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Barry Unsworth: Sacred Hunger

On the surface, this is a powerful novel condemning the cruelty of slavery and the slave trade. While it certainly is that, it is much more and fully deserves its reputation as one of the foremost English novels of the late twentieth century.

In the initial part of the book, we follow two stories. In the first we follow a ship being set up in Liverpool for the Guinean slave trade (it is 1752). William Kemp is an apparently well-to-do Liverpool trader. However, as we gradually discover, he has serious financial problems and he is hoping that the slave ship – which will buy slaves on the Guinea Coast, transport them to the West Indies, sell them there and then return with sugar and other goods from the West Indies – will help recoup his fortunes. The ship – the Liverpool Merchant – is captained by Captain Thurso, who is hoping to make his fortune and then retire. Thurso is a tough captain and, while not cruel for its own sake, is not going to let anything stand in the way of his retirement nest egg. The crew vary from hardened hands to young innocents impressed for the voyage (Unsworth gives an excellent portrait of how they are impressed). However, apart from Thurso, the key crew member is Matthew Paris, the ship’s surgeon and Kemp’s nephew. We gradually learn that he is escaping his past – not just his legal past (he has been in prison – for blasphemy as we eventually learn) but also his emotional past, his wife and son having been killed while he was in prison, for which he blames himself. At the same time, we follow the story of Erasmus Kemp, son of William. Erasmus is in business with his father but naively unaware of his father’s impending financial doom, for he is in love. He is in love with Sarah Wolpert, daughter of a local tradesman and, while putting on a play for the sixtieth birthday of Sarah’s father, their love blossoms, till he eventually proposes. Sarah is not yet eighteen and Mr. Wolpert bids them wait, fortuitously (for him) as it turns out.

These two stories are interwoven. We follow the preparations, departure and voyage of the Liverpool Merchant. Thurso enforces a strict discipline aboard and we see plenty of floggings which the kind-hearted Paris can do nothing to stop. The buying of slaves is fraught with problems for Thurso and, when the slaves are bought, many of them, as well as some of the crew, are stricken with disease. The ship cannot move as there is no wind and food and water are running low. Erasmus’ suit with Sarah prospers but then the family is hit by disaster.

That in itself would have given us a pretty fine novel but now we jump ahead. Erasmus Kemp has become a hardened man but a (financially) successful one. He has married – not Sarah but a woman who is rich but whom he hates and who hates him. He is a leading sugar trader. However, the Liverpool Merchant seems to have disappeared. Kemp hears rumours that it has been seen in Florida and, now that the British have taken Florida from the Spanish and are occupying St. Augustine, he sets out to see for himself. Kemp wants to restore his father’s reputation (and property) but also seeks to revenge himself on Paris, whom he has always hated, ever since he was a child. He finds not only the ship but the survivors. We learn that they had mutinied and set up a semi-idyllic multi-racial colony in Florida, where the scarce women are shared, trade begins again and character and not race determines who runs things. Unsworth is realistic enough not to make this colony idyllic. It has its problems and its internal squabbles and, inevitably, some rise to the top and others sink to the bottom. But everyone has their place and it functions fairly well – till Erasmus Kemp shows up. Of course, what this novel really is, is a damnation of capitalism and all its works – how it enslaves men and women, black and white, how love is subject to capitalism, how it controls and brutalises. But it is also a first-class story.

Publishing history

First published 1992 by Hamish Hamilton