Barry Unsworth’s novel Sacred Hunger, which shared the 1992 Booker Prize with Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, opens with the building of a ship, the Liverpool Merchant, in the Liverpool of 1752. The ship will be used to ply the so-called triangular trade, “cheap trade goods to Africa for the purchase of negroes, these then carried to America or the West Indies and sold there; rum and tobacco and sugar bought with the proceeds and resold in England.” There are these three rounds of profit to be made by the ship’s owner, William Kemp. Such is the grand sweep of the book’s canvas, and Unsworth takes the reader immediately into detail.
Kemp is a man who likes to show his knowledge of the craft of shipmaking to the craftsmen he employs. A thousand oak trees are used to make the ship, and the heart of each one must be tested to avoid rotten wood, which is signaled by veins of dried pith. The great cloth sails must be lined at the leeches and, some would say, at the bunts. The hull is crafted to withstand the sea, the sails to capture and tame the wind. Throughout the book, Unsworth’s recounting of detail draws his reader vividly into the time and place in which the great drama is set.
Kemp’s nephew, Matthew Paris, will travel on board as ship’s doctor, to promote, as he puts it, the “general well-being” of the slaves. Kemp has hired him because the well-being of the slaves will translate into increased profit. His nephew has accepted the office because he was only recently released from prison—where he served a term for defending the theory of evolution—and feels degraded. Working as ship’s doctor on a slave ship, he believes, is somehow a fitting way to cauterize the past and put it behind him. His intention to care for the well-being of the slaves is not motivated by concern for profit. His uncle offers him a bonus of three slaves in addition to his other wages; it is not an offer that Paris acknowledges with any delight.
Captain Thurso, an experienced and choleric seafarer, will command the ship. He will tolerate no distractions and has little concern for a surgeon intent on the well-being of cargo. His own profit will come not only from the trading he does on Kemp’s behalf, but also from a personal and secretive side trade in gold dust.
Kemp’s son, Erasmus, already hates Matthew Paris for the disgrace he has brought on the family by his imprisonment and for an earlier perceived insult to Erasmus. His obsession with commercial empire-building will, as his father’s empire crumbles and the old man finally kills himself, bring Erasmus into conflict with Paris’ more humane and enlightened views.
The stage thus is set. Work on the Liverpool Merchant is finally completed, the figurehead—a duchess in regal clothes (but with bared breasts) representing commerce—is affixed to the prow, and the ship is launched. The press-gangs go out into the taverns and hovels to find able-bodied men to press into service. Their method is to get a man drunk and pick his pockets. When the barkeep demands payment and threatens prison, the press-gang pays for his drinks and signs him up for the ship. This is another form of slavery.
As the Liverpool Merchant sails, Unsworth’s attention to detail reminds readers of the moral gravity of what is to be undertaken: “whips, thumbscrews, branding irons and a quantity of manacles, fetters, chains and padlocks, all of good substance and well wrought” are among the items with which the ship is stocked. The ship’s officers are appropriate to the task: “We got a flogger for a bosun an’ a hound for a mate an’ the divil for a skipper,” one of the deckhands observes.
The first time that a deckhand is flogged with the cat-o’-nine-tails marks the opening skirmish in the inevitable struggle between the brutal Captain Thurso and the enlightened and humane Matthew Paris. Thurso is pleased, however: He enjoys a test of wills, and the flogging has served another purpose. As an experienced mariner, he knows that the cat whistling through the air onto a man’s back calls up an answering response from the heavens. The stiff breeze that now suddenly fills his sails comes as no surprise to him. As always that first flogging has “freed the wind.” The voyage has begun in earnest.
Back in England, Erasmus is playing Ferdinand to Sarah Wolpert’s Miranda in the rehearsals of a play: not The Tempest, however, but a rewriting of it, The Enchanted Island, that has turned William Shakespeare’s “indifferent” drama into a work of “genius.” This gives Erasmus the opportunity to spend some time with Sarah, the girl he loves and hopes to marry.
Paris takes solace during the long sea voyage in reading William Harvey’s recent essay describing his discovery of the circulation of the...
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