither trial, it is fair to say, was fair. Yet because Harding explains what happened with such romantic flair, turning the pages (but still diligently researched), it would be like a spoiler to reveal more than that.

The lingering problem, however, is that Harding doesn’t leave it there. Her previous history books have drawn on her own family’s past in a successful attempt at emotional resonance. Hanns and Rudolf, for example, vividly described how the commander of Auschwitz was found by the Jewish Nazi hunter Hanns Alexander – who was Harding’s great-uncle. Legacy, his story of the Lyon food business, benefited greatly from the fact that his family owned it.

Here, however, the family ties seem distinctly tenuous and at times rather hopeless. “In the 1920s,” he admits, “my family ran the Trocadero in central London”, where the entertainment included “a dance troupe going blackface”. Not only that, but one of the “Lyon cocoa marketing campaigns used racist cartoons of Africans”, and his grandfather was a friend of Enoch Powell. “Writing about all this, he assures us, makes me deeply uncomfortable. There is also shame.


Comments are closed.