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Men w/ Guns/ Respectable Trade

Posted by Molly Olm-Shipman on November 15, 2000 at 00:40:41:

In the movies "Men with Guns", and "A Respectable Trade", we see the distinction between the economic systems of slavery and feudalism. Though they may seem similar in their oppressiveness, the two systems operate under very different conditions.
The feudalistic system in "Men with Guns" is orchestrated by the government; there is no competing system to 'disillusion' the Indian workers. This manipulation is violently enforced on the Indians, as each person sent from the 'outside' to teach, heal, or pray for the people, is brutally murdered. This is one of the necessary conditions for the perpetuation of the system. If feudal serfs see an alternative system (such as capitalism) they are bound to resist the feudal lords.
The ground was laid for feudalism when the government forced the Indians off of the 'good land'. In order to maintain survival, the people were forced to work in the jobs the government 'provided' them with. These jobs consisted of one 'tribe' or another to live on land that did not belong to them, and harvest a product that is owned by a nameless and faceless rich 'white man'. The Indians were left without a choice, nowhere to turn but into the debt of the landowners.
The army plays the role of feudal knight; they rape and kill the workers at whim, burn towns that appear to gain any degree of autonomy (such as the corn people). The power of the feudal lords lies in the crops that the workers are forced to grow, and the amount of fear that they can strike into the hearts of the Indians. The coffee people are harvesting an inedible crop, so they depend solely on the pittance the feudal lord allows them for food. The same situation is in place for the sugar people and the salt people. The less these workers depend on their lords for food, the more of a risk they are of breaking the feudal system. Once again, this brings to mind the corn people, who were brutally slaughtered as a warning to other tribes.
Yet another condition of feudalism is portrayed in the feudal knights' reaction to guerrillas. The knights know that they cannot hunt down each guerrilla individually, so they create a powerful incentive for the people. If a town has had suspected dealings with guerrillas, it is destroyed. If any village admits an 'outsider' such as a priest, or a doctor, it is taught a lesson by the feudal knights torturing, raping, and killing select members of the tribe (such as in the priest's village, and the boy's village). This creates such a system of fear that the Indians have no choice but to work the fields. The more the serfs work, the less likely the army is to wipe them out.
Further perpetuating the system is the way in which members of the army are instated. Rather than have a 'white' army, the landowners (safely in the cities, or in the United States) give one option to the Indians. If a person wants to escape the constant terror of the army, he may join it. The incentive is being the killer and not the killed, not to mention the higher wages. The feudal lords have woven an ingenious web; they are the 'providers' for the government, the army, and the serfs.
"A Respectable Trade" gives us a view of slavery as an economic system. Slavery is easier to orchestrate within another economic system than feudalism is, and we see it functioning within capitalism in this movie. One of the most fundamental conditions for slavery is a control over productive resources, in this situation, this means control over human beings. This is easily achieved through a network of propaganda surrounding the African race. The English are told that Africans are animals, that they are godless, and represent the devil. They are told that Africans cannot be taught, that they rape women, and children. This, obviously sets the stage for a clear conscience of the English when someone presents the idea to enslave them; after all, aren't all animals placed in this earth to do man's bidding?
The second defining factor in slavery is the chattel relationship. The master believes that the slave is property, and may be bought and sold at whim. "A Respectable Trade" illustrates this chattel relationship with characters such as the woman who is raped by Sir Charles, and then dies of the shame. The breaking down of the system is portrayed in the relationship between Frances and Moses. Frances is not able to see Moses as her property, simply because he is educated. Her preconceived notions about Africans have been shattered, and the system has begun to crumble for her. Moses does not see Frances as a mistress, because he can easily manipulate her. In the larger picture, however, society embraces the chattel relationship, and as a result, Moses and Frances are unable to escape the system unscathed.
Josiah's trade is strongly tied to capitalism. He gathers slaves from Africa to sell to Jamaica for rum and sugar to sell in Britain. Even the upper-class, well educated members of British society consider this a 'respectable trade', and Josiah believes that God is on his side for putting such 'lazy animals' to good use. Some slaves are spared from the plantation life in Jamaica, and are allowed to become maids and butlers for British elite.
Josiah's desire to reach this elite society pushes him to double up his load of slaves on an illegal business venture. He plans to sell half of these slaves to France (a treasonous action), and sell the rest to Jamaica and Britain. Josiah's faith that this venture will pull through leads him to purchase the wells in Bristol. This marks his attempt to straddle the rings of slavery and capitalism.
Slavery is so entrenched in British society, that when abolitionists speak out against it, the business men guffaw and use the defense, 'if the slave trade were to end, the economies of both France and Britain would fall as well'.
The role that Frances plays in this system is that of a teacher. After marrying Josiah, she is bound to him to do his bidding. When Josiah brings slaves into the house, Frances is forced into teaching them skills that will make them more profitable in the market. One of the most telling scenes in which Frances' role is clear, is when Sir Charles demands that a slave girl be brought up for 'sport'. Frances is summoned, because she holds the keys to the slaves' cell, and Josiah gives her no choice but to pick a slave for Sir Charles. This is a feudal relationship. Frances is paid monthly by Josiah, and she has no choice but to obey him. Bates is a feudal knight, striking fear into all in the home.


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