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A Respectable Trade - essay

Posted by Antoniya Ganeva on November 12, 2000 at 16:32:22:

Antoniya Ganeva
Economics In Film
Professor Gabriel

A Respectable Trade:

A Depiction of Slavery and Its Coexistence with Other Economic Systems


Slavery as economic order based on the ownership and exploitation of human beings as property is widely covered in A Respectable Trade. The film, however, does not solely reveal slavery and its characteristics. It is a film rich in reference to other economical orders as well, because besides elaborately showing from different aspects the processes typical for the
establishment of slavery, it touches on and gives examples on economic relationships that are rather characterized as capitalist, feudal or self-employment-related.

The action in A Respectable Trade takes place in 1788 in the English city of Bristol, starting with the marriage between Frances Scott and Josiah Cole. Frances, an educated and refined young woman of genteel origin, is left poor and with no inheritance after the death of her father. For lack of a better alternative, she marries the rough and uneducated Josiah who
trades with ships, led by the motive to import slaves directly to England, have them educated and polished by his wife, and sell them as house servants at a better price . Josiah is far from successful in his trade: he only manages to import eight slaves and eventually to sell only two of them. However, this is enough to elucidate the main characteristics of slavery as an economic order. The arrival of his slaves, the process of educating them and their final escape represent a peculiar slavery-cycle that elaborates on important economic issues such as the slaves' status, the creation of subservient attitude in them (or at least the attempt to), the strategies of breaking up their independent spirits, and their resistance.

A typical characteristic of slavery is that slaves are considered just another element of the productive resources. They are regarded as property, as chattel, and can be freely sold as such. Never considered human beings with consciousness and will, slaves are often described with the term 'instrumentum vocale', meaning that they are seen just as instruments capable of producing human speech. Naturally, like any human beings, slaves have a consciousness of free and independent people, and it takes time and effort to impose on them an attitude of subservience and obedience, a consciousness of being no longer human beings but enslaved pieces of property. In A Respectable Trade that is achieved in several
different ways.

Firstly, the slaves are imported by ships to England - extremely far from their homeland, especially in the context of the 18th century. That means automatically tearing them away from everything they know and have been accustomed to: people, customs, culture, even climate.That inevitably imposes on them a feeling of vulnerability, helplessness, and, consequently, susceptibility to their new role and new place in life. The changing of their names is another key act in breaking up their free spirit. A new name brings along a new self-identification, which in many of these cases would be a slave's one. Moreover, slaves are daily reminded of their new status: they are not only verbally instructed and scolded, but
also physically punished, which adds to their fear and increases their vulnerability and susceptibility. All these procedures have a single goal: defining in slaves a new outlook on the world and on themselves, an outlook of human machines that are not allowed to express any human emotions. Or as the overseer Bates says: "We want his spirits broken for good".

On the other hand, however, life is culturally pre-determined to such an extend, that people act more on cultural impulses rather than on biological. Therefore, if a person is born and brought up free, it would be extremely difficult, if possible at all, to replace their consciousness of free individuals with one of enslaved property, without arousing any resistance on their part. The resistance of the slaves in the film is presented in different ways. The most natural and predictable act of
resisting their present situation would be fleeing from it, and in the film it is Matthew who first dares to run away from his master. However, he is later caught, severely punished and eventually sold to a new and more cruel master. His example prevents the other slaves from escaping the same way: not so much out of fear but out of desire to stay together, stick to each other and eventually find a better solution. Another act of protest is the refusal on the slaves' part to accept the names that have been assigned to them. Moses, for example, insists that his name is Mehuru which not only keeps him from resigning himself to the new situation but also helps him keep the memories of previous way of life and culture alive.
The same is achieved (or at least attempted at) by the other slaves in their singing and dancing, although their probably not conscious of it at all.That is their way to express their true selves, their freedom, and mainly their culture that is to be reproduced and kept alive in order to keep their self-identification unharmed.

In economic terms, it is very interesting to consider Frances's role in the film. It is much more complicated and many-sided than Josiah's, although he is actually the main trader and slave-owner. In spite of the fact that she acts obediently toward Josiah, seeing her as a slave would not be justified, since she is treated as a human being and not as property. It would be more correct to qualify her role as one of a worker, a business-partner, and a manager all at the same time: a worker, because her husband pays her on monthly basis and deducts the runaway slave from her payment; a business-partner, because her opinion is respected and taken into consideration by Josiah; she makes arrangements concerning the clothing and the accommodation of the slaves that carry equal weight to those made by Sarah - the spinster sister of Josiah, who is his business-partner, too; and finally a manager or overseer, because Frances is primarily engaged in managing, supervising and teaching the slaves.

No matter what role she is assigned with in the family business, no matter whether she obeys or disobeys her husband and his sister, her aristocratic origin plays an important role in determining her status and automatically raises it above that of her husband. The fact that Frances had no other option but to marry Josiah, and the 'bondage contract'-nature of their
marriage make a reference to an economic order other than slavery -feudalism. Feudal relationships between husbandsand wives imply that the woman creates goods and services to be used by her husband, That is exactly what happens in the Coles family: because of her culture, education and manners, Frances serves to Josiah as a producer of refined and trained slaves, which inevitably raises their price and thus indirectly improves her husband's material status.

Dr. Hadley and Caesar are, on their part, representatives of another system - self-employment, and show its coexistence with slavery in the period depicted in the film. They both have enterprises of their own in which the work is done by themselves, not by workers or slaves, which is a typical feature of self-employment as a system of economic relationships.
Dr. Hadley is a producer of health, while Caesar's main occupation is printing. It is interesting to note that the self-employed people are actually the abolitionists in the film, struggling for the liberation of the slaves and for their treatment as full-right human beings. This struggle increases the tension between them and the merchants, the slave-owners respectively: a tension that has political and economic rather than personal dimensions.

A reference to yet another economic system - capitalism, is carried out in A Respectable Trade as well. Two persons in the Coles' household are employed as wage-laborers: the cook and Mrs. Brown, the housemaid. They sell portions of their life-time in the form of their work, they can be freely hired or dismissed, which reveals the capitalist nature of their
relationship to the employing family. Another example of capitalism in the film is the new spa project which is to be carried out on the top of the hill. "The New Hot Well" Project, that is supported by Josiah's former partners, now contributes to his misfortune and his failure to become a successful merchant and slave-owner. It also indirectly reveals a clash of two economic systems - slavery and capitalism. This clearly supports the idea that, although economic systems can and do coexist at any given period, that coexistence is always accompanied by tension: on personal, cultural, political and economic levels.



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