Remembering Liverpool’s anti-slavery campaigner Edward Rushton: ‘Sometimes silence is not an option’

Remembering Liverpool’s anti-slavery campaigner Edward Rushton: ‘Sometimes silence is not an option’

When I first arrived in Liverpool half a century ago, the large white stone building opposite the Philharmonic pub at the top of Hardman Street served as the Merseyside Police headquarters. Then, for a decade or so its function changed dramatically when it became the Merseyside Trade Union and Unemployed Centre. Now, reflecting the social and economic changes of the past decade, the building houses a swanky hotel and several popular restaurants, one of which is called The Old Blind School.

Because that was what the building was originally, when erected in 1851. The Liverpool School for the Indigent Blind had been founded in 1791 by Edward Rushton, one of Liverpool’s great radicals. He was not only a founder of the first school for the blind in the country, but also a campaigner against slavery and poverty.  He wrote poetry, and became a tireless campaigner against slavery and against the press gangs. He was a revolutionary republican, supported the American War for Independence, the French Revolution, and the struggles of the Polish and Irish people for self-rule. Recently I was lent a copy (thanks, Pete!) of what is, I think, the only book dedicated to this remarkable man – Forgotten Hero by Bill Hunter, published in 2002. Continue reading “Remembering Liverpool’s anti-slavery campaigner Edward Rushton: ‘Sometimes silence is not an option’”

West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song at the British Library

West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song at the British Library

Passing through London on our way back from the David Jones show in Chichester, I decided to take a look at the current exhibition at the British Library: West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song. It’s an ambitious survey of literature, art and music from the great African empires of the Middle Ages to expressions of rapid cultural and political change across West Africa in recent decades. Continue reading “West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song at the British Library”

Barry Unsworth

British novelist Barry Unsworth has died in Italy aged 81.  I’ve read several of his novels, the most outstanding being his story of the 18th-century slave trade in Liverpool, Sacred Hunger, for which he was awarded the Booker prize in 1989. The Guardian obituary today begins:

Barry Unsworth .. was a writer in the tradition of William Golding and Joseph Conrad. Pre-eminent among novelists of empires in decay, his range spanned the Ottoman, the Venetian and the British hegemony, and the middle ages to the present day. His novel Sacred Hunger, about the 18th-century slave trade, was the joint winner of the Booker prize in 1992 and, in the opinion of many, should have won it outright.

Unsworth was born in the mining village of Wingate, Co Durham. His father had started his working life at the age of 13 as a miner, but later found a job with an insurance company in Stockton-on-Tees. At primary school, Barry revealed a gift for composition and became accustomed to seeing his stories pinned to the wall with gold stars on them. “I saw,” he said, “that the way forward was to get as many gold stars as possible.” When he left Stockton grammar school, he announced that he wanted to be a journalist. “I couldn’t possibly say I wanted to be a writer, not in Stockton-on-Tees at that time.”

In 1988, suffering from writer’s block (an experience that informed his novel Sugar and Rum), Unsworth accepted a six-month British Council appointment as writer-in-residence at Lund University in Sweden, returning with Sacred Hunger, the story of the mutinous crew of the slave ship Liverpool Merchant, which went on to share the Booker prize with Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient.

In a statement on the British Council website, Unsworth wrote:

As a child I was beset by the sense of secret pathways, tracks leading away from, running alongside, occasionally touching, the ones everyone knew about. They could be anywhere, wherever there was cover. There were privileged people who could step into them at will because they knew the access points. Or you could somehow blunder upon them. This sense of hidden alternatives was always like possessing a secret and it always involved a sort of conflict with the familiar world. All my fiction starts from a feeling of unique perception, the pressure of a secret, a story that needs to be told. Before it can be properly told one needs to explore the ways, find embodiments in character, deal with the weather and the look of things, get it right. But whatever the ramifications, whatever turns the path takes, the beginning is always there, in a particular moment, a particular point of access.

In an interview with The Independent about Sacred Hunger in 1992, Unsworth commented:

As I wrote I began to see more strongly that there were inescapable analogies. You couldn’t really live through the ’80s without feeling how crass and distasteful some of the economic doctrines were. The slave trade is a perfect model for that kind of total devotion to the profit motive without reckoning the human consequences.

See also

Sacred Hunger: the duty to secure profit

There is almost nothing right or wrong which does not alter with a change in clime. A shift of three degrees of latitude is enough to overthrow jurisprudence. One’s location on the meridian decides the truth, that or a change in territorial possession. Fundamental laws alter. What is right changes with the times.
– Blaise Pascal, Pensées (1670)

I’ve been re-reading Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger, which I regard as one of the outstanding English novels of the last half-century.  It’s powerful novel which explores the morality of the 18th century Liverpool business class that grew rich on the Atlantic slave trade.  It was joint winner of the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1992.

The novel opens in Liverpool, growing fast and growing rich on expanding trade in cotton, sugar and – especially – slaves.  It tells the story of the Liverpool Merchant, a slaving ship purpose built for the triangular trade at the direction of William Kemp, typical of the Liverpool merchants who amassed great wealth from the slave trade. Barry Unsworth’s tale is an epic of greed and suffering, at whose centre are two men of contrasting character and outlook – Erasmus Kemp, the cold, calculating merchant’s son, and Matthew Paris, his disgraced cousin, a free thinker who despairingly takes up his uncle’s offer to sail as doctor aboard the Liverpool Merchant.

Everything about this novel reflects Unsworth’s painstaking research and attention to detail – the convincing evocation of mid-18th century Liverpool, from its slums and waterside bars to the mansions of the newly wealthy merchants, the language and ideas of the time, and the varied cast of characters. Of these, few characters in modern literature evoke terror and grim, determined brutality as much as the captain of the  Liverpool Merchant – Thurso, a shrewd and merciless figure, reminiscent of Melville’s Captain Ahab.

As he charts the voyage of the Liverpool Merchant along the west African coast, Unsworth reveals the nature of the terrible trade and the attitudes of all those who are engaged in it, each pursuing in their own way the profit that it generates.  The ruthless pursuit of that profit – the ‘sacred hunger’ of the title – and how it is justified is Unsworth’s central concern:

Money is sacred, as everyone knows… So then must be the hunger for it and the means we use to obtain it. 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. This cannot be called cruelty or greed because we are seeking only to recover our investment and that is a sacred duty.

But Unsworth also explores, in the heart-breaking second half of his novel,  the different standards of morality and utopian ideas that were emerging to challenge slavery and racism. The love of money, the making of profit: sacred hunger. The book may be set in the days of slavery but Unsworth’s aim is to encourage us to reflect upon the morality of the present. In a 1992 interview, Unsworth said:

It was impossible to live in the Eighties without being affected by the sanctification of greed. My image of the slave ship was based on the desire to find the perfect symbol for that entrepreneurial spirit. The arguments used to justify it are the same used now to justify the closure of these pits and throwing out of work of all these miners. I used the term ‘wealth creation’ deliberately. I knew it was anachronistic.

Sacred Hunger is a great literary achievement, combining masterful storytelling with scholarship and a deep understanding of human psychology and philosophical issues.