Sacred Hunger

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Sacred Hunger
BarryUnsworth SacredHunger.jpg
First edition cover
Author Barry Unsworth
Cover artistfrom Brookes slave ship plan
CountryUnited Kingdom
GenreHistorical novel
Publisher Hamish Hamilton
Publication date
27 February 1992
Media typePrint (hardback & paperback)
Pages640 pp
ISBN 0-241-13003-4
OCLC 28423161
823/.914 20
LC Class PR6071.N8 S3 1992b
Followed by The Quality of Mercy  

Sacred Hunger is a historical novel by Barry Unsworth first published in 1992. It shared the Booker Prize that year with Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient .

Barry Unsworth English novelist

Barry Unsworth FRSL was an English writer known for his historical fiction. He published 17 novels, and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize three times, winning once for the 1992 novel Sacred Hunger.

Michael Ondaatje Canadian writer

Philip Michael Ondaatje,, is a Sri Lanka-born Canadian poet, fiction writer, essayist, novelist, editor and filmmaker. He is the recipient of multiple literary awards such as the Governor General's Award, the Giller Prize, the Booker Prize, and the Prix Médicis étranger. Ondaatje is also an Officer of the Order of Canada, recognizing him as one of Canada's most renowned living authors.

<i>The English Patient</i> 1992 novel

The English Patient is a 1992 novel by Michael Ondaatje. The book follows four dissimilar people brought together at an Italian villa during the Italian Campaign of World War II. The four main characters are: an unrecognisably burned man — the eponymous patient, presumed to be English; his Canadian Army nurse, a Sikh British Army sapper, and a Canadian thief. The story occurs during the North African Campaign and centres on the incremental revelations of the patient's actions prior to his injuries, and the emotional effects of these revelations on the other characters. The book won the 1992 Booker Prize, the 2018 Golden Man Booker, and the Governor General's Award.


The story is set in the mid 18th century and centres on the Liverpool Merchant, a slave ship employed in the triangular trade, a central trade route in the Atlantic slave trade. The two main characters are cousins Erasmus Kemp, son of a wealthy merchant from Lancashire and Matthew Paris, a physician and scientist who goes on the voyage. The novel's central theme is greed, with the subject of slavery being a primary medium for exploring the issue. The story line has a very extensive cast of characters, some featuring in only one scene, others continually developed throughout the story, but most described in intricate detail. The narrative interweaves elements of appalling cruelty and horror with extended comedic interludes, and employs frequent period expressions.

Slave ship cargo ship carrying slaves onboard from Africa to the Americas across the Atlantic Ocean between the 16th and mid-19th centuries

Slave ships were large cargo ships specially converted for the purpose of transporting slaves. Such ships were also known as "Guineamen" because their trade involved trafficking to and from the Guinea coast in West Africa.

Triangular trade trade among three ports or regions

Triangular trade or triangle trade is a historical term indicating trade among three ports or regions. Triangular trade usually evolves when a region has export commodities that are not required in the region from which its major imports come. Triangular trade thus provides a method for rectifying trade imbalances between the above regions.

Atlantic slave trade Slave trade across the Atlantic Ocean between the 16th and 19th centuries

The Atlantic slave trade or transatlantic slave trade involved the transportation by slave traders of enslaved African people, mainly to the Americas. The slave trade regularly used the triangular trade route and its Middle Passage, and existed from the 16th to the 19th centuries. The vast majority of those who were enslaved and transported in the transatlantic slave trade were people from central and western Africa, who had been sold by other West Africans to Western European slave traders, who brought them to the Americas. The South Atlantic and Caribbean economies especially were dependent on the supply of secure labour for the production of commodity crops, making goods and clothing to sell in Europe. This was crucial to those western European countries which, in the late 17th and 18th centuries, were vying with each other to create overseas empires.

A sequel, The Quality of Mercy , was published in 2011; it was Unsworth's last book.

