Rutherford Calhoun, twenty-two years old and newly freed from slavery by an Illinois farmer on his deathbed, is enjoying life in the wicked city of New Orleans, Louisiana. His former master had educated young Rutherford in the classics and the Bible. However, for Calhoun, freedom means living the dissolute life of a petty thief, gambler, and womanizer. He has run up a debt of fifty thousand francs, owed to a black gangster, Papa Zeringue.
Calhoun has been keeping company with Isadora Bailey, a free black schoolteacher with impeccable morals and ambitions to reform him. She loves him; but he does not have marriage in mind. Zeringue, acting as Isadora’s protector, has agreed to forgive Calhoun’s debts if he will marry her.
The night before the wedding, Calhoun, after an orgy of drinking in a seaside tavern, steals the identity papers of drunken sailor Josiah Squibb, a cook on the ship Republic, and sneaks aboard as a stowaway. When he awakes with a hangover, he discovers that the ship, a wreck constantly needing repair, has a crew of malformed, incompetent misfits. An exception is Peter Cringle, the first mate, who is a New England gentleman. Captain Ebenezer Falcon is a pederast who rapes young Tom, the cabin boy. Squibb is permanently drunk, and Calhoun must take over the galley. He soon confirms his suspicion that the ship is a slaver, bound for Guinea to pick up forty Allmuseri, members of a tribe of mysterious wizards. With the slaves aboard, the Republic begins its homeward journey, the Middle Passage of slaves from Africa to the United States.
Calhoun is highly educated, with a knowledge of Latin, Greek mythology, and philosophers such as Immanuel Kant, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and Saint Thomas Aquinas. He is something of a mystic—homeless and on a quest to discover the truth of his identity. When the ship reaches Africa, he scavenges the cabin of Captain Falcon while the crew is ashore, stealing some money. He is discovered by Falcon but, instead of being punished, is taken into Falcon’s confidence and agrees to spy on the crew. The captain’s cabin is filled with illegal plunder from his other voyages. His latest acquisition is a huge, mysterious crate, installed in the ship’s hold; it terrifies the crew.
As he observes the brutal treatment of the slaves, Calhoun begins to move beyond his self-concern to develop compassion for their plight. He seeks the company of the mysterious Ngonyama, one of the Allmuseri, whom the captain has assigned to oversee the slaves. Ngonyama is silent and cunning, with strange powers such as the ability to carve a roast pig without touching bone, as if he could see the invisible parts of the animal. Calhoun begins to teach him English; he in turn begins to learn the Allmuseri...
(The entire section is 1144 words.)