Sacred Hunger
by Barry Unsworth (1992)
W.W. Norton & Company (1993)
630 pp

I feel this should have been a more recognized year of anniversary: 200 years since the importation of slaves was prohibited in America in 1808 (201 years since the vote to abolish the slave trade in England in 1807, though last year England did have some significant events to commemorate, even a movie which my wife liked but I have yet to see: Amazing Grace). Then again, perhaps it seems silly to commemorate 1808 — if only much of the horror had truly ended then, so the date slipped past with little fanfare. Nevertheless, I celebrated the anniversary by reading Sacred Hunger.

Unsworth’s book offers some bitter insight into why the horrors didn’t stop. It’s definitely a moral indignation novel, though not quite like others. I didn’t feel indicted by its content, but many passages left me broken hearted.

Soon after midnight the first of the land breeze began making along the river and Thurso ordered sail to be got up and all to be made ready for purchasing anchor. At two they weighed an got out to sea, the wind by this time giving a good offing. In the cover of darkness, as quietly as possible, the Liverpool Merchant began to steer a course south-eastward. But when the ship met the deep sea well, the rhythm of her movement changed and the people in the cramped and fetid darkness of the hold, understanding that they had lost all hope of returning to their homes set up a great cry of desolation and despair that carried over the water to the other ships in the road and the slaves in the holds of the ships heard it and answered with wild shouts and screams, so that for people lying awake in villages along the shore and solitary fishermen up before dawn, there was a period when the night resounded with the echoes of lamentation.

Sacred Hunger is a difficult read — passages like this one are piercing, painful to really digest and admit. But this is an important book. Unsworth’s insight into the complex motives behind greed, dominion, mercy, and kindness make this much more than a simple story about a slave ship in the mid-1700s. In fact, in this book we see these emotions and attributes come up in almost all relationships: between man and woman, between captain and sailor, between English and Native-American, between one tribe and another, between parents and children. Its a complex world, but Unsworth makes it flow smoothly. Also, even though there are many relationships which all are used to further themes, this book is far from contrived. The characters and their relationships are real and familiar — that’s what’s scary.

In Sacred Hunger there is mutiny aboard a slave ship. After grounding the ship, the surviving whites and blacks begin their own community in south Florida. Meanwhile, the ship owner’s son single-mindedly seeks revenge against the crew, particularly against his cousin, the ship’s doctor.

But it is not that simple. Even while the new community is attempting to grow into a free society, where there are no distinctions between blacks and whites, Unsworth shows just how difficult such a task is.

In the dialogue, Unsworth has the ability to show the feelings of the slave traders while instilling pure irony:

‘Tis a terrible trade, them not in it will never know the hardships, to see your profits dribblin’ in the sea an’ nothin’ you can do.

Such passages are amusing at the same time they evoke reprehension. But in a frightening way they made me think about how many awful things we do today without quite understanding how ridiculous our position is. Then there are the illuminating, yet discouraging passages:

Nothing a man suffers will prevent him from inflicting suffering on others.

This book recognizes the difficulties inherent in trying to live in an equal society. In fact, some of its interesting passages deal with building a community through rhetorical strategy. While I didn’t feel like it was a fully-fleshed theme, story-telling and legend-making definitely are important, especially since Sacred Hunger itself, in a nice but potentially forgetful literary device, is set up to be based on the ramblings of an old mulatto many years after the story has ended:

But mainly he talked — of a Liverpool ship, of a white father who had been a doctor aboard her and had never died, a childhood of wonders in a place of eternal sunshine, jungle hummocks, great flocks of white birds rising from flooded savannahs, a settlement where white and black lived together in perfect accord.

Thankfully this book did not dip down to where many moral indignation novels (MINs) sink. John Carrey wrote about the potential pitfall in his 2003 essay on chairing the Man Booker Prize that has a paragraph on MINs:

Floggings, brandings, rapes, massacres, and women giving birth far from medical aid are among the customary set pieces. The native victims are portrayed as eco-friendly and endowed with delicate modes of consciousness beyond the scope of depraved Europeans. The villains, on the other hand, are always white and usually English. From the viewpoint of origin, class and education they closely resemble the readers whom the author can most realistically expect to buy his or her wares.

While Sacred Hunger is a full-blown moral indignation novel, the ending made me indignant about the whole human race. I was kind of tossing and turning with this novel and felt it was nothing too original until the ship was lost and the survivors set up their colony. Then the way the factions started building again, even among the former slaves who suddenly felt they needed slaves . . . I was really drawn into the issues, which suddenly became a lot more powerful to me.

The only real problem I had with this book was the tone. I guess when an author takes on a theme like this, I expect prose on the scale of Melville. Unsworth either couldn’t or chose not to tell this story that way. There are few moments of poetry. Mostly the tone is fairly familiar. Unsworth still had many insights, but the methods he chose to portray them were sometimes too simple. In my opinion.

Notwithstanding that drawback, I thought this was a contender for the Best of the Booker shortlist. I wish it had more attention.

Liked it? Take a second to support The Mookse and the Gripes on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!