A Respectable Trade is a book I picked up on Amazon as part of a gift voucher birthday present. At only £1.99 new, it was a great bargain as it retails around the £8 mark normally.
I was surprised to find that this book was actually written around 1996 and has been made into a BBC serial, as I've never heard anything about it.
If you've heard of Philippa Gregory, it's probably because of her book The Other Boleyn Girl, which has fairly recently been made into a film starring Scarlett Johanssen and Natalie Portman. This in turn has created a wave of popularity for all her books - and that's how I discovered them too.
Gregory is best known for her historical novels focusing on the Tudors, and whilst A Respectable Trade is still an historical work of fiction, it is set in the times of the slave trade rather than the Tudor era, and follows the story of a particular group of slaves brought to England.
Gregory's Tudor novels are more tied into real (or perceived to be real) events focusing on Europe, the English royal family and their connections and court life. They therefore share the same outcomes as the reality, whereas this book is much more focused on the fictional story and only loosely historical, giving Gregory much more scope to develop her own characters and events.
A Respectable Trade takes a double perspective on the whole, as it shows the perspective of the slaves (in particular Mehuru, a well-respected member of his own society in African being a priest/witch doctor type of character), and the slave traders themselves (especially Frances Scott). They end up meeting as Frances' husband Josiah decides to import slaves on his ships and sell them as there is much more profit to be made than dealing in goods alone.
Now, it's quite unusual really, but I did study the American slave trade for a year in school, and I don't remember being anywhere near as shocked about it as I was when I read this book. This is probably because Gregory is truly skilled as crafting descriptions and story. The writing is not particularly complex, but it is very vivid, and it is appalling. Some of it is pretty gory and sickening stuff, so if you're really sensitive this might present something of a problem...however, Gregory doesn't just rely on this kind of shock treatment to tell her tale.
She considers a number of aspects of the slave trade: how white people viewed the blacks (were they animals, could they be taught to speak English), how they were treated as commodities (thrown overboard when in bad condition, described as numbers rather than by name, discussed in terms of monetary value - with less emphasis on the roles they might perform than you would expect in some ways). She even considers the difference in perspective between slave traders such as Josiah and his more empathetic wife Frances, who is given the task of 'teaching' the black slaves they bring home in order to make more money by selling them as servants. This is considered a risky 'experiment' as the black people apparently didn't try much in the way of communication - by the time they had suffered the crossing in poor conditions and being overcrowded, whipped, raped, shackled and much more, they had just resigned themselves to death according to Gregory, and were in no mood to co-operate, which is of course justified. This is reflected in one of the beginning scenes where Frances is desperate to make them talk in one of her 'lessons', overlooked by her strict sister-in-law.
Gregory also looks at the struggle to bring in legislation to ban the slave trade, the amount of money and wealth it brought to England and other slave trading countries (it will make you feel ashamed), and the effects on various African countries of being stripped of all their healthiest and strongest men and women, as well as children; Even 'freed' slaves that tried to go back faced a lot of problems, and 'freed' slaves in England are also looked at.
One of the most skilful things Gregory does is manipulation of your feelings towards the characters - in my opinion, this is much more successful here than in any of her other novels. You do end up with a balanced view of most of them, and you even end up pitying the previously 'hard' characters to some extent, as it becomes apparent that all of them are trapped in their own way - obviously to far different degrees, but trapped nevertheless. Ignorance also has a large part to play, and you come to realise some of the reasons why people simply accepted the slave trade.
I don't want to ruin the plot for anyone, because it has a huge number of twists and turns across several hundred pages, but I will say that it is incredibly multi-layered and has a number of subplots and mini plots woven through. Though the main characters play emotional and thought provoking parts, there are also incredible performances by the smaller characters - they aren't used for filler or to prompt the main characters, but have plot threads and personalities in their own right.
As I picked this book up with my previous experiences of Gregory in my head, I expected it to be much more based on actual history than it was. I was surprised when I got to her author's note that didn't really suggest that it was based on particular people.
It's an absolutely amazing book though, and far better than I've given it credit for here or can even begin to explain. It should definitely be made into a film, and I think it would work well adapted and given the right time frame (longer than The Other Boleyn Girl - though that should have been longer too) and budget, it could easily be legendary. I may try to get my hands on the BBC version if I can.
I can't recommend this book highly enough, it's well worth the money and the time, and is something you'll never forget - for good reasons and bad. It's part of our history, and should be remembered lest we forget the suffering and don't appreciate what we have, and so we never make the same mistakes again.
Also posted on ciao.co.uk under the same name.
I love historical novels, and Phillippa Gregory is probably one of my favourite historical authors. Her most well known works deal with the Tudor and Elizabethan Court, and excellent though these works are, they contain characters I am already familiar with, and although her style of writing is gripping, it doesn't mask the fact that I know Anne Boleyn's in for a beheading.
So, when I came across a respectable trade, I was refreshed to see that there were no well-known characters in the plot. No kings, no queens, and no whores with three nipples.
Instead this is a tale of the slave trade, told primarily from the point of view of Frances Scott. When her father dies and she is left penniless and reliant on the charity of her Aunt and Uncle, Frances decides to seek a living as a governess, one of the few professions open to a respectable woman in the 1700's.
After an interview with Josiah Cole, a Bristol merchant with his heart set on big things, she is offered a position of a different kind...that of a wife. Trading her social contacts for Josiah's protection, she moves in with Josiah and his bitter sister in a stinking river warehouse, Frances has come down in the world. But with her husbands ambitious plans for the import of slaves, she will not be down and out for long.
Forced by her ambitious husband into the role of slave trainer, she forces herself to come down hard on the Africans stolen from their homeland. But when she falls in love with Mehuru, an African priest now forced to lie in shackles, she finds her beliefs, her respectability, and her heart facing their biggest challenge ever.
Can love overcome the boundaries of race and social status? Can it overcome anger and pride?
In keeping with Gregorys other works the characters are well developed and each individual character stands out. Frances in particular is a great character; starting out as the model of a respectable wife (dumb, silent, and obedient) she develops a fiery personality as her involvement in both her husbands trade and her personal involvement with the slaves develop. You really get into her character and experience her feelings of torn loyalties.
Josiah is another interesting character, despite him being a money grabber and overly ambitious, he also portrays a weaker side to his personality, particularly when he is gulled into a series of shady business deals against the advice of his wife.
The subject the book chose to tackle is a tricky one, and Gregory did a good job, managing to give each slave (however minor the role in the book) individual characteristics and histories that mark them out against each other. Yoruban beliefs are well researched, as are various other aspects of African culture. Some of the accounts are quite harrowing, particularly in scenes where the dumping overboard of the slave cargo to claim fraudulent insurance is described.
Also not for the faint hearted are various scenes of rape and a few overly gory descriptions of diseases and beatings. While I'm the sort of person who relishes the gory details, the more sensitive amongst you may find parts of this book upsetting and disturbing.
Bouviers 1856 law dictionary has a slave defined as follows ''A man who is by law deprived of his liberty for life, and becomes the property of another. A slave has no political rights, and generally has no civil rights. He can enter into no contract unless specially authorized by law; what he acquires generally, belongs to his master. The children of female slaves follow the condition of their mothers, and are themselves slaves....slaves are regarded as chattels, not as people.''
The slaves as property attitude are demonstrated many times throughout the book, both in actions and in words. For example, the slaves were forced to wear dog collars stating their slave names (part of their training was the theft of their identity, including replacing their own names with biblical names) the words "Josiah Cole" on them, signifying who they belonged to-who's property they were. At points in the book, statements such as "Moses I know that you're our property, but I hope that you don't think ill of us." made by the main characters further reinforce the social attitudes of the time.
Although the characters in the book are entirely fictitious, they are entirely believable and could just as easily have been real people. As England second port, in the 1700's much money was made in Bristol through the kidnap of slaves from Africa to be sold in the citys open air slave markets. Slaves were shackled and packed below deck like sardines for long sea journeys, often going without food for days. In such confined atmospheres diseases quickly spread and many slaves died on the journey. Often less than half the number of slaves packed onto a ship would make it to England alive, and often these would be young children, stolen from their parents. Around this period, people began to oppose the slave trade, with revolts by the slaves themselves to campaigns to ban slavery by many well educated men. All this is included in the book, which is well researched and historically accurate as far as a work of fiction can be.
For me, the books a gem. Once again, Gregory tackles history sensitively and accurately. The book never once loses its sense of drama, and is gripping right up to the last page. A wonderful piece of historical fiction that I recommend heartily. Published by HarperCollins, It can be found on amazon.co.uk at £6.39.
Thanks for reading.
The devastating consequences of the slave trade in 18th century Bristol are explored through the powerful but impossible attraction of well-born Frances and her Yoruban slave, Mehuru. Bristol in 1787 is booming, from its stinking docks to its elegant new houses. Josiah Cole, a small dockside trader, is prepared to gamble everything to join the big players of the city. But he needs ready cash and a well-connected wife. An arranged marriage to Frances Scott is a mutually convenient solution. Trading her social contacts for Josiah's protection, Frances enters the world of the Bristol merchants and finds her life and fortune dependent on the respectable trade of sugar, rum and slaves. Once again Philippa Gregory brings her unique combination of a vivid sense of history and inimitable storytelling skills to illuminate a complex period of our past. Powerful, haunting, intensely disturbing, this is a novel of desire and shame, of individuals, of a society, and of a whole continent devastated by the greed of others.