October 29, 2000
Economics in Film
Many economic systems are revealed in A Respectable Trade: Slavery, Feudalism, Self-Employment, and Capitalism. England in 1788 was entering a period of economic transition. Viewing this finite period in A Respectable Trade allows us, as economists, to dissect the different market systems prevalent during that time.
Slavery is the market system most focused on in A Respectable Trade. Josiah's "respectable trade" involves trading sugar, cocoa, coffee and cotton in Africa for captured Negro men, women and children. He then ships these "slaves" to the Caribbean, where he sells them. He makes all of his money in the sale of these people. While Josiah and Sarah Cole have been involved in the slave trade for many years, in 1788 they have just begun to experience the immediate effects of slaves in their lives. Josiah has determined that he will make more money if he ships some slaves to England to train as house slaves. He has married Frances so that she will train and teach them while they live with the Cole's in England. Josiah, Sarah, and Frances are learning the techniques of the slave master. As the film progresses, Josiah becomes more crass and unfeeling toward the slaves, seeing them solely as property. When the slaves first arrive, he feels awkward and anxious about harming them. He knows that he should punish them and lord over them, but he is more comfortable allowing Bates to reprimand and beat the slaves. He allows his customer to rape the slave girl, but he is uncomfortable doing so and does not want to watch. However, at the end of the movie, he stands over Bates while he severely beats Matthew, watching closely with no remorse. Holding human beings as property by chaining them and locking them in the house, controlling their lives and fates by selling them and forcing them to work, Josiah Cole has become a cruel slave master. Frances has a chief role in the slave system. Marrying Josiah, she becomes a teacher and a manager of the slaves in her home. She teaches them English, manners, and proper ways to serve their masters so they may become a more successful sale for Josiah. She does not do this because she desires his success, but because she is held in marriage in a feudal contract.
Francis, a young woman without significant funds, without supportive family, and without an acceptable job, has few options in life. She attempts to find work as a governess, searching through the papers to find a respectable teaching job. Instead she finds Josiah Cole, an offer of marriage, and a "respectable trade". Francis, her uncle, and Josiah approach the marriage as a financial transaction, bargaining over initial monetary exchange as well as an allowance for Francis. This is an acceptable deal for all of them; Francis is out of the house and supported by a husband and Josiah has a manager for his slaves. Most marriage in 1788 is not concerned with love, but instead with financial or status gains. Francis is sold into a feudal contract. Josiah controls all monetary resources. Although Francis has an "allowance", it can be suspended or withheld at any time by her "feudal lord". She is expected to contribute to the household, to increase Josiah's wealth by increasing the slaves worth. But no matter how much she does, Josiah is always going to have a monopoly over capital. Francis is Josiah's property under the bondage contract of marriage.
Self-Employment is the major economic system in England in 1788, although it is not the focus of A Respectable Trade. Doctor Hadley is self-employed. He began his business with his own initial endowment of resources. He makes his money through individual transactions, where he is responsible for his motivation and management. No one else is involved in his business, so he receives all of the gross profits of his work. Caesar is also self-employed. He and his partner run a printing business, printing flyers and books that interest them and aid them in their cause. Although two people run the business, it is classified as self-employment because the company was started by the initial endowment of resources of Caesar's partner, and Caesar bought co-ownership of the company after he had made enough money. They are the only two responsible for management and motivation, and they receive the surplus of their work. The most natural system of economics because it does not require forced or hired labor, self-employment is a major economic system in England in 1788.
Probably the least common economic system during this period is Capitalism. The only example of Capitalism that the movie shows is the Cole's cook. She is paid a wage, lives outside of the Cole's home, and can leave at any time. However, hiring oneself out for a wage was uncommon and unnatural during this period, and it was not prevalent in 1788. Most of the work was done by people who were forced to do it by their masters (as in slavery and feudalism) or who did it of their own accord (like the self-employed).
A Respectable Trade is mainly a love story that reveals the humane side of slavery. However, most of the economic systems operating in 1788 are present in this film, and it is interesting and informative to see how they all interconnect. Slavery, feudalism, self-employment, and capitalism are all present in varying degrees within English economics in 1788, and A Respectable Trade is a good mode by which to view them.
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