The flood of cheap manufactures, for which the people have no need, destroys their industries. They become dependent on this trade and the demand for goods can only be met by enslaving their fellows. To do this they need muskets in ever increasing quantities -- which we supply. And so we spread death everywhere. But that sacred hunger we spoke of justifies all. (p. 328)
In 1752, Liverpool businessman William Kemp finances a ship to engage in the Triangle Trade: trading arms for slaves in Africa, and then trading slaves In Jamaica for sugar to be brought back to England. Kemp recruits his nephew, Matthew Paris, to serve as the ship's physician. Paris, recently released from prison, is eager to start a new life. Kemp's son Erasmus resents Paris' new status, holding a deep grudge against him for petty childhood "crimes."
The ship sets sail, with all the horror expected of such a journey. Paris earns the respect of some crew members, but is barely tolerated by the captain. Meanwhile, the younger Kemp leads a life of relative ease, courting a young woman to be his bride. Events in both men's lives take unexpected turns and, on these cliffhangers, the reader is propelled forward to 1765. By this time Kemp is a prosperous businessman himself and lives in the cocoon of ideals that allows someone to believe slavery is just, and that they are entitled to the luxuries that result from the profits. Paris is living in a kind of utopian society forged on ideals of equality, which are fragile and difficult to sustain. Kemp's self-centeredness and profit motive cause him to seek out Paris to act on his inexplicable need for revenge.
Barry Unsworth packs so much into Sacred Hunger. The page-turning saga of the slave ship, with all its detail about living conditions and man's inhumanity to man, could be a book unto itself. The conflict between Paris and Kemp could also stand alone. Together they make for a gripping, emotional, and memorable read. Highly recommended.
My original review can be found here.