The life of a slave ship, from construction through abandonment on the Florida coast, underpins the story set in the 1700s. William Kemp builds the ship, then ends up hanging himself under the pressure of mounting debts. His son, Erasmus Kemp, jettisons his attempt at marriage with a local merchant’s daughter and picks up the mantle to clear his father’s name and debts. While this plot unfolds in Liverpool, the slaver is making its way along the African coast bargaining for slaves and encountering disease, suffering, escaped crew, doldrums, drunkenness, the acquisition of a monkey and a gentleman, mutiny, a tornado of water, and beaching.
The sacred hunger refers to the desire for money and its quest being ordained as above all others, allowing any means to acquire it. The term comes up in a conversation between the ship’s doctor (Paris) and a portrait painter (Delblanc) stationed in a remote fort who buys passage on the ship and whose preaching of a life where everyone is equal leads to the founding of the settlement post-beaching of the ship.
Twelve years pass, and Erasmus Kemp learns of the existence of his father’s ship on the Florida coast. Consumed by the desire for revenge on his cousin (Paris, the ship doctor), Kemp charters a ship and heads off to the colonies to see for himself, and to catch his cousin. The cause for this bloodlust remained somewhat unclear until the end– Kemp was beaten by his cousin in some race as a young child and always held it against him. Kemp’s party stumbles upon the settlement where blacks and whites have comingled in perilous harmony, a balance that seems sure to crumble any day now, as smart residents have begun to take advantage of those less talented and talk of slavery begins to crop up as one powerful trader tries to trap another into being his slave.
Overall a powerfully compelling look at the life and time of that era, from the perspective of sailors, gentlemen, Governors, and slaves.