Nov. 10, 2000
Econ in Flim
A “Respectable” Trade?
A Respectable Trade is quite an ironic title for such an enterprise as slavery. In the 1700s Britain, and France, traded cheap manufactured goods for slaves. 1788 was the beginning of the abolition movement, yet slave trade was still booming. Frances Scott, the protagonist of the movie, was thrust into the horrors of slavery when she decided to marry Josiah Cole. This marriage was an economic contract benefiting Josiah much more than Francis. Francis was a widow, she lived with her uncle, but she didn’t have many choices being a single woman of those times. She could have become a governess, but she wasn’t too good at that as we see at the beginning of the movie when her pupil hits her and runs out. Having a husband gives her economic security, or so she thought because she’d get an annual allowance. In turn, Josiah receives an educated woman, a woman of higher status with connections with the elite, and a schoolteacher for his slaves. Educated slaves in the house serving field are worth more than field slaves because they can speak English, they are supposedly more civilized because they learn the bible and can speak English so it is easier to give them orders.
Frances didn’t really know what she was getting into at all when she accepted Josiah’s proposal. On her wedding night Josiah went to a bar to get drunk and brag of his socially high wife. When he returned home he knelt down next to his bed to pray, yet the only thing he prayed for were his two slave ships, the Rose and the Daisy. He prays to God to let his ships, packed with extremely abused, horrified, mentally tortured, dehumanized people, come back to him in one piece with all these people decent enough to sell. This perhaps illustrates that Josiah thinks that slavery is moral, he has no hesitancy in destroying African people’s lives and selling them so he can buy a bigger house (and hideous blue dragon things). When Frances goes back to Josiah’s house, by the navy yard, it’s like she has entered an entirely different world. She sees that her new husband is severely financially inferior to her uncle. All of his income derives from his two ships going to Africa, capturing slaves and taking them to plantation owners in Jamaica in exchange for rum and sugar. The rest of the slaves, which Frances teaches, that make it to England are trained to become handmaids, butlers, and other servants. She teaches them the English language and she teaches them deference, to be sold at a high price they must be completely obedient. They must also be broken of will, or pretend that they are. Mr. Bates is Josiah’s right hand man in “breaking” the slaves. He teaches the slaves by physically reprimanding them, their place in life and the way they should act according to their status (or lack of). One of the slaves dies early on due to Mr. Bates physical severity; the death, though it affects Frances in a spiritual way, it hits Bates and Josiah in an economic fashion. The death of a slave is nothing more than the loss of goods, and the prospect of the profits he/she could have made for Josiah.
Josiah has a sister Sarah who helps him run the business. She formerly did the books, a job that was passed to Frances as another of her duties, and she had a say in the proceedings of the two ships. Once Frances (a great asset) enters the picture, Sarah is forced into the background because Frances has more merit in the eyes of her husband because she is more educated than she. Frances also is given more leverage in the household because she offers Josiah connections that he formerly wouldn’t even be able to dream of. He, because of her status, was able to join the Merchant Venturers, quite an elite group of slave traders and can thereby get loans from fellow Venturers. Unfortunately for Josiah, at the beginning of the movie he made a bad business move. He sent the Rose to Africa as usual, but he ordered 550 Africans to be captured and enslaved on the tiny ship that has a capacity of 300. Josiah needed money badly after the marriage and the loan Frances’ uncle gave him, and also the pressure of living in a nicer house in a respectable area. Josiah’s plan was to pick up these 550 slaves and sell them to the Spanish for gold. This intended transaction goes against the British Union, but Josiah was very desperate. Frances, throughout the movie, questions her ethics and morals. She knows what is being done to the Africans is not right, but she doesn’t know what to do because it is so engrained in her society and her life. She still sees the slaves, though they have become assimilated into British ways and therefore deemed more “civilized”, as property. When one of the slaves, Matthew, ran away she exclaimed that it was wrong of him to do so because he was their property. Frances is confused abut her feelings and her morals. Josiah tells her that he brings a few black pagans to Britain to become servants, he neglects to tell her about the hundreds more he sells. He brings a few blacks back to bring them into real civilization and to teach the “savages” the ways of the west.
Frances greatly increases the prices of her pupils in that she teaches them valuable services. Slaves are held in a chattel relationship with their owners. The slaves are simply owned by the masters who own their labor. In this process of slavery, Frances was actually a feudal producer. She was a manager, of the slaves, and the slaves did the productive work. She was held in the bondage of marriage and a feudal bondage contract. She taught the slaves so that they would be more profitable in the future. They also have a wider range of services now. Self-employment is another economic system in this movie. Dr. Hadley and Caesar the printer are both self-employed. They both produce something (the doctor, services and Caesar, writing), but Josiah couldn’t be considered self-employed because he didn’t produce anything. Hired labor, or capitalism, also entered the movie in that the cook of the household was paid wages to cook for the family. Then of course there was slaver in which Josiah had control over productive resources, in this case human beings, slaves. There was a chattel relationship, as mentioned before. Their was an organization of production, in Josiah’s case it was hierarchical; Josiah was the head, there was Bates (who used brutality to show his power), and there was Francis who was their manager. Though she is paid, or given an allowance, she is still in a feudal relationship because Josiah has all monetary control and can withhold her allowance if he wants. Josiah has the monopoly over capital, and Frances is a serf in the lord’s household.
All is lost for Josiah at the end of the movie because the Rose returned empty wrecked. Josiah gambled all his money on this ship, not to mention the Bathe he was coerced into buying. Frances had done her job, she had trained the slaves so they could be sold at reasonably high prices. Josiah was the cause of his own economical downfall, and consequently his mental one. A great part of the movie was the very end where he encounters Moses, a slave, and ends up begging Moses for money not recognizing him and thereby calling him a great man and so forth. He ended up begging his own slave, his own economic good, for savior.
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