Plot synopsis

The novel begins in England during the Age of Enlightenment but long before the days of Darwin and the Slavery Abolition Act 1833. The novel is broken into two books, beginning in 1752 and 1753 and ending in 1765, with a decade or so separating the two. Matthew Paris is a central character in the novel, a physician several years older than his cousin Erasmus. Prior to the beginning of the story Paris had been imprisoned for writings on the age of the earth that clashed with a literal interpretation of the Bible, his wife Ruth dying while he was incarcerated. Wishing to escape his past, he accepts a position as surgeon on the Liverpool Merchant, a slave ship built and owned by his uncle William Kemp. The elder Kemp's son, Erasmus Kemp, a young man in his early twenties, has a long-standing hatred for his cousin dating back to his younger years. He participates in a play initially, and is enamored with seventeen-year-old Sarah Wolpert, the daughter of a friend of his father. The ship's crew is made up of men available at the time around the Liverpool docks, and many are recruited by blackmail and deception. As the ship sets off toward the African continent to collect its cargo, it becomes clear that Paris and the ship's captain, Saul Thurso, have very different world views.

Age of Enlightenment European cultural movement of the 18th century

The Age of Enlightenment was an intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated the world of ideas in Europe during the 18th century, the "Century of Philosophy".

Charles Darwin British naturalist, author of "On the origin of species, by means of natural selection"

Charles Robert Darwin, was an English naturalist, geologist and biologist, best known for his contributions to the science of evolution. His proposition that all species of life have descended over time from common ancestors is now widely accepted, and considered a foundational concept in science. In a joint publication with Alfred Russel Wallace, he introduced his scientific theory that this branching pattern of evolution resulted from a process that he called natural selection, in which the struggle for existence has a similar effect to the artificial selection involved in selective breeding.

Slavery Abolition Act 1833 UK parliament act of 1833, abolishing slavery

The Slavery Abolition Act 1833 abolished slavery throughout the British Empire. This Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom expanded the jurisdiction of the Slave Trade Act 1807 which made the purchase or ownership of slaves illegal within the British Empire, with the exception of "the Territories in the Possession of the East India Company", Ceylon, and Saint Helena. Yet slaves in the colony of Jamaica were not emancipated until 1838. The Act was repealed in 1997 as a part of wider rationalisation of English statute law; however, later anti-slavery legislation remains in force.

Book One

The book's chapters switch between episodic relations of events on the "Liverpool Merchant," the senior Kemp's slave ship, and domestic developments in Liverpool. On the ship, Paris finds himself travelling down the coast of West Africa among a crew of men who despise being on the ship but have few other options. Some form friendships with him, while others are more inhospitable. While the crew are treated harshly under the ruthless discipline of Captain Thurso, Paris enjoys a different level of treatment; as the nephew of the ship's owner, he is mocked and belittled but treated as an elite member of the crew. Tensions between these two men arise early and build throughout the voyage. As they reach the coast of Guinea, Paris learns that the slaves are recruited by the local Kru people, who 'hunt' for slaves further inland. Slaves are bartered for trade goods of little value such as slave beads and kettles, with the captain haggling with the local traders. Questions are raised regarding the deliberate exchange of faulty weapons with native slave traders.

Barter Exchange of goods

In trade, barter is a system of exchange where participants in a transaction directly exchange goods or services for other goods or services without using a medium of exchange, such as money. Economists distinguish barter from gift economies in many ways; barter, for example, features immediate reciprocal exchange, not delayed in time. Barter usually takes place on a bilateral basis, but may be multilateral. In most developed countries, barter usually only exists parallel to monetary systems to a very limited extent. Market actors use barter as a replacement for money as the method of exchange in times of monetary crisis, such as when currency becomes unstable or simply unavailable for conducting commerce.

Back in England Erasmus is falling in love with a local girl named Sarah Wolpert. He participates in The Enchanted Island on her suggestion, a rewritten play with characters and dialogue drawn from Shakespeare's The Tempest . The two start a relationship, but Erasmus is very possessive, and conflicts ensue. Meanwhile, Kemp's father, a cotton broker, is in financial trouble, relying heavily on strong profits from the voyage of the Merchant.

William Shakespeare 16th and 17th-century English playwright and poet

William Shakespeare was an English poet, playwright and actor, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world's greatest dramatist. He is often called England's national poet and the "Bard of Avon". His extant works, including collaborations, consist of approximately 39 plays, 154 sonnets, two long narrative poems, and a few other verses, some of uncertain authorship. His plays have been translated into every major living language and are performed more often than those of any other playwright.

