Slavery's 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 ...view middle of the document...
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.