The Master of Ships by Naomi Finley is a short historical novella that follows the lives of Charles Hendricks, a wealthy American, slave-owner and merchant, in the 1840’s and the woman he fell in love with, in England, the half-black, former slave, Isabella. This novella is obviously a continuation of a story begun earlier, but it is not necessary to have read the previous book to obtain enjoyment from this one. Charles, despite being cheated on by his wife and his brother, a union that produced a child, was madly and deeply in love with his wife and was happy to raise the child as his own. When his wife is murdered by fellow whites for being a “nigger lover” (apparently she was active in the Underground Railway helping fleeing slaves in the American South), he is devastated and distraught, taking to sea and to drink to try to numb the pain of his loss. When he finds Isabella, beaten and unconscious in a London alleyway, in his inebriated condition, he determines to help her. What starts out as friendship rapidly turns to love, but Charles cannot let his wife’s memory go and more importantly perhaps, as a slave-owner himself, loving a black woman would ruin his business, his reputation and endanger the lives of Isabella, his daughter Willow and himself.
The Master of Ships is a novella and as such is a little short for me to be a totally satisfying read, however, what there was I found intriguing, exciting and fulfilling. Author Naomi Finley has created some archetypal characters from the era. Charles, especially, conflicted as he was by the love of his late wife and the need for him to ensure his daughter (niece, in reality) received the upbringing she deserved, along with his deep and abiding love for Isabella made him a fascinating study in morals and beliefs, at a time when people were routinely subject to ownership and subjugation. Charles was caught neatly between two worlds, unsure what the right move was but knowing he did not want to, indeed, could not lose Isabella from his life. As perhaps I’d intimated earlier, my only regret with this exceptional story was that it wasn’t a full-length novel. What I particularly enjoyed about the story was the moral debate over the appropriateness of slavery and the idea that somehow slaves or black people are in some way lesser than white or even sub-human. This was a debate that rattled through Charles’ mind the entire time. I note the author is planning the next chapter in this saga soon and the greatest compliment I can perhaps pay her is to say, I will be waiting for the next instalment, to find out what happens in this love story and where the main characters move on from here.