Adam Sabra is a graduate student in Islamic history.
Rarely does a novelist succeed in capturing the spirit of an entire historical age in one work. Rarer still is the novel whose account of our past forces us to face up to the character of our present society and demands that we take action to change it. Barry Unsworth's Sacred Hunger is such a novel.
The narrative begins in 1752 as the Liverpool merchant William Kemp commissions a slave ship. Kemp, a cotton merchant whose finances are dangerously overstretched, hopes to reap a huge profit from the risky but lucrative business of acquiring slaves in West Africa, selling them for sugar in Jamaica, and selling the sugar in England. Two members of Kemp's family play important roles in the novel. The first is his son Erasmus, a young man obsessed with his social standing, who finds his future mortgaged on the success of the ship; he is the personification of capital. The second is his nephew Matthew Paris, a man whose will to live has been broken by personal tragedy, who is to be the ship's doctor.
If the enslavement of millions of Africans and their exploitation in the colonies of the New World was one of the great dramas of the 18th century, the other was the growth of wage labor. Unsworth places the two side by side for inspection. Some weeks before the ship is to depart England, Paris suggests to Thurso, the captain, that he hire a crew well in advance to be sure of having the requisite number of men on hand when they sail. "Tell me, then," asks Thurso, "how do you suggest we could secure the men, if we took them on so far in advance?" Paris proposes giving them an advance payment. Thurso dismisses the idea, claiming that such "scum" could not be trusted to fulfill their part of the bargain.
Where workers cannot be "trusted" to keep to a contract, other means must be found to secure them. One fellow, just paid off a ship, runs up a large tab in an alehouse; his purse is stolen by a prostitute in league with the innkeeper. The innkeeper, who supplements his income by selling men to the merchant fleet, gives him a choice, either ship out or go to prison. A second, a navy deserter who will be hanged if caught, is handed over to the ship's recruiter by a friend's wife with a sick baby, in exchange for money to buy a grinder for making sausages to sell in the street. A third is a simpleton, lured by false promises.
As the ship approaches the coast of Africa, Paris expresses doubts about the morality of slavery. Thurso tells him,
...mark my words, sir, you will go with a whip in your hand and a pistol in your belt like every other man aboard. Depend on it, the keeper will very quickly decide which side of the cage he is on.
Paris is not so sure. "You are admirably clear in your mind," he tells Thurso, "...as to who is caged and who is free." As Paris's remark suggests, both English and Africans are imprisoned aboard the ship.
Reaching the coast of Africa the ship starts to take on its cargo. The reader learns that, like the crew, slaves are conscripted by buying up people in debt. Some of the traders are themselves Africans, in the employ of the Royal Africa Company. They are driven by the same motivation, profit, that drives the English investors. For his part the captain treats them as fellow businessmen -- no nonsense of "race" here. Before the ship sails for the West Indies, it takes on a passenger named Delblanc, a disillusioned painter with Rousseauian-communist views, who as the novel unfolds will come to embody the revolutionary seeking to influence the course of events.
When the slaves come on board, the status of the sailors changes. Up to this point, they have had little to do with the conversion of free men and women into chattel. Thurso now distributes sidearms to them. Despite how they were recruited, he relies on them to keep order, depending on their status as "free" men to guarantee that they won't turn their weapons on him. Once armed, the sailors will be the first line of defense of their employer's human property, and therefore logical targets of any attempt at revolt by the slaves, whom they will learn to fear. Symbolically, the moment marks the induction of the sailors into the white race.
In the eighteenth century, the wage was not the universal, or even the dominant, mode of commanding labor, and sailors held a status between outright slavery and formal freedom. On one occasion two of them are flogged for an infraction of the rules. This happens in full view of the slaves, leading Paris to wonder "what the negroes think when they see their captors being thus treated..." Later one of the sailors who had fled on the African coast is returned to the ship by African slavers who offer to sell him back to Captain Thurso. The captain agrees to pay the asking price (less than the price of a slave), but without conscious irony instructs the Africans that the runaway "is not a slave but an English seaman."
Perhaps the most potent statement of the common suffering comes towards the end of the journey. Food has begun to run out and the sailors are slowly dying of hunger and scurvy. The slaves are somewhat better provided for than the crew, since the captain stands to lose his employer's investment and his own share in the spoils if they die, whereas death among the crew would save on wages. The sailors are reduced to begging food from their captives. Paris records, "Crew and slaves are in the embrace of a wretchedness so profound that it precludes all animosity..." The captain then orders sick slaves thrown overboard in order to collect the insurance rather than risk total loss if they die. When Paris, who is, after all, a doctor, discovers this, he intervenes, in one of those unpremeditated acts that are a part of every uprising. His protest touches off a rebellion. The sailors kill the captain, seize the ship, release the slaves, and cargo and crew set off for the wilderness of Florida, where they establish a utopian community.
The term utopia ("no-place") is appropriate on two levels. For one thing, the scenario in the novel, while entirely plausible, never actually occurred. The eighteenth-century Atlantic seaboard was rife with rebellion, often uniting sailors and workers of many nations, complexions and creeds, but there is no account of the sailors of a slaver setting their cargo free.
Furthermore, the utopia established by the sailors
and ex-slaves is located in the wilds of Florida, a "no-place"
in the minds of mid-eighteenth-century Europeans. But it will not remain
that way for long. The establishment of English sovereignty over Florida
brings the novel to its climax, providing Erasmus Kemp with the weapons
he needs to pursue vengeance against his cousin Paris and the other
inhabitants of the community.
Some of these issues come to a head when a group of white and black slavers are spotted with their Indian captives not far from the community. The community must decide what to do. Some, hoping to escape detection, argue that they should let the slavers go. Others worry that a failure to interfere will risk discovery. A sailor asks, "Them white fellers done me no harm. Why should I raise my hand agin my own kind?" One of the African women then asks him whether, when he refers to his own kind, he means slave-takers?
At this point, Delblanc speaks up and demands that
the slavers be killed. His logic is simple. They constitute a threat
to the future of the whole community. He is prepared to kill in order
to preserve their newly won freedom. But he has another motive as well.
The new utopia lacks cohesion, it still suffers the scars of whiteness.
He tells Paris,
After the deed is done, they take the Indian captives back to the settlement and ceremonially free them. The act wins the friendship of the surrounding Indians. Delblanc's intervention has saved the fledgling community and established its moral basis.
Marx wrote that capital comes into the world dripping blood from every pore. The world described in Sacred Hunger, while differing in some ways from our own, remains remarkably familiar. If chattel slavery is gone, or at least considerably reduced in scope, wage slavery is even more predominant than it was in the eighteenth century. And whiteness continues to hold millions in its sway, despite the utopian desires of some.