“London in 1781 is a ravenous behemoth, swallowing forest and field, outlying villages, entire towns. Five miles to the east, on the banks of the river Thames, lies Deptford; gateway port to the distant oceans and untold riches. A town where fortunes in sugar and slaves are made and lost, thieves and prostitutes roam the streets by night, and sailors lose themselves in drink, trying to forget the things they did and saw upon the Middle Passage.”
Why Did I Read This Book?
I had heard about this book from a friend who, like me, is a history fanatic. I love historical fiction novels and I was really intrigued by this book as it is set in Deptford Docks; the home of London’s dark slave history. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that actually goes into detail about London’s role in the slave trade. We all learn about slavery during our time in education, but this book certainly rewrites London importance in the inhumane trade.
What Did I Think?
First of all, I don’t think this book would have been half as good if Laura Shepherd Robinson (LSR) hadn’t have done all the tireless research into the gruesome history of the Deptford Docks. She said that she spent many endless days in the Museum of London Docklands (somewhere definitely on my list to go to once this whole lockdown is over) and that is probably why her debut novel Blood & Sugar is so enthralling.
The book starts with the murder of pro-abolitionist Thaddeus Archer. His friend and narrator, Captain Harry Corsham, sets off to unveil his murderer and the secrets of Deptford Docks. This historical fiction crime thriller (all of my favourite things combined into one) had me hooked on every page and my opinion on who the murderer was changed with every chapter. I guess that was why I was so hooked.
I hadn’t known before reading this book that Deptford was one of the key ports for the Atlantic slave trade and LSR does a fantastic job of depicting slavery as it was understood in those times; a vital trade. There were only a few known abolitionists back then and they were very much considered ‘extremists’ by society. Perhaps understandable then why all the pro-abolitionists in this story are treated so badly.
I think what is even more important is that LSR gives 18th century black Londoners a voice in this book and highlights their role in society, especially those considered to be ‘free’. The historical note at the back of the book really sheds light on the context of the tale and some of the underlying stories featured inside its pages. One story that runs alongside the murder mystery is the tale about three hundred slaves tragically murdered on a ship called The Dark Angel during its journey across the Middle Passage. It was a really shocking story and one I found hard to read. But it was in fact based on a true story that should never be forgotten. LSR talks about the fact that one of the greatest achievements of the abolitionist movement was the act of publicising slave horror stories like these to shock the British public and to make them aware of the barbarity behind the trade.
“If this were a different, better world, then the murder of Thaddeus Archer might have changed history…yet as Caro says, this is the world we live in…still less give any thought to the three hundred and six African men, women and children who were murdered aboard The Dark Angel.”
The ending. Well I’m not sure if I liked it or not. Some days I’m like yes, I get why LSR did that but then other days I’m like no, I wish it wasn’t who it was. I’ll leave you to decide on what you thought, but I don’t know if I agree with who she decided to go with.
All in all, I really enjoyed this book and it differed from the historical fiction I have read before. I love how the author depicted the scenery. The way she writes about Deptford in 1781 is honestly so gruesome and encapsulating, next time I’m down in London, I’ll definitely be able to picture what it was like. Credit to LSR on creating a thrilling read and proving why we should never forget our gory history.
“The fog hung thick and low over the Thames. It rolled in off the water and along the quays, filling the squalid courts and dockside alleys of lower Deptford. The local name for a fog like this is the Devil’s Breath. It stank of the river’s foul miasma.”