The lucrative slave trade is the topic of Gregory’s reissued novel, set in Bristol, England in the prosperous late eighteenth century. The merchant class is expanding trade boundaries, exporting and importing plantation goods, the most enormous profits from trafficking in humans plundered from the Dark Continent.
Josiah Cole, a Bristol merchant, has long desired to increase his cargo and take advantage of the surge in economic growth, somewhat kept in check by his sister, Sarah. However, when Josiah enters into a purely financial marriage with Frances Scott, it is with an eye to combining his skills with her excellent social contacts. With no security, Frances eagerly makes her bargain with Josiah, haunted by her need for a safe place in society.
As Josiah sends his newly purchased ships in search of more human cargo, the first group is brought to Frances. It is her job to take the Africans in hand, teaching them the rudiments of language to increase their value as house servants as opposed to being sold to work on plantations.
The most impressive of this group, Mehuru, a priest in his native land now reduced to the property of the whites. Mehuru captures Frances’ attention; particularly adept and comprehending the nuances of the English language, he serves as a facilitator with the other slaves. Frances is fascinated with the noble Mehuru and increasingly depends upon him for help with the needs of the slaves, much against the wishes of her sister-in-law.
As fascination turns to attraction, Frances is faced with an impossible conundrum: this affair has no future and brings much danger to both parties. Nevertheless, Frances is unable to resist. Mehuru demands that she set him free if she truly loves him, a challenge that brings all of her beliefs into question.
Taken under the wing of a group of abolitionists working for change for slaves in Parliament, Mehuru soon learns of the opportunities awaiting a courageous man and quietly plots with the other slaves to escape before they are sold. But when the time comes, he is unable to leave Frances at her time of need.
Meanwhile, Josiah continues his business dealings, greed taking the place of judgment as he mortgages future cargo to invest in property. Josiah’s hubris proves to be his undoing, the money owed far exceeding revenue in hand. Before long, Josiah faces ruin, his fine dreams crumbled in the face of the treachery of so-called friends.
Gregory tackles the issue of human trafficking with historical detail and compassion for those souls used as barter for profit. The ill-starred relationship of master and slave, Frances and Mehuru, serves as an example of the futility of such a relationship. This novel offers a vivid picture of the trade that would establish Briton as a maritime and economic power and center for capitalism, financing the industrial revolution, this small country on the verge of world dominance.