Updated: June 21, 2020 11:50:10 am
Readers of crime fiction cannot fully explain, even if they feel it in their bones, what might be so comforting about reading about blood and gore in the middle of a pandemic. The fact that there is a crime in an otherwise placid world, which gets resolved by the last page, gives a sense of (false) comfort to the reader. The setting of the crime, usually idyllic or well-known, gives a sense of double ease that things have stayed the way “they were” once the crime is solved.
On both counts — in describing the sulphuric air of London as well as the grisly murder of an abolitionist — debut novelist Laura Shepherd Robinson is unsparing. In Blood and Sugar, a vividly-told murder story set in 1781, you are thrust into a London just about beginning to savour the joys of Empire as well as get to see the underbelly of the slave trade which made it profitable.
A decorated war veteran, Captain Corsham, fancying his chances of moving up in the House of Commons, has his life turned upside down as he faces up to the murder of his oldest friend, killed in circumstances connected to the Empire’s darkest dimensions. Corsham recognises that unveiling what his late friend died for is going to put him at odds with the influential West Indian lobby in London, but the truth of what he uncovers forces him to continue regardless.
The atmospheric descriptions of late 18th century London confront the darkness that colonial prosperity is built on. The profit that comes from treating human beings worse than chattels is confronted each time a tobacco leaf or the stirring of sugar grains in teacups is mentioned. The historical context is skilfully woven into the plot which, though fictional, is based on a real incident aboard a slave ship, The Zong. In the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, running short of supplies, its captain killed 132 slaves by drowning them. His insurance claim on the murdered slaves is what brought this to court and to light.
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The owners did not win the claim but there was no prosecution either as the murder of slaves did not ruffle any feathers. Former slave-turned-abolitionist campaigner Olaudah Equano and Granville Sharp used the incident to campaign for the abolition of the slave trade, even though the abolition bill was passed only in 1807 in Britain. Slavery and systemic oppression are again in the news, this time in the US, following the murder of a black man, George Floyd, by a white police officer.
The stain of slavery may be seen as something outside the Indian consciousness but it is not. Millions were shipped away from India to work as indentured labour in British colonies in an indirect consequence of the abolition of slavery. The Girmitiyas — or the people of the “agreement” that they signed and willed off their freedoms — hasn’t got the attention in the Indian imagination as it, perhaps, should have. But books like Robinson’s shake you into understanding the ways in which the institutionalised system of treating some as “lesser-born” still lives on. The biggest achievement of the author is to leave the reader with a distinct doubt over which of the two crimes it is that this novel seeks to place at the centre. Is it about the brutal murder or the other crime that constantly hangs in the air and makes London, the capital of the “fledgeling empire” connecting mercantile and military power, flourish with its “elegant drawing rooms, washed down by bowls of sweetened teas”?
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