Laura Shepherd-Robinson tells Historia how a shameful period in Britain’s history spurred her to write Blood & Sugar.
My debut novel, Blood & Sugar, is set in Deptford in 1781, at a time when the British slave trade was at its height. I wanted to write it because I am ashamed of this part of our history and wanted to explore its evils in the context of a crime novel. I remember vividly learning about slavery in school: the horrific image of the slave ship, Brookes, packed with bodies; and the ‘triangle’ depicting the slave routes on a map of the Atlantic.
It made my skin crawl, especially growing up in my home town of Bristol, with its beautiful Georgian mansions built on the profits of the slave trade and civic buildings donated by the city’s wealthiest slave merchants, who were commemorated for their philanthropy with statues.
Yet in my lessons at school, Britain’s role in slavery was considered firmly through the prism of William Wilberforce and slavery’s eventual abolition, which was presented as a great stride forward for modernity and enlightenment. Our active participation in the slave trade for nearly three centuries remains an uncomfortable subject, too little understood.
Slavery, alongside the sugar and tobacco trades, brought in vast revenues to the British state, as well as creating many dependant industries: the builders of the giant ocean-going ‘Guineamen’; ironmongers who manufactured chains and collars; as well as the makers of the guns, tools and other goods bartered to the slave-trading kingdoms on the African coast in exchange for their prisoners.
Where there is money, there is power, and the slave trade had a large contingent of defenders in Parliament: the formidable West India lobby, many of whom were slave traders themselves. My main character in Blood & Sugar, Captain Harry Corsham, finds himself in opposition to these powerful interests, as he tries to discover who murdered his friend, the abolitionist, Tad Archer. I wanted to depict slavery as it was widely understood in 1781 – a respectable trade, lauded by all except a few brave religious and political ‘extremists’ – not as the national embarrassment it later became.
Deptford, then a slave trading port on the Thames, five miles from London, seemed the perfect setting for this story. Harry moves from seamy dockside alleys full of brothels, taverns and opium dens, to elegant London drawing rooms where great crimes against humanity are plotted. Like the West India lobby, Deptford’s slave ship sailors are protective of their jobs and their secrets, and the local authorities, corrupted by slave money, take great exception to his presence in Deptford too. The river is the source of Deptford’s wealth and commerce, but at night it is a place of fogs and stinks and murky depths.
Other inspiration came from the stories of 18th-century black Londoners and the role they played in abolition. Many black slaves – often brought back to Britain by plantation owners when they retired – then lived in Britain. In 1772, a slave, James Somerset, whose master was trying to return him to his Jamaican plantations, sued for his freedom in the courts. The Lord Chief Justice, very reluctantly, found slavery to be incompatible with Magna Carta, a great victory for Somerset and the fledgling abolitionist movement.
From that point on, the legal status of slaves on British soil was mired in ambiguity. Some presumed the judgement granted freedom to all black slaves in Britain and many immediately left their masters or demanded wages. But for many years afterwards, black slaves continued to be advertised for sale in British newspapers, alongside offers of reward for the return of runaways. The threat of forcible deportation to slave-holding colonies had in theory been lifted, but covert abductions continued to take place in the decades to come. Slavery didn’t just happen on the other side of the world, it happened here, and on all sides of the Atlantic. We are still living with the consequences today.
The plot of Blood & Sugar is directly inspired by a real-life massacre on board a slave ship, The Zong. This crime and the trial that followed had profound consequences for the British slave trade, as it brought home to a previously indifferent British public the logical and horrific consequences of treating human prisoners as cargo. That great achievement of the abolitionists – turning the tide of public opinion by publicising slavery’s horrors – laid the seeds of a great political movement, which ultimately led to abolition.
Slavery is understandably a sensitive subject, and I debated long and hard about how much of the brutality to include. The sexual exploitation of female slaves, in particular, caused me much soul-searching, but I decided I shouldn’t shy away from it. Such exploitation is all over the historical record, with some slave ship captains and plantation owners recounting their abuse in their journals with appalling frankness.
Another aspect which struck me in the course of my research was how much those who came into contact with slavery suffered from what we would now call PTSD. The degrading, brutalising effects of slavery are a theme of Blood & Sugar: from the slave wealth that corrupts local and national politics to the sailors driven by poverty to the slave trade – and the appalling things that trade demanded of them; current slaves desperately trying to gain their freedom; and former slaves trying to overcome the brutality of their past. Blood & Sugar is a crime novel with several murderers, yet the greatest villain is slavery itself.
As well as a story about slavery, Blood & Sugar is a novel about the things people do in extremis. Harry Corsham is torn between ambition and principle. His efforts to uncover the mysteries he encounters in Deptford risk his career, his family’s happiness and his life. His struggles to remain true to himself and his beliefs are driven by his memories of a dead man he refuses to forget. Perhaps most of all, Blood & Sugar is a story about love and friendship, the kind that lasts a lifetime and beyond.
Slavers throwing overboard the Dead and Dying — Typhoon coming on by JMW Turner: via Wikimedia
Plan of the slave ship Brookes: via Wikimedia
Deptford Creek: British History Online
Somerset v Stewart in A complete collection of state trials and proceedings for high treason and other crimes and misdemeanors, comp TB Howell: Hathi Trust
Slaves being thrown overboard from the ship Zong: via Wikimedia