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Bristol in 1787 is booming a city where power beckons those who dare to take risks Josiah Cole a small dockside trader is prepared to gamble everything to join the big players of the city But he needs capital and a well connected wifeMarriage to Frances Scott is a mutually convenient solution Trading her social contacts for Josiah's protection Frances finds her life and fortune dependent on the respectable trade of sugar rum and slavesInto her new world comes Mehuru once a priest in the ancient African kingdom of Yoruba now a slave in England From opposite ends of the earth despite the difference in status Mehuru and Frances confront each other and their need for love and liberty

10 thoughts on “A Respectable Trade

  1. says:

    If your view of Philippa Gregory is of an English historical novelist with a romantic slant that is a fair description She has won the Romantic Novel of the Year Award among others But with A Respectable Trade published in 1992 she was aiming for something a little different It is an historical novel about the slave trade in England and set in 18th century Bristol Highly regarded the script she wrote from it won an award from the Committee for Racial Euality and the film was subseuently shown worldwidePhilippa Gregory is clearly aware of her reputation for embroidering the facts She stated that she had never before felt the need to write an author's note for her novels but that this book is about a topic so important to me that I wanted to emphasise some of the historical facts It may come as a surprise to some readers that the black population in the city of London alone in the 18th century was about 15 thousand people It was to diminish in the next two centuries because of recruitment of cheap labour from the Empire Also intermarriages between black and white people became common resulting in many descendants who passed as white Another part of the book which the author felt might be assumed to be her fancy was a portrayal of one of the obscenely grotesue characters whom she said was based on a Thomas Thistlewood of Jamaica who kept a detailed explicit diary about his rapes of slaves Further an incredibly cruel bridle which comes into the novel was apparently in common use in the West Indian sugar plantationsIt is clear that Philippa Gregory has done her best to write a powerful novel about the devastating conseuences of the slave trade in 18th century Bristol; one which will prick the consciences of many readers The message in the title that slavery was endemic a so called respectable trade and intrinsically linked to the trade in sugar rum and tobacco is threaded throughout the novel The whole character of England itself was based on this rich industry Bristol in 1787 was booming with wealthy shipping docks and elegant new houses But factions were beginning to be aware of the torment the tradition of slavery had caused to many thousands of people and England lay poised on the brink of irrevocable change with upcoming antislavery legislation Part of the novel details how William Wilberforce the English politician and philanthropist made an attempt at that time to bring a Bill to abolish the slave trade to Parliament and how it was defeated by filibusteringThe institution of slavery is thus at the heart of this story and all the characters in the novel are involved in the trade or profiting from it either directly or indirectly In one way or another slavery drives all their actions The novel mainly concerns Frances Scott an orphan who is living on the kindness of her aunt and uncle Lord and Lady Scott and working unhappily as a governess She sees an advertisement for a new position advertised by Josiah Cole a merchant involved in the slave trade Frances has always known about slavery but only in a distant way She had no notion of Africa before the coming of the British of a huge continent populated by a complex of different peoples and kingdoms of trading and barter stations of caravans of goods which crossed from one nation to another; of men and women some living like peasants working the land some living in towns and cities and working in industries some established in hereditary kingdoms seated on thrones of gold and ivory and living like gods She had no interest in the slaves as people who had come from a living and potent cultureAlthough she assumes that Josiah Cole wishes to employ a governess he has no children and she learns that what attracts him is the thought of a well connected wife Marriage to a small dockside trader would be a significant step down for the highborn Frances but she decides that an arranged marriage would provide the security she needs and it seems like a mutually convenient solution She thereby trades her social contacts for Josiah's protection The other main character is Mehuru a highranking official trained as a priest and with arcane religious abilities He lives as a member of the Royal Court in the ancient African kingdom of Yoruba Ironically as we first encounter Mehuru he himself owns a slave although slave owning in Yoruba is not at all the cruel dehumanising industry we are to read of later but a convenient and sometimes temporary arrangement between two individuals Mehuru is captured and the first few chapters detail his horrific experiences as he desperately tries to communicate with his captors and to convince them that he is an emissary travelling through parts of Africa to convey a message from the higher priests concerning their internal anti slavery decisions We have learned of Mehuru's life prior to his capture and empathise with his complete belief that he will be released when his identity is discovered We see him gradually break down; we see him degraded and humbled as he realises how utterly impotent he now is He has uickly become acknowledged as the adviser and leader of this disparate group of thirteen