<i>The Tempest</i> Play by William Shakespeare

The Tempest is a play by William Shakespeare, probably written in 1610–1611, and thought to be one of the last plays that Shakespeare wrote alone. After the first scene, which takes place on a ship at sea during a tempest, the rest of the story is set on a remote island, where the sorcerer Prospero, a complex and contradictory character, lives with his daughter Miranda, and his two servants — Caliban, a savage monster figure, and Ariel, an airy spirit. The play contains music and songs that evoke the spirit of enchantment on the island. It explores many themes including magic, betrayal, revenge, and family. In act four, a wedding masque serves as a play-within-the play, and contributes spectacle, allegory, and elevated language. Though The Tempest is listed in the First Folio as the first of Shakespeare’s comedies, it deals with both tragic and comic themes, and modern criticism has created a category of romance for this and others of Shakespeare’s late plays. The Tempest has been subjected to varied interpretations—from those that see it as a fable of art and creation, with Prospero representing Shakespeare, and Prospero’s renunciation of magic signaling Shakespeare's farewell to the stage, to interpretations that consider it an allegory of Europeans colonizing foreign lands.

As slaves come aboard, Paris becomes increasingly concerned with their living conditions and general treatment. He is joined on the ship by Delblanc, an artist and philosopher who shares a similar stature with him on the ship, and with whom he exchanges views on subjects such as authority. The voyage is unlike anything he expected, the slaves taking on a defiant stance. They attempt to take their own lives, with the crew trying to prevent them from doing so. With disease and death already frequent on board the ship, dysentery then strikes. The writings in Paris' journal and his exchanges with those on board show his growing disgust with the slave trade, and he comes to question his motives for coming on the voyage and his role in assisting the slave traders.

I have assisted in the suffering inflicted on these innocent people and in doing so joined the ranks of those that degrade the unoffending... We have taken everything from them and only for the sake of profit—that sacred hunger... which justifies everything, sanctifies all purposes.

Meanwhile, William Kemp commits suicide owing to fear of his imminent bankruptcy. Erasmus, now planning to marry Sarah, is offered a job by her father, a wealthy business man. Too proud to accept his pity, he turns away from the Wolpert family, aiming to rebuild his father's empire.

The situation on board the Merchant continues to deteriorate. Thurso cuts the ship's rations, trying to keep as many slaves alive as possible. Death continues, the corpses tossed overboard. Thurso throws a monkey overboard, a pet brought on board by one of the seamen. The crew begin to rebel against him, and he becomes paranoid, keeping to his own quarters. Finally, Thurso decides to throw the remaining slaves overboard, the insurance money being more attractive than their prospects for sale in a sickened state. As he attempts to have them tossed into the ocean, chains and all, the shipmates revolt. As the first part of the book ends, the fate of the Liverpool Merchant remains unclear.

Book Two

Roughly a decade on, the second part of the book initially focuses on the fate of Erasmus. Having recovered from bankruptcy and the shame of his father's death, he has married into a wealthy family. His wife Margaret is the daughter of a wealthy man, Sir Hugo, President of the West India Association. Their marriage is clearly one of mere convenience. It seems sure that the Liverpool Merchant has been lost at sea in bad weather. However, Kemp soon learns from another captain that the ship is beached on the southeastern coast of Florida in the Americas. The ship's crew and slaves are said to be living together in a small inland settlement, trading with the local Indians. Seeking retribution against his cousin, Kemp takes a ship to Florida. In St. Augustine he manages to obtain a small force of infantry equipped with cannon to capture the crew.

The ship's crew and slaves have been living together in a community for over a decade, speaking a trade pidgin from the Guinea coast. The few women are shared among the men, many of which now have children. Paris has a son with a woman named Tabakali, who he shares with another man. The small community live in a primitive fashion, having a simple anarchist–socialist political system. Life is peaceful in general though, even utopian. The translator tells the children stories in a pidgin tongue which they all share, while Paris reads to them from Alexander Pope and David Hume.

Erasmus finds Paris' journal among the wreckage of the Merchant, his cousin's writings clashing with his strongly capitalist convictions, and further whetting his appetite for retribution. Erasmus' hatred for his cousin stems from his childhood, when Matthew had forcefully lifted him away when he was trying to dam a river. With his party of fifty, he finds the settlement. Some are shot, the rest being taken to St. Augustine by ship. He intends to sell the slaves as his father's property, and have the crew hanged for murdering Thurso. He particularly looks forward to the hanging of his cousin Paris, whose leg wound appears minor. But the trauma of the gunshot has triggered "some occlusion of the blood," a pulmonary embolism that Paris recognises as fatal. Paris dies before the ship can reach St. Augustine, and Erasmus comes to the realisation that Paris did not lift him clear of the dam to cheat him of victory, but to save him from defeat.

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