The era when slavery was legal and openly practiced in England is the backdrop for a story of greed, cruelty, and forbidden love, in A Respectable Trade.
Set in the English seaport of Bristol in 1788, A Respectable Trade illuminates a shameful period of British history, when the Empire's ships transported 35,000 captives yearly across the Atlantic to serve as slave laborers in the New World. At the time, some people condemned the practice as immoral and barbaric, but most considered it a "respectable trade," like any other.
Adapted by Philippa Gregory from her popular novel of the same name, A Respectable Trade stars Emma Fielding as Frances Scott, a well-bred English governess who marries an awkward, uneducated slave trader from Bristol because she has nowhere else to turn.
Warren Clarke is the trader, Josiah Cole, an ambitious well-meaning man who hits on the plan of importing slaves directly to England, where they can be taught English by his new wife and then sold as house servants to the local gentry.
Ariyon Bakare plays Mehuru, a counselor to an African king who is captured, sold, shipped to Bristol, and unloaded with eight others to be instructed in Western ways by Frances. Slowly, inexorably, against his own will--and against hers--they fall in love.
Anna Massey is Sarah Cole, Josiah's dour spinster sister. She is the coldly-calculating bookkeeper for his operation and sees Frances as inciting profligate social pretensions in Josiah. She is also outraged by Frances's compassion toward their slaves, though she hardly suspects Frances's true degree of attachment.
Richard Briers plays Josiