A Respectable Trade is, IMHO, Philippa Gregory’s most confrontational book. I wouldn’t say her best-written book, but definitely her most uncomfortably thought-provoking, even beating out the incest-and-rape storyline of Wideacre’s sequel, The Favoured Child.
I’ll given Gregory credit where credit is due; for her failings as a writer, she has always had a knack for portraying the horrors and unfairness of those in an underclass – namely women. In Trade she writes about largely-fictitious characters in the very real slave-trade culture of Bristol, England in the 1700’s.
So we have Josiah Cole, a merchant – largely in tea, coffee, rum and spices, but having made a recent foray into the slave trade – who decides to marry Frances Scott, a woman far above his station but also far beyond the respectable age of marriage. They both consider it a good trade; her social connections for his security of marriage.
But things don’t go well. The book veers off into the story of Mehuru, a priest/diplomat who negotiates peace and trade agreements with several African nations in the general area. (I apologise here for my lack of understanding of eighteenth-century African borders; I imagine it to be a cluster of European-sized nations in Africa’s north-west.) He’s captured, along with his slave Siko, while, ironically, on a peace mission. It’s interesting how they distinguish between Siko as a slave and Mehuru as a slave; basically, Siko chose to become an indentured labourer who will free himself through hard work; Mehuru was snatched, his credentials denied, and bundled off to another continent where he and his children would be slaves for the term of their natural lives.
That’s the last we hear of Siko. Mehuru ends up with the Coles, and Frances trying to teach them English. In one of the book’s grimly humorous moments, Frances is attempting to teach them ‘table’. Day-bull, they obediently parrot, although they have no idea if she means the type of wood, the polish, the woodmaker, or the table’s function. It’s an insightful look, not so much into the language barrier but the cultural barrier; Frances simply doesn’t understand that maybe they don’t understand the Western way of looking at things.
When she demands their names, they give her names which are actually African words for how they feel: Homeless, Lost, Accursed. Frances accepts those as their names because it doesn’t occur to her to look into their language and culture; for all her oppression as a woman, she still enjoys the privilege of being white, ergo, not having to think any way but white.
Remember what I said about Trade being quite confrontational? In one scene, one of Josiah’s partners Charles from Jamaica comes by. He seems quite proud of the fact he exploits his blacks slaves shamelessly, as a white owner has a right to do. He demands a woman from Josiah’s stock; reluctantly, he gets the keys off Frances, who is even more reluctant to obey. But Charles gets his way, and rapes the woman while Josiah literally looks the other way. She names herself Died of Shame. We never learn her real name.
Afterwards, Died of Shame first tries to poison herself by eating dirt, and when Josiah gets wind of it and gets Charles’s advice – her says she’s full of spite and doing it just to deny him the profit – so they put a bridle on her. Imagine having your jaw wired shut, then multiply it by five. Eventually, with Mehuru’s blessing, Died of Shame wills herself to death.
The attitude towards slavery is tragic. The Scotts, Charles etc view them as animals, but I’m pretty sure even then, horse traders knew you had to treat animals with a certain degree of respect and decent up-keep. It made me think of the attitude towards women that still prevails; that they are lesser human beings, but can still work as hard as a man and take ten times as much abuse, and for less pay.
Frances and Mehuru form a relationship – they actually become lovers – where she slowly comes to realise the unfairness of the situation. They have not only stolen the men and women from their homes to do their bidding, but they have stolen their faith, culture and identity as well. And they wonder why they choose to die instead? Trade is set in the burgeoning anti-slavery era and there are a surprising number of people willing to smuggle out slaves and keep them safe. (Mind you, there’s also a whole bunch of people determined to snatch blacks, free or owned, and keep them for themselves, so maybe I shouldn’t be counting on humanity just yet.)
In the end, Frances dies, bequeathing her things to Josiah and his sister Sarah. But since the slaves are in her name, then she is free, so to speak, to free them. The final words of her will are “Perhaps one day we can live together in love and respect”. I know it’s not what Gregory meant, but imagine; people of all races, genders and sexualities, mingling with one another in a meritocracy. Is it idealistic? Yes. Can it be achieved in our time? I’d say no. But is it worth striving for?