The latest page-turner from Gregory (The Boleyn Inheritance, Dec. 2006, etc.) is a sobering account of the English slave trade, with a bit of romance thrown in.
In 1787 Africa, Mehuru, an envoy for his Yoruban king, is traveling the empire to deliver the king’s edict: Yorubans will desist in all slave-trading with white slavers. Mehuru is captured by the English and thrown onto a slave ship owned by Josiah Cole, a small Bristol merchant with dreams of advancement. He and his sister Sarah have done all they can with their three modest vessels—they kidnap Africans, trade them for sugar and rum in the West Indies, then sell the goods in England—but since much of the better trade is denied them because of their class, Josiah decides to marry up. He finds Frances Scott, niece to a prominent lord, but herself a penniless orphan. To both, it is an even exchange—Josiah gets connections to circles of business he could never enter, and Frances has a home. It is Josiah and Sarah’s new plan that a handful of slaves will be brought back to England where Frances will tutor them in the ways of the gentry, selling them for an enormous profit. Mehuru and ten others are chained in a cellar, where they are half-starved, raped by Josiah’s house guest and whipped, while spending afternoons in the parlor learning polite English. Frances and Mehuru eventually fall in love, and Josiah risks ruin in financial schemes dependent on a single ship cruelly over-packed with captured Africans. The success of this tale lies in the author’s nuanced portraits: Frances, a product of her class, is refined, ignorant and selfish (even while devoted to Mehuru, she is shocked when he joins radicals dedicated to ceasing the trade—her livelihood). Cultured Mehuru lives in a state of astonishment that other humans could be so barbaric. And most interestingly, Sarah, proud of her independence and financial partnership with Josiah, is crushed when he forces her to stay cooped up with Frances and become a “lady.”
A vivid depiction of the trade and the ruined lives left in its wake.