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.