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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1988

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.

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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 blood. Soon, the Liverpool Merchant reaches the coast of Africa, and the first slaves are brought aboard for medical examination and purchase. One slave is rejected because “You can’t get any sort of price for a drop-breast woman,” another because he has yaws, a disease not unlike syphilis, a third because he is perhaps nine or ten years old, and “they needs extra lookin’ after an’ then generally dies anyway.”

The first slave is purchased for “six brass kettles, two cabers of cowries, four silver-laced cocked hats, twenty-five looking glasses and an anker of brandy,” with a bonus of six folding knives and a plumed hat to show good will. It is the market value of a man’s life, and it will multiply by the time the slaves are sold again in the West Indies: Fifty pounds is the price of a prime slave in Kingston. “I will not have the negroes damaged,” declares Captain Thurso, a man who cares about his cargo. He will tolerate no fornication with the female slaves, either, “hot little bitches” though they may be. “A girl still intact is worth a good ten guineas more in Jamaica.” Captain Thurso will keep a clean ship while he lives.

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There is an awful logic to all of this. Paris has the beginnings of those sympathies that will later flower among the abolitionists and come to fruition in the Civil Rights movement. He is ahead of his times, however, and what will become matters of principle are for him still only vague sensibilities. The awful logic—the profit to be made in slaves brought to market, the need for a captain to run a tight ship without mutiny—is all too clear to him. He is also a man of his times.

“Money is sacred, as everyone knows,” says Delblanc, a French painter staying at the local Governor’s Fort, to Paris, not without irony. “So then must be the hunger for it and the means we use to obtain it.” Delblanc’s speech forms the heart of the book and the source of its title, Sacred Hunger. “Once a man is in debt he becomes a flesh and blood form of money, a walking investment. You can do what you like with him, you can work him to death or you can sell him.” It is the logic of the times at its clearest—the logic that commandeers the slaves and the logic that press-gangs free Englishmen into service aboard the slave ship. “This cannot be called cruelty or greed,” Delblanc concludes, “because we are seeking only to recover our investment and that is a sacred duty.”

Delblanc joins ship, and the Liverpool Merchant sets sail for the West Indies. It is a rough voyage, at times becalmed in the doldrums, at times driven by heavy squalls. Scurvy, fever, and dysentery set in among crew and slaves alike. Thurso takes drastic action and throws the sick slaves overboard to preserve the health of the others.

Paris, however, can no longer bear the infernal logic. He objects to this senseless slaughter of the slaves. A mutiny ensues, Thurso is killed, and the crew brings the ship to the East Florida coast and beaches it. They land and live in the wilderness among the untamed Indians as an unofficial and indeed secret colony, slaves and free men, “white men and black men living together with no chief,” with Paris as their medicine man or physician.

Twelve years have passed by the time Erasmus hears this story. His father’s suicide just before Erasmus’ engagement to Sarah was to be announced, the debts he swore to pay to clear his father’s name, and his loss of Sarah’s hand as a consequence all have embittered him. He is now a prosperous merchant in sugar and will have his revenge on Paris as a mutineer and as his lifelong nemesis. He sails for Florida.

While waiting for a party of men to lead against the mutinous colony, Erasmus takes part in a peace conference with the local Indians. He learns in passing of the bounties offered for scalps, one of the devices used by the British crown agents in Florida to divide the Indians in order to conquer them. It is another in the book’s litany of injustices that are made sacred by the requirements of profit.

The sacred hunger is on Erasmus Kemp also, as he explores the feasibility of providing the capital to establish a Florida land company. This will tap the immense wealth that is bound to result when the treaty under negotiation with the Indians makes huge tracts of new land available for settlement. Once the treaty is signed, he can be about his business. He can find the mutineers and their descendants and sell them into slavery, at profit both to himself and to the British soldiers who accompany him.

The colony, meanwhile, has existed for twelve years in a kind of easy dignity, not without disagreements or fights, but with a tolerance that both allows and controls them. Food gathering, lovemaking, fishing, pearl hunting, the birth of children, an occasional outbreak of witchcraft or jealousy, the playing of Irish tunes on an old violin—each takes its place in the soft rhythm of communal life. This is a community and a life that was founded on mutiny and death, and the children inevitably remember this in their games.

The stage is set for Erasmus Kemp’s final confrontation with his cousin and enemy, Matthew Paris. Kemp’s soldiers surround and attack the camp, and Paris receives a wound in the leg. He wakes from unconsciousness to find Kemp’s face peering at him. His recognition is instantaneous and total. “Of course,” he says, “you have come to claim your father’s cargo.” “I have come to hang you,” Kemp replies.

The ending of Unsworth’s story involves learning, memory, and survival. After Paris and Kemp, England and Africa, the slave ship and the Florida paradise have passed before the reader’s eyes, he or she will have learned that the sacred hunger still exists, perhaps, and that the abolition of slavery by no means brought an end to the enslavement of some humans through the greed of others. Perhaps also—but this is more subtle, and Kemp himself at the end of the book only dimly perceives it—there is a lesson that greed itself is a form of slavery.

Sources for Further Study

Atlanta Journal Constitution. October 11, 1992, p. K13.

Chicago Tribune. August 9, 1992, XIV, p. 1.

Contemporary Review. CCLXI, July, 1992, p. 43.

London Review of Books. XIV, June 11, 1992, p. 27.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. August 2, 1992, p. 3.

New Statesman and Society. V, February 28, 1992, p. 45.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, July 19, 1992, p. 3.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIX, May 11, 1992, p. 52.

The Times Literary Supplement. February 28, 1992, p. 23.

The Washington Post Book World. XXII, September 13, 1992, p. 2.

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