Historical fiction guru Philippa Gregory tackles an important subject in this novel, treating the slave trade in Greta Briton with compassion and an eye to its historical implications. Once the merchant-venturers hit upon the lucrative scheme of importing slaves from Africa, their endeavor proves brilliant, paying investors handsomely, establishing Briton as a maritime and economic power and center for capitalism. To be sure, the industrial revolution is financed by the enormous profits of the slave trade and the bartering of plantation goods. By 1787, the trade in human cargo is exploding, heavily-financed vessels sailing from the Bristol docks to Africa in increasing numbers.
Josiah Cole is a small fish in a huge pond, yearning to fulfill his ambitions by taking advantage of the slave economy. To that end, the ineffective Cole agrees to an arranged marriage with Frances Scott, a young woman with significant social contacts but no dowry to speak of. Josiah hopes to join his business acumen with her impressive contacts, increasing their potential for success. The first shipment of slaves includes Mehuru, a priest in his own country, captured, shackled and at the mercy of his new white masters. When Frances undertakes the tutoring of the slaves, Mehuru displays a notable propensity for learning the nuances of the language, serving as a go-between with the other slaves, appealing to Frances' kindness to intercede on their behalf. Through their interaction, Frances becomes more aware of the evils of the trade, meanwhile falling helplessly in love with a man who is, at best, her property.
Under the suspicious eyes of her sister-in-law, Sarah Cole, Mehuru challenges Frances to examine her conscience, demanding that she set him free if she truly loves him. The clandestine affair blooms in secrecy, but is doomed by society that allows masters and slaves to coexist. While Frances examines the immorality of trading in human lives, Josiah continues to be plagued by poor business decisions, duped by those he seeks to join, the Merchant Venturers. For Mehuru, a new future looms, abolition a topic of heated debate in Parliament, activist groups like the London Society interceding on behalf of the working poor and the slaves. Certainly, great change hovers on the horizon, as evidenced by a restive France and America.
Gregory paints a picture of a country in flux, greedy for economic dominance, the trade in slaves facilitating expansion on a significant level. At the same time, the love affair between Frances and Mehuru allows the exploration of the human element, the contrast of slaves and masters, lives forever changed by a system that yields tremendous profit for the investors. Ensconced in a marriage that is little better than a barter for security, Frances is beset by status anxiety, common among such women who have no financial prospects save a well-considered marriage. As isolated in her way as Mehuru, Frances falls easily into this ill-starred romance, learning too late the value of personal freedom in a profit-driven world. Luan Gaines.