Cambridge is a devoutly Christian slave in the West Indies whose sense of justice is both profound and self-destructive, while Emily is a morally-blind, genteel Englishwoman.
Emily Cartwright's father never visited his West Indian estate—however, Emily was to learn that it was just such absenteeism which contributed to social anarchy. It was risky for a young nineteenth-century woman to be dispatched, with only her maidservant as companion, to survey the far-flung holding. And when the maid died in the crossing Miss Cartwright was left friendless, even if she was the massa's daughter, to encounter a complex sugar empire, and the tropical unknown, alone.
There was a mystery attached to the disappearance of the estate's last overseer; and its incumbent, Mr. Brown, might not be all he seemed. Despite his coarse civility, even occasional courtliness to Miss Cartwright, why did he encourage the presence at a table of a wild-looking negress, feared by her own people for her acquaintance with the magical arts of obeah? Why was Brown so obsessed with subjugating the Christian slave Cambridge, whose command of English was so unaccountably accomplished? Sexual undercurrents impinged upon decorum, and even the most refreshing of relationships seemed blighted from the outset.
Two worlds, connected by the insult of slavery, are explored in this powerful novel: the Caribbean plantation hierarchy in its every shade of prejudice; and England, at a time when the abolition of slavery was official, but London "bird and beast shops" still sold African children like pets. It is a shocking and unforgettable account of inhumanity—of self-pronounced Christian nation resistant to black religious conversion because all people might suddenly recognize that they were equal under God.