Booker Prize Winner 1992

2007 marks the bi-centennial of the abolition of the slave trade in Britain, a trade upon which the prosperity of Georgian Britain was founded.  Time then for a re-read of my personal Booker of Bookers Barry Unsworth’s “Sacred Hunger”.

The love of money, the making of profit is the sacred hunger of the title.  This quest justifies everything and sanctifies all purposes.  Living in their gaudy houses, playing with culture, romance and love, British merchants of the 18th century ruthlessly pillage Africa of its lifeblood. Detailed analysis of the triangular trade is woven into the first half of the novel which follows the history of The Liverpool Merchant slaver ship from conception and build to its disappearance in an Atlantic storm.  Its tortuous voyage, the lives it blighted and destroyed (both in Britain and Africa) form a fascinating and, at times, horrendous narrative.

The second half of the novel focuses on the British in America where “white man is speaking with forked tongue” to vanquish the indigeneous nation on the other side of the Atlantic.   It’s heartbreaking to understand that shiny bright beads and baubles persuaded coastal Africans to hunt and enslave those from the interior.  Heartbreaking also to see shiny bright medals persuade Indian chiefs to hand over lands to the British King.

While the history of the ship, its crew and its cargo steers us through the first half of the novel, the emnity between the two main protagonists, cousins Erasmus Kemp (the ship owner’s son) and Matthew Paris (the ship’s doctor) provides the narrative drive in the second.  For Kemp wants Paris to pay for the damage done to his family when the ship did not return and pursues him across the Atlantic.  In the meantime Paris, along with the visionary Delblanc, forms a utopian society with the survivors of the ship.  Can this fledgling society, founded on the theft and brutalising of half its population,  coalesce and heal?  Or will the sacred hunger, common to mankind, reemerge even here?

Unsworth has done his homework but wears it lightly. There are many colourful characters and plenty of plot to disguise the research.  If there is any fault in this novel, and I admit this grudgingly, it is that the pace of the first two sections is very slow.  However, once The Liverpool Merchant reaches Africa, the pages turn very, very quickly indeed.