Life on a 19th-century sugar cane plantation in Jamaica, with all its attendant historical and cultural problems, especially the dominance of white overseers over black slaves.
In England in 1805, Hartley Fudges has the typical issues facing the second-born male child in a system of primogeniture, for his older brother Alexander is to come into title, property and money, and Hartley is to get...nothing. To rectify this “inequity,” he hires a gentleman thug who’s a good shot to ritually insult Alexander. The plan is that a duel will ensue (it does) that will benefit Hartley (it doesn’t). In a scene that would be comic were it not so tragic, Alexander emerges unscathed, while Hartley’s stand-in manages both to die and to confess to Alexander his younger brother’s treachery. Hartley wisely decides to flee, and he winds up on a 1500-acre sugar cane plantation in Jamaica, one of eight white males amid 960 slaves. One of Hartley’s first acts is an impulsive one: to buy a slave named Cuffy and give him his freedom, something Cuffy doesn’t particularly want. Hartley also asserts his power over black slave women by fathering 20 children during his first year alone. His life begins to unravel over the next few years when he develops a love relationship with Phibba, a slave whose status he elevates, and by a slave rebellion led by the now-free Cuffy, obsessed with becoming a gentleman for the sole purpose of fighting a duel with Hartley.
Jamaica-born Winkler opens a door into a cultural period beset by an inhumane system that poisons relationships between whites and blacks.