slaves We have also begun to appreciate all the different countries in Africa which the other slaves have come from Some are also from Yoruba but two women are Fulani They are members of a nomadic people and lived the life of herdspeople Their huts set in a circle would be carelessly made because they were temporary But their crafts woven fabrics palm leaf baskets carefully hand carved wooden items were fine and beautiful It was a life that turned in tune with the earth that followed the rains that chimed with the seasons It was as alien to slavery as a silver winged flight of cattle egrets to a moulting hen in a coop Another slave is Mandinka and one is Wolof They all speak different languages and we witness the total incomprehension as well as the barbarity of the sailors who have taken these people from their homes It is a difficult read and one which should shame much of humanity Philippa Gregory makes a fine job of conveying the disgust each race feels for the physical aspects of the other Only as the novel proceeds do individuals whether white or black begin to see people with a different skin colour from them and from a different country as fellow humans rather than just animals or sub human creatures to depise Parts of the story such as that of the slave called Died of Shame may reduce you to tearsFrances and Mehuru are the main characters but we also follow the Cole family's story Josiah Cole is gullible and ambitious Unlike Frances he is morally ambivalent desperate for ready cash and prepared to gamble everything to join the big players of the city But both he and his sister had very humble beginnings Their father was a collier and his older sister Sarah has worked hard all her life to establish a firm base for their trade I was born on the floor of a miner's hovelI have been poor Josiah as you were not You were born when we were on the rise; you know nothing about hardship I have gone barefoot for lack of shoes and hungry for lack of food we are in a little trow on a great river of poverty The conflict between the two forms an interesting dynamic Also involved is a pro abolitionist Dr Stuart Hadley The author explores the moral uandry of people such as this doctor who feels trapped by the knowledge that he has also benefited by the very trade he now despises I used to take sugar in my tea and I still love sweet puddings My university is endowed by rich men who draw their wealth from the colonies My patients are all Traders We all profit from the thieving in Africa If we stopped it tomorrow we would still be rich from their lossI believe the Trade will be endedBut the cruelty we have learned will poison us forever And we have the opposite view of Sir Charles Fairley an abominably cruel and ignorant but very wealthy and powerful man He is usually shown very effectively from Frances's point of view as she gradually begins to learn the horrors of the slave tradeFrances has been taken on to teach thirteen slaves bought by her husband in order that they can be sold as fashionable novelty servants for selected members of the rich London aristocracy at a premium rate She therefore finds that her life and entire fortune are now dependent on the trade of sugar rum and slaves She has come face to face with the real people involved in slavery from both ends including those brought to her house as slaves captured and bought with her own money The novel provides an interesting analysis of how an individual's attitudes can change The Bristol merchants do not seem to adapt at all and neither do Frances's relatives but those in her household mostly shift position as the novel progresses Even the cook and servants initially as exclusive aggressive and judgemental as anyone begin to side with the slaves and the reader sees that both underclasses are forming a sort of solidarityThe storyline is an interesting one and Philippa Gregory has some skill in conveying both a strong sense of place and the immediacy of the moment The first two thirds of the book are highly enjoyable as a fictionalised account of a possible scenario in a very real snapshot of part of England's shameful history However a plot development had been signalled very early on and the final chapters sacrifice much for this particular plotline A romantic element is only a part of a strong story such as this It is always in danger of overwhelming the text as it does here Fundamentally Philippa Gregory's interest lies in the realms of highly coloured speculation and romance A popular English historical novelist she has written a couple of historical novels set during the English Civil War a 17th century trilogy about the love of land and about incest novels about the Plantagenets ruling houses which preceded the Tudors and also novels about the Wars of the Roses In recent years Philippa Gregory seems to have cornered the market in these novels set in the Tudor period with The Other Boleyn Girl being such a runaway success that it was dramatised both for televison and also made into a film spawning many seuels and many further very popular series on television The attraction could lie with her selection of specific females; often historical noblewomen who have up to now only been noteworthy in the history books in terms of their potential for breeding or in making favourable marriages for diplomatic or financial reasons Philippa Gregory's treatment of these characters turns them into passionate independent women invariably with a very modern outlook It is an appealing treatment and clearly very successful Whether it gives us an authentic historical view of these women is another matterA Respectable Trade is a good yarn and it comes from a good place attempting to tussle with the many complex moral issues involved in this aspect of history However the characters in the story are highly speculative and I feel the situations are sometimes contrived Hence it remains a solid three star read

  2. says:

    Spoilers some pretty serious onesSo maybe you're an entitled upper class lady living in the 1780s You have an inkling that slavery isn't as morally sound as your church suggests But what if the slave trade is keeping you in fancy hats? Can you overlook the severe continuous dehumanizing oppression? Even when you meet a slave who becomes an odd combination of servant friend and lover? Does the cognitive dissonance start tearing you apart? Here's what you do you die You die on the last page of the book while having the baby born of the passionate tryst with the household slave so you never have to come to terms with any of these problems You don't even worry about what people will say when you give birth to a mixed race child You just die I think Philippa Gregory does a better job than most historical fiction writers of creating characters that seem appropriate for their time Ken Follet for example is about the worst at dropping people with 21st century worldviews into the 1100s At least Frances' inner conflict seemed genuine Throughout the course of the novel we see her grow and re evaluate her way of thinking But she never has to make the hard choice She relies on social tricks and subtle manipulation to preserve the increasingly inappropriate relationship she has with Mehuru but up and dies before she has to either set him free and acknowledge him as human or sell him and acknowledge him as property Still a worthwhile read

  3. says:

    There is so much I could say about this book and about the Black Slave trade that I feel defeated before I’ve started Frances the main character evoked many feelings in me contempt for her attitudes to ‘being a lady’ sympathy for her own status without money or power of her own disgust for her cowardice for her complicity in the appalling treatment of her own slaves her ignorance frustration at her inability until the very end to admit her feelings for MehuruI didn’t find the romance aspect particularly convincing but it would have been an interesting seuel had Frances had better health to see how the story might have had a different future I did my degree in Bristol two of its main roads are Blackboy Hill and Whiteladies Road It was interesting to read about the growing up and outwards of Bristol as one of the most important trading Ports during the time of the slave trade sugar and tobacco tooThe afterword was interesting too There was an African legion posted to Hadrian’s wall in the third century; trade and educational links between Africa and England from the eleventh century onwards; the slave trade as we think of it started in about 1570 and in the next two and a half centuries it is estimated as many as twenty million slaves were taken from Africa destroying African economy and info structures

  4. says:

    I wouldn't exactly call this a romance More of a historical account of the horrors of slavery Francis Scott marries a man that does not suit her at all Considered old and impoverished her new station in life is to teach the people her husband and his sister kidnap from Africa to sell as slaves a fact Francis learns after she has married Francis is uite caring and compassionate soon falls for one of the slaves Mehuru Mehuru proves to be everything her own husband isn't warm caring sensitive and attentive The tale of this pair's faith and hope is downright heartbreaking Knowing they can not live as a couple in England especially with Francis' being married Francis and Mehuru must hide their feelings for each other Again the horrors of slavery are shocking and disturbing Pretty accurate in portrayal since slavery was one of the ugliest events in time Philippa Gregory is often called a romance novelist The title historical fiction writer would serve her better This highly informed and talented writer's work is a pleasure to read Although I enjoyed the novel I found the ending to be a bit of a letdown Too many loose ends are left untied rendering it only 4 stars

  5. says:

    My least favorite Philippa book albeit a good first half Abandoned at just over half way because1 The romantic love interest was so far fetched and so completely irresponsible of one of the main characters Francis that I just couldn’t 2 I’m getting older and I read for pleasure Why should I continue to read a book that is just not for me?The good strong first half with great historical detail The cruelty borne by the men captured and taken as slaves is beyond terrible

  6. says:

    Words can't describe how annoying this book was although I'm willing to try I like Philippa Gregory a lot she reminds me of a historical Jackie Collins In general her books are smutty and fun Although I'm glad she got the incest out of her system early in her career 'cause that was a tad creepy If this book was JUST historical fiction it would've been trashy a bit melodramatic and pretty dang fun to read However Ms Gregory had to make it a romance too which ruined itI wasn't surprised by the plot since the romance was featured prominently on the back cover blurb I just felt if Frances the slave trader's wife was going to go against her society norms and shake off every prejudice she had ever been taught she needed a little wooing from the object of her affection At least have him wear some skintight pants and sweat a lot while doing a manly task like woodchopping That's how Harleuins do it Instead Mehuru the slave walked in the room for about the 7th time in the book and the two were suddenly deeply in loveIt was so abrupt and so odd I kept checking the page numbers to make sure I hadn't missed some important clue as to what the heck was going on

  7. says:

    I went into this book with some expectation that it would be better than Fallen Skies which left me greatly disappointed with the sketchy characterizations This book however continued that disappointment Most of the characters in this book suffer from two dimensions at most Some like Sarah Cole remained one note throughout What struck me most was that both Mehuru and Frances were not pitiable in the deserving sense as the premise surely demanded but pitiful in the contemptuous sense I couldn't care one way or another how their lives turned out Mehuru's reasons for loving Frances so deeply were not convincingly drawn And while I understand that Gregory wanted to illustrate the captive conditions that Frances suffered she was so weak and so unsympathetic in her inaction submission that I despised her for most of the bookStarting around page 250 I gave up on trying to enjoy it and instead decided to appreciate the detail of the Bristol atmosphere the only evocative portion of the entire book even the descriptions of the hellish slave holds seemed generic and laugh out loud at the insane bouts of dialogue and erratic behavior of the characters ie meek and mild Frances embarking on a wide eyed disheveled screaming fit at Josiah about the duplicity of the Merchant VenturersGregory didn't seem engaged with these characters at all though an interview segment at the end of the book implies that she was But the treatment of the characters seems at arm's length or at best haphazard For instance Sarah disappears for about 100 pages of the book although the majority of the action takes place inside the house where presumably Sarah is still living At the end Frances lays in bed heavily pregnant and arouses no suspicions due to a convenient array of bedclothes Perhaps Gregory intended these absurd oversights as a way to show how disengaged the characters had become with each other but it just so happened to disengage this reader as well By the end I was as listless as the pathetic throat clutching Frances But the book read fast a week and I heckled it to hold my interest so the entertainment value was highI hear her Tudor novels are good so I'll stick with this author for another go Even if the history is crap maybe it'll be entertaining But so far it's 0 for 2ETA Every author has their off days and in the time since I read this one I read greatly enjoyed her HF on Katherine of Aragon The Constant Princess That experience made me reconsider my attitude towards continuing to read Gregory and I now look forward to reading of her books and even re attempt Fallen Skies She's an author that gets the sand up the vajayjays of some people but there's enough that's entertaining and interesting about her stuff to make me continue to be interested in her work

  8. says:

    I always compare Philippa Gregory to Celine Dion despite their undeniable talent people always enjoy dismissing them as inferior artists and I am left to wonder why Having read The Other Boleyn Girl which was very pleasant to read I decided it to read another book with a different theme from the accomplished british author This time its theme is the slavery trade in the 18th century And I am glad I did it because I found it a most wonderful depiction of a most shameful period of time Prepare yourself to find very poignant and heartwrenching scenes in this novel given its theme I also enjoyed the fact that though we know the character´s motives sometimes are very enormously wrong we still understand them as Philippa Gregory created her characters in a very believable way Very well

  9. says:

    In historical fiction circles Philippa Gregory is not generally recognized for her accuracy or seriousness Her books are high on drama and glamor and her reputation is for at the very least embroidering the details I’ve read one of her Tudor novels and it was perfectly fine though it lacked staying power or memorability A Respectable Trade is not like Gregory’s Plantagenet or Tudor books It is rather a genuine and honest attempt to look into the English slave trade and the destruction it caused If it is also an unlikely romance between a slave and his mistress wellit’s still Philippa Gregory after all A Respectable Trade takes place in the port city of Bristol in 1787 The city—indeed much of the kingdom—thrives on the slave trade while elsewhere William Wilberforce is just beginning his decades’ long campaign for the abolition of the trade Into this mix comes gently bred Frances forced by economic necessity to marry a merchant far below her station Frances is confronted for the first time with the realities of slavery in Bristol and finds that it’s far harder to condone such injustice when you’re witnessing beatings rapes and gross dehumanization under one’s own roof especially when one of the victims happens to be the love of your lifeAnd I guess if we wanted to get right into it there are some problematic things happening in this story The slavemistress romance itself is slightly troubling because Mehuru doesn’t have the capability of providing consent technically speaking The relationship is honestly doomed from the beginning; as Gregory points out most free blacks in England did intermarry with white women but certainly not with the noblewomen who were unused to poverty or social censure This is the one area where A Respectable Trade strays into improbability but Gregory clearly recognizes this and doesn’t create some kind of unbelievable situation in which the doomed romance gets to thriveFrances and Mehuru are both individually protagonists in their own right though they have a sort of romance in common I think A Respectable Trade begins skewed towards Frances but by the end the story and resolution are very much Mehuru’s—which I think is good because had this become a book about how the noble white woman redeemed herself we might have had problems Rather by the end Gregory allows Mehuru’s arc to take the spotlight and his future is the one the reader is most invested in Which I think is as it should beThat being said the criticism some readers have made about the way Frances’s moral uandry is resolved in the final chapter is pretty valid Rather than have Frances be brave and confront injustice and live bravely for her convictions she gets todie Kind of a cop out on Gregory’s part though it’s possibly preferable to France and Mehuru sailing off to Sierra Leone to live happily together forever and ever But like I said this is still a Philippa Gregory bookWhat I’m trying to say I guess is that for a privileged white woman whose ancestors doubtless benefitted greatly from the institution of slavery Philippa Gregory really does approach the topic with delicacy and thoughtfulness The text doesn’t shy away from the truly brutal aspects of the slave trade which Gregory is uick to informs readers are 100% accurate lest we think she’s embroidering the facts again White people are not given get out of jail free cards at any point in A Respectable Trade—both Frances the protagonist and the “radical” abolitionist character have prejudice and racism in spite of good intentions that are prominently displayed and examined Gregory is not about to make excuses for anyone in this book The story and resolution are still a bit romanticized and things could have taken an even darker realistic turn but honestly this is a pretty surprising subject for the author in uestion and I’m impressed A Respectable Trade is not what you expect from Philippa Gregory but I think it showcases her talents and abilities a lot better than her recent poolside type historical fiction based on the one Tudor book I’ve read📌 Blog | Review Database | Twitter | Instagram | Goodreads

  10. says:

    I have always enjoyed Gregory's historical novels my favorites being Earthly Joys and Virgin Earth both of which focused on England's place in the world as a nation of gardeners I picked up A Respectable Trade at the library last week having seen it in a BBC production years ago and not realizing it was based on a book by Gregory The BBC production was pretty faithful to the book as it turns out The TV program had introduced me to a piece of history with which I had little or no knowledgethe involvement of British merchants and their ships in the American slave trade While I find some details of the book regarding the training of slaves to be a bit far fetched in terms of the speed and efficiency with which it was accomplished nevertheless the story is engaging and certainly makes it clear that the British were no less cruel than the Americans in their treatment of their cargo in the Middle Passage and on plantations in Jamaicain fact the sugar plantations in Jamaica in most respects were much worse than any plantations in the coloniesUS That is not to excuse our role in the history of slavery only to point out that we were not alone and that we were not the worst whatever consolation that might provide