Barry Unsworth

Sacred Hunger

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Sacred Hunger Summary

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Sacred Hunger is a novel by Barry Unsworth. It was published in 1992 by W.W. Norton, and it takes place aboard a slave ship where mutiny and rebellion abound. This is the first book in the Sacred Hunger duology, and the second book follows the same characters. The book is widely praised by critics for its sharp and witty insights, and it’s popular with general readers. Unsworth won the 1992 Man Booker Prize for this novel, and his other awards include the Heinemann Award for Literature and the Arts Council Creative Writing fellowship at Charlotte Mason College.

Sacred Hunger initially follows two primary characters—William Kemp, a merchant struggling to make ends meet, and Erasmus, his son who falls in love with a woman above his station but who ultimately loves himself more.

We first meet William while he’s overseeing shipbuilding in Liverpool in 1752. He’s building the Liverpool Merchant. He plans on using this ship to achieve three things—sell cheap goods in Africa so he can take slaves, take these slaves elsewhere and sell them on, and buy luxuries such as sugar with the money to take back to England. William needs this venture to work so he can pay off his very large debts.

If he’s going to keep his crew alive for the voyage, William needs a physician. He employs his nephew, Paris, to work as a surgeon on the ship. Paris recently lost his wife and wants a fresh start, so he’s happy to accept the position and find a new life elsewhere. Paris hopes looking after the slaves and keeping them healthy will help him forget everything he’s lost. William, on the other hand, only cares about keeping the slaves alive so he doesn’t lose any profits. It’s clear the pair will clash eventually over their differing ideologies.

Many members of the crew are unwilling participants, and they are bribed or bullied into joining the ship. The captain, Captain Thurso, doesn’t tolerate any dissent and expects everyone to stay in line so he gets his own profits which will be due to him for a successful journey.

Erasmus doesn’t join the crew and wants nothing to do with Paris, whom he despises for personal reasons. Instead, he tries to make his own life in England. He joins in with a play one day and meets Sarah, who’s father is friends with William. She has more money than him, which attracts Erasmus, but he also finds her very beautiful. He decides he’ll find more excuses to see her. Most of his early plot development is concerned with his attempts to woo and see her.

Meanwhile, Paris boards the Liverpool Merchant. While the crew respect him for his medical expertise, they mock him for being related to the ship’s owner, as if that’s the only reason he’s employed. Paris brushes it off because he has Captain Thurso to deal with—the pair have very different outlooks and Paris finds how he treats the crew, and the slaves, offensive.

Paris soon learns about the intricate trading process William has. He’s horrified to discover how far the slave trade goes and complains about their living conditions on the ship. When an artist, Delblanc, joins the crew, they exchange views and wonder what they can do about it.

At the same time, Erasmus begins a relationship with Sarah. He serenades her, and they seem happy. However, he soon gets possessive and she stops wanting anything to do with him. This causes a lot of tension between Erasmus and Sarah’s father.

Meanwhile, William’s own father gets into financial difficulties. He relies now solely on William’s successful mission to save himself from financial ruin. But, as the slaves grow more rebellious and disease spreads across the ship, William knows he won’t succeed and instead commits suicide. Mutiny breaks out and Thurso throws many slaves overboard.

When Erasmus learns of his father’s death, he breaks off his relationship with Sarah and decides to rebuild the family name. In book two of the novel, a decade later, he marries Margaret, who comes from a family wealthier than Sarah’s. He decides to go looking for his father’s ship, which no one can track down. Finally, Erasmus gets word of the Liverpool Merchant beached in Florida. He goes to find the ship.

When Erasmus gets there, he discovers they’ve formed a small community and get on well with the local Native American tribes. He finds Paris’s journal and learns Paris didn’t like William because of their clashing ideologies. This makes Erasmus want vengeance, and so he keeps going. It’s not until he gets further inland that he realises how successful the community is and how it’s something of a utopian paradise.

Erasmus plans on selling the slaves and shoots anyone who gets in his way—including Paris. Paris dies of the wound and Erasmus suddenly realises he didn’t do anything to deserve this fate. It’s not clear, at the novel’s end, what Erasmus will do, but he does at least show some shred of humanity.