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John Hearne: The Sure Salvation

Hearne’s last novel only had limited success and while it is certainly interesting, it is not a great novel. The novel starts on a British clipper ship, ironically called The Sure Salvation, sometime in the mid 19th century. The ship is becalmed in the Atlantic Ocean. It is also very hot. It is naturally very frustrating for the crew. As we learn it is particularly frustrating because of their cargo – 475 slaves to be sold at 100 guineas a piece in Brazil. The slave cargo is illegal as the period is well after the slave trade (but not slavery) had been banned internationally. It was also a criminal offence for British ships to carry slaves.

As there is not a great deal to keep the action going when a ship is becalmed, much of the novel is about the various people on the ship and how they got to be where they are. The Captain is William Hogarth, who comes from a well-to-do family. He makes an alliance with two other men to set up a company to rival the East India Company. However, he falls for the daughter of one of the tenant farmers of one of the partners. While considered a respectable lady, she is not suitable as a wife for Hogarth. To make matters worse, she becomes pregnant. Hogarth is away at the time and her letters to him are unanswered (we see this both from his and her perspective). She has a miscarriage but he arrives shortly afterwards and agrees to marry her. She agrees to marry him but, as she puts it, not to be his wife. He agrees but his career with his partners is finished, hence his aim to make some easy money carrying illegal slaves.

We learn about some of the slaves, who cannot accept the fact that they are slaves, as well as about some of the crew. However, the most interesting is Alex, who is nominally the cook. Alex is black and a freed American slave. He has hustled his way onto the ship as the cook (obviously blacks were generally only very low ranking or slaves). He did this by showing the Captain he could save him money and get better quality food for the crew. Once aboard he soon gets a more important role, helping the Captain with the slaves and even giving him advice on how to run the ship. We soon realise that he is not all that he seems and that he has an ulterior motive. This motive becomes clear at the end and has its own twist.

It certainly is not a bad book but really what Alex is up to is only the real point of interest and we soon guess what that might be. The previous lives of the crew and the slaves, frankly, are not terribly exciting. Premarital sex, even in 19th century England, and the relatively free life of the Africans before being enslaved, have been covered in many other books and Hearne does not have anything original to say on the topics. And being becalmed in the mid-Atlantic with a cargo of slaves is unlikely to hold an audience for long.

Publishing history

First published by Faber & Faber in 1981