‘Blood and Sugar’ by Laura Shepherd-Robinson

Blood & Sugar

★★★★

This is one of the better historical crime novels I have read in a long time. I am not generally a person that becomes thoroughly engaged in who-done-it mysteries and usually skim-read crime novels only to pause at the bits about the detective’s private life. But Shepherd-Richardson’s story engaged my interest and although I figured out the outline of the murderer’s motive at the beginning I was kept guessing until the very end as to his identity. Perhaps the story succeeds so well because of its gruesome theme: the trade, torture and murder of African slaves in 18th century England.

Our main character is an American war-veteran, now potential MP. His name is Henry Corsham and his life middling sad. His marriage is loveless, his youthful radical ideas about abolition and justice have been replaced with political ambitions and he has no real friends. He loves his little son Gabriel, but otherwise his life consists of trying to please the powerful men around him so that he can have a career as a politician. He did use to have a true friend, Tad Archer, but they broke all contact four years ago. Now Archer’s sister turns up and tells Henry that Tad is missing on a visit to Deptford. She also says that he feared for his life before he went and that he believed he held the key to ending slavery in Britain. Henry is rather skeptical about these equally paranoid and grandiose claims, but discovers that his old friend has been tortured and killed. Risking a scandal, marital breakdown and political suicide, Harry sets out to find Tad’s killer through challenging the wealthy slave traders of England.

Apparently the centre of slave trading in 1780s England was Deptford. The little town contains a large number of people whose livelihood depends on the slave trade. Considering that Tad was a staunch abolitionist and that he was staring up trouble in the town and was murdered there, that leaves about 3000 suspects. The local authorities are unwilling to make the most basic enquiries about Tad’s death, but Henry is head-strong and suspects to suspect that Tad’s death was related to some mysterious goings on at the ship The Dark Angel. What did Tad know? Who was willing to kill him for it? The town mayor? One of the local slave merchant? An angry sailor? The racist local doctor? Everyone have a potential motive.

To start with I thought Henry rather bland. He did not seem to particularly heroic or cowardly, interesting or uninteresting. But as the story gets going and we learn more about he becomes much engaging. We learn that Henry’s relationship with Tad was more than just a friendship, a fact Henry has been trying to forget. We learn that he loves his wife, Caro, but that he does not know how to make his marriage work. I wish we had learnt more about why he craves the political career he so wants. Is it just because of Caro wants to him to have a career? Is it because he is completely mindless and does whatever is expected of him? Perhaps we know that he holds some unfashionable views on abolition so he can think for himself. Henry is not a brilliant detective. Actually he is pretty stupid at times; He is strangely trusting with the people he suspects of being involved in his friend’s death, and at one point he willingly takes medicine from the surgeon he as long since established was involved in Tad’s death.

I wish the author had developed Caro’s character a bit more. She is presented to us as a shallow woman who mainly cares for the opinions of society and her own advancement in the world. Towards the end of the book we learn a bit more about her opinions on her own marriage, but to be honest, she is as much a mystery at then end of the book as she was at the beginning. Caro shows herself to be a caring mother and an intelligent strategist – the author not exploring her character more feels like a missed opportunity.

If you know something about the Zong-trial, you will easily guess the motive for Tad’s gruesome murder. It was a hugely important trial and has been depicted in movies like Belle. The story about the Dark Angel seems to have pretty much copied from that historical scandal. If you have not heard about the Zong, do not google it. You will probably enjoy this book much more if you walk in with little background knowledge.

Bloood & Sugar does an excellent job of showing how the British economy at the time was tide up in slave trading. Ironmongers, merchants, sailors, the navy and entire towns dependent on the trade in human flesh. And some became profited ALOT from it. We are talking rich enough to live in extreme luxury and control the country type rich! Most of the population in England let it go on; they were willing to turn a blind eye in exchange for cheap sugar and tobacco. It is uncomfortable reading as it brings to mind the child labour and human mistreatment that goes into making our modern day cheap clothing and other consumer products.

The enslaved people and ex-slaves we get to know, Cinnamon, Scipio, Mary, Caesar and Moses, are thankfully presented as full, three-dimensional human beings and not saintly, simple Uncle Toms. Their experiences are not a united one. In fact they have chosen different ways of dealing with their situation (acceptance, resistance, art, work or hope). Which makes sense, they come from different backgrounds, are of different genders and have different levels of education. Cinnamon is the daughter of a white man and a Nigerian slave, now a concubine but used to a life of gentility. Scipio has earned his freedom the only way he knows how to: by becoming useful to his oppressors and aid them in their enslaving activities. Mary is a prostitute who suffers from privacy but has managed to make some very clear lines for how much humiliation she is willing to take. Moses is the artsy idealist who wants to fight, but not through violence, and he despises Africans that act in ‘an uncivilized’ fashion. These people only share a skin color and a wish to be free. But really, this book is more about the effects of being a slave-trading nation, about being a slave owner than the experience of being a slave. In that sense, this book is one of may that discuss the white experience of the triangle trade. Not exactly a fresh, unexplored perspective on this historical period.

The author has taken care to make the slave traders complex as well. We get to see how rational, how kind and how intelligent they can. In some ways they reminded me of Nazis – in their eyes, the victims of their violence are so fully dehumanized that they can do whatever they want with good conscience. These men were able to do gruesome acts against Africans and then walk home to spend some time with their families. You need not be mad, angry, repulsive and constantly abusive to do horrible things to your fellow human beings. You just need enough greed and framework of justification.

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