Barry Unsworth’s 1992 Booker Prize-winning masterpiece is an epic tale centred on the mid-18th century journey of the Liverpool Merchant from Liverpool to Africa and the American colonies as part of the ‘triangular’ Atlantic slave trade, ‘the greatest commercial adventure the world had ever seen, changing the course of history, bringing death and degradation and profits on a scale hitherto undreamed of’.
Multiple story threads make this a riveting read, despite its 600 pages. It starts with the ship itself: the intricate economics behind the vessel and its unsavoury trade; the characters, hierarchy and lifestyles of its crew, including their ‘pressing’ into service, an episode that has made me wary of drinking in Liverpool boozers; and the ship’s interaction with the wider history of the period, such as the Industrial Revolution, the struggles between settlers and Native Americans in the American colonies, and the social and religious norms of the day.
All this is told through a substantial cast of finely-observed characters, including Paris, the shipowner’s nephew who becomes the ship’s doctor as a misguided act of penance following his prison release; Erasmus Kemp, the insecure, obsessive and ambitious ship owner’s son; and strong female characters which Unsworth makes the effort to weave into a predominantly male story of commerce, such as Erasmus’s hitherto ‘pale, languid’ mother turning Machiavellian during a family crisis, and his spirited fiance’s resistance to his sinister control. Unsworth also doesn’t balk from making clear the role of Africans in the sale and abuse of their countrymen.
As if this wasn’t enough, the story morphs into a madcap adventure across the Atlantic seas – I don’t want to give the game away (Brontë’s Page Turners is a spoiler free zone), but it includes a mystery surrounding the ship’s journey, a son’s efforts to avenge the sad demise of his father, and tales of a progressive utopia in the American colonies.
Naturally, given the subject matter, there are parts of this story which are a tough read. Unsworth wastes no time in exposing us to the horror of the slave trade, giving character and feelings to the ‘cargo’ that is ‘stow(ed) spoon fashion, arse by tit’: the young girl ‘stood in a position of frozen modesty’ as she stands naked waiting to be sold, the grown man trembling ‘like a leaf in a faint current of air’ during his (intimate) medical examination, the slave trying to end own his life who ‘cannot be allowed to die as he chooses (as) they must not believe that they have the disposal of themselves’, and the vision of the slaves as they are carried from their homeland:
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 swell, 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…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 for solitary fisherman up before dawn, there was a period when the night resounded with the echoes of lamentation.
I doubt we can ever fully comprehend slavery’s horror but Unsworth’s sensitive portrayal of his characters is particularly powerful when deployed to illuminate the slaves’ experience. Brace yourself, and read it.