Sacred Hunger is a historical novel by Barry Unsworth first published in 1992. It was joint winner of the Booker Prize that year, sharing the position with Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient.
The story is set in the mid 18th century and centers around the Liverpool Merchant, a slave ship employed in the triangular trade, a central trade route in the Atlantic slave trade. The two main characters are cousins Erasmus Kemp, son of a wealthy merchant from Lancashire, and Matthew Paris, a physician and scientist who goes on the voyage. The novel's central theme is greed, with the subject of slavery being a primary medium for exploring the issue.
Enlightenment but long before the days of Darwin and the Slavery Abolition Act 1833. Matthew Paris is a central character in the novel, a physician several years older than his cousin Erasmus. Prior to the beginning of the story Paris had been imprisoned for writings on evolution that clashed with the dogma of the church, his wife Ruth dying while he was incarcerated. Wishing to escape his past, he accepts a position as surgeon on the Liverpool Merchant, a slave ship owned by his uncle William Kemp. His son Erasmus Kemp, a young man in his early twenties, has a long standing hatred for his cousin dating back to his younger years. He participates in a play initially, and is enamored with Sarah Wolpert, the daughter of a friend of his father. The ship's crew is made up of men available at the time around the Liverpool docks, and many are recruited by blackmail and deception. As the ship sets off toward the African continent to collect its cargo, it becomes clear that Paris and the ship's captain, Saul Thurso, have very different world views.
The novel is broken into two parts, beginning in 1752 and ending in 1765, with a decade or so separating the two. The Liverpool Merchant is the setting for most of the first part, with several landings on the coast of West Africa for picking up slaves and other excursions. Paris finds himself among a crew of men who despise being on the ship but have little other option. Some form friendships with him, while others are more inhospitable. While the crew are treated harshly under the ruthless discipline of Captain Thurso, Paris stands on a different level, being the nephew of the ship's owner. Tension between these two men arise early, and grow throughout the voyage. As they reach the coast of Guinea, Paris learns that the slaves are recruited by the local Kru people, who 'hunt' for slaves further inland. Slaves are bartered for trade goods of little value such as slave beads and kettles, with the captain haggling with the local traders.
Back in England Erasmus is falling in love with a local girl named Sarah Wolpert, and participates in The Tempest, a play that she is involved in. The two start a relationship, but Erasmus is very possessive, and conflicts ensue. Meanwhile his father, a cotton broker, is in financial trouble, and is relying heavily on a good profit from the voyage of the Merchant. He becomes depressed.
As the slaves come aboard Paris becomes increasingly concerned with their living conditions and general treatment. He is joined on the ship by De Blanc, an artist and philosopher who shares a similar stature with him on the ship, and with whom he exchanges views on subjects such as authority. The voyage is unlike anything he expected, the slaves taking on a defiant stance. They attempt to take their own lives, with the crew trying to prevent them from doing so. With disease and death already frequent on board the ship, dysentery then strikes. The writings in Paris' journal and his exchanges with those on board show his growing disgust with the slave trade, and he comes to question his motives for coming on the voyage and his role in assisting the slave traders.
I have assisted in the suffering inflicted on these innocent people and in doing so joined the ranks of those that degrade the unoffending... We have taken everything from them and only for the sake of profit—that sacred hunger... which justifies everything, sanctifies all purposes.
Meanwhile, William Kemp commits suicide. Erasmus, now planning to marry Sarah, is offered a job by her father, a wealthy business man. Too proud to accept his pity, he turns away from the Wolpert family, aiming to rebuild his father's empire.
The situation on board the Merchant continues to deteriorate. Thurso cuts the ship's rations, trying to keep as many slaves alive as possible. Death continues, the corpses tossed overboard. Thurso throw's a monkey overboard, a pet brought on board by one of the seamen. The crew begin to rebel against him, and he becomes paranoid, keeping to his own quarters. Finally, Thurso decides to throw the remaining slaves overboard, the insurance money being more attractive than their prospects for sale in a sickened state. As he attempts to have them tossed into the ocean, chains and all, the shipmates revolt. As the first part of the book ends, the fate of the Liverpool Merchant remains unclear.
Roughly a decade on, the second part of the book initially focuses on the fate of Erasmus. Having recovered from bankruptcy and the shame of his father's death, he has married into a wealthy family. His wife Margaret is the daughter of a wealthy man, Sir Hugo, President of the West India Association. Their marriage is clearly not one of love. It seems sure that the Liverpool Merchant has been lost at sea in bad weather. However, Kemp soon learns from another captain that the ship is beached on the south east coast of Florida. The ship's crew and slaves are said to be living together in a small inland settlement, trading with the local Indians. He immediately wishes to find them, seeking retribution against his cousin. He manages to obtain a small force of infantry equipped with cannon to capture them.
The ship's crew and slaves have been living together in a community for over a decade, speaking a trade pidgin from the Guinea coast. The few women are shared among the men, many of which now have children. Paris has a son with a woman named Tabakali, who he shares with another man. The small community live in a primitive fashion, having a simple anarchist/socialist political system. It is revealed that on several occasions in their early years individuals who threatened the fabric of their society were killed. Life is peaceful in general though, even utopian. The translator tells the children stories in a pidgin tongue which they all share, while Paris reads to them from Pope and Hume. Tensions in the community arise though, with a trial being contested between two men, Iboti and Hambo. Hambo accuses Iboti of trying to kill him, proposing that Iboti works for him for three years. He is acquitted of any wrongdoing, but the case concerns Paris deeply, and he is suspicious of the motives of the accusers. He takes his argument to Kireku, an important figure in the community. The men share very different viewpoints however, and Paris is unable to convince him that such use of fellow men is no worse than the slavery they were themselves subjected to—"he concludes that "nothing a man suffers will prevent him inflicting suffering on others. Indeed, it will teach him the way..."
Erasmus finds Paris' journal among the wreckage of the Merchant, his cousin's writings clashing with his strongly capitalist convictions, and further whetting his appetite for retribution. Erasmus' hatred for his cousin stems back to his childhood, when Matthew had forcefully lifted him away when he was trying to dam a river, a moment that has stuck with him throughout his life. With his party of fifty, he finds the settlement. Some are shot, the rest being taken to St. Augustine by ship. He intends to sell the slaves as his father's property, and have the crew hung. Although he particularly looks forward to the hanging of his cousin, Paris' leg is infected from a gunshot wound, and he becomes sick. As his cousin dies before they reach St. Augustine, Erasmus comes to the realization that he did not lift him clear of the dam to cheat him of victory, but to save him from defeat.