I have again taken a detour from my readings of history, but this time there is a very good excuse and a strong thematic connection so I don't think I need to feel guilty about the diversion. The book I was (and am) reading is Eric Foner's The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, which won the Pulitzer Prize for history this year, and which I will be writing about as soon as I finish.
However I happened to notice that in January there will be a new book by the wonderful British writer of historical fiction Barry Unsworth, called The Quality of Mercy, which is announced as a sequel to his Booker-Prize winning novel of twenty years ago, Sacred Hunger, the subject matter of which is the British slave trade in the middle of the eighteenth century.
I first came to know Unsworth's work with the book Songs of the Kings, which was published in March, 2003, just as the Iraq war was beginning; since it was obviously written well before that I can only account for its relevance to then-current world events as a kind of uncanny prescience on the author's part. For here was a story of the Trojan War, depicting the Greeks as a band of rather grubby marauders out to obtain booty from an eastern kingdom, based on the flimsiest of pretexts; Homer is with them but as he is blind he is fed only such information as the powers that be believe will be helpful to put a positive spin on their endeavors.
Most of the book is taken up in the story of a slave ship which departs Liverpool to pick up its human cargo in Africa and then heads to the New World where the slaves were to be resold, presumably at a huge profit. The money would be spent on various products of the West Indies which would, in turn, be taken back to England and sold for a still greater profit. The ship was owned by William Kemp, a well-established Liverpool businessman, who hoped that this venture would clear him out of a number of difficult financial problems. Kemp's son Erasmus, another major character in the book, worked with his father in the business but was unaware of these problems. A cousin of his, Matthew Paris, was on the journey as the ship's doctor. Paris was something of a free-thinker and proto-Darwinian, who had suffered for his beliefs and regarded the voyage as an escape from his difficult past. The captain of the ship was Thurso, a difficult and crusty sailor on what he intended as his last voyage before retirement.
The reader is made to participate in the entire excruciating process of selecting, examining and buying the slaves (Paris's job was to examine them from a medical standpoint). We meet the entire crew and are made to experience their life on board, which becomes more and more difficult and painful as the human cargo in the hold increases in number. Without meaning to give too much away, I can tell you that the ship never reaches its destination; as a result of the absence of wind for an extended period — these were sail boats — it remained at sea far longer than was intended, there were shortages or food and water, disease was spreading, many died and eventually rebelled against Thurso.
The survivors, both black and white, managed to get to an obscure location in Florida where they created what at least Paris thought would be an ideal community, but with predictably disastrous results. Years later they are found by Erasmus, now the head of the business, seeking to reclaim his "property" and, not incidentally, to get his revenge on his cousin, whom he had always disliked.
Those who read my reviews with any regularity will know that I frequently tend toward edgy fiction of a modernist sort, and Unsworth is certainly far from that. By the same token, he also does not write from the majestic heights of a Tolstoy. He comes across as an ordinary mortal but one with a keenly developed moral sense, trying to come to grips with the utterly inexplicable phenomenon of the wealthiest representatives of the most civilized Christian society engaging in a commerce of the imprisonment and sale of human beings and regarding it as a business, nothing more (Unsworth also does not omit to touch on the displaced Indians in the colony of Florida, tricked out of their land for a few medals showing the image of their great King George). This fact alone destroys whatever hopes Paris placed in the establishment of an ideal community; he learns that the very different manner in which the whites and blacks reached this community will forever mar the notion that they could live there in harmony.
This is a very great book, which at one time might have been described as, among other things, a ripping good yarn. I can't wait for the sequel but in the meantime everyone who hasn't already done so should make the acquaintance of Sacred Hunger.
— Jeremy Nussbaum