Sacred Hunger, by Barry Unsworth

Again, a book sat on the shelf for a long time, and I kept avoiding it. Because it is about the terrors of a slave ship, the horror of kidnapping the blacks of Africa and transporting them for profit to the West Indies. Who wants to read that? Who wants to know the details of that brutal voyage?

But, surprise, surprise, that is not what this 1992 novel is about. It is about greed, the drive for profit, the sacred hunger of the title. Yes, there are the details of the brutality on board a slave ship, but it comprises only a quarter to a third of this book. The rest is about two cousins, Erasmus Kemp and Matthew Paris. Erasmus hates Matthew because when a boy Matthew picked him up and carried him away from a miniature dam he was building. Erasmus didn’t understand that Matthew was saving him from being swamped by a surge of water, just as he does not understand others as a grown man—beginning with Sarah, to whom he proposes and imperiously assumes her consent.

As the real story starts, Matthew has been unjustly disgraced; he has written “blasphemies,” such as supporting Darwin. And he has lost his wife, for whose death he blames himself. So, to escape a sense of guilt, he signs on to a slave ship, Liverpool Merchant, leaving England, a ship that is owned by his uncle, Erasmus’ father. The captain of the ship, Thurso, is a brutal taskmaster and a vital character in his every scene. Resenting Matthew’s relation to the owner, he makes his shipboard life doubly hard.

The heart of this book is the contrasting portraits of Erasmus and Matthew. Erasmus is full of himself, distorts every motivation to his own benefit, and is blind to reality. The reader recognizes this from his early dealings with Sarah. But while she sees through him, others do not. And Matthew, who has not dealt with him for years, does not realize that Erasmus still remembers their affair on the beach, and is intent on revenge. And, indeed, Erasmus sees the perfect opportunity when he learns of the fate of the slave ship Liverpool Merchant; he will see that Matthew is hanged for mutiny and murder.

Meanwhile, we have followed Matthew aboard the ship. As a doctor, he cares equally for the crew and the slaves below deck. Through his journal, we come to understand he is a just man, not worthy of Erasmus’ resentment. This pursuit of justice culminates with a small community he helps build on the shore at Florida following the sinking of the slave ship. It is a community of equals, whether white survivors from the crew or the black slaves. Together, they live under a fair administration of justice, including the sharing of women by the men who far outnumber them. It is a community that lasts a decade, with no awareness of Erasmus and the English justice waiting in the wings.

These are the story details, but more significant is this portrait of mercantile life in the 1750s and 1760s. The priorities, the selfish motivations, the duel between fairness vs. justice, the cutthroat dealings, the physical brutality, the greed, the role of influence, etc.—all enrich that portrait. And on a more practical level, this novel puts the reader in bars and whorehouses as a crew is “recruited” by force, then on the deck of a rolling ship in the Atlantic as cruelties abound in the name of discipline, then below in the filthy hold with the slaves, and, finally, prowling the jungles of Africa and, later, Florida.

Unsworth himself commented on the choice of his theme in a 1992 interview. “It was impossible to live in the [19] Eighties without being affected by the sanctification of greed. My image of the slave ship was based on the desire to find the perfect symbol for that entrepreneurial spirit. The arguments used to justify it [then] are the same used now to justify the closure of these pits and the throwing out of work of all these miners. I used the term ‘wealth creation’ deliberately. I knew it was anachronistic.”

And not to be overlooked is the large cast of believable characters that populated that life of greed, ranging from English capitalists to angry sailors to despairing slaves. Some live for the moment, some for the long term. Some think only of themselves, some of others. Some are brave and confident, some afraid. Some relate to others and learn how to survive, some do not. Some seek to dominate, some to get along, and some to help the unfortunate. Each one is distinctive, and alive on these pages.

The finale of the novel is written to be inevitable, given the violence of those distant times. And the final confrontation between Erasmus and Matthew does work. But the fate of Matthew, for me, does not. It reflects too much an author’s choice, an author’s denial of the justice he has created, an author’s attempt to create for the reader a “justice” he can be comfortable with. In addition, Unsworth shows Erasmus reaching a self-understanding at the end that seems too brief, too tidy. and is barely credible.

A review in the Manchester Guardian sums up the novel’s qualities.  “It’s a cracking adventure story. It isn’t pleasant – slavery is a disgusting business – but there are rewards. The story moves at a smart pace, the cast is huge and colorful, and there’s enough detail to make us feel we are breathing in the salt air, the scent of the ship’s timbers and the claustrophobic stink of the slave’s quarters – but not so much that it smells of the lamp. Above all, there is fine writing. As with the period details, Unsworth’s prose has enough 18th-century inflections to create the right mood, but not so many that it feels laboured.”

This work has to be the highlight of Unsworth’s literary career. It has breadth, it has power, and it has strong emotions. One marvels at the research into that era’s shipboard life, the inhuman treatment of the enslaved, the primitive level of medicine, and the daily environment of that distant era.

I need to catch up on more of Unsworth’s work. It has the broad vision I seek, and yet a concern for individual souls. There is a philosophy of life, a sense of humanity, that underlies the surface action. (April, 2013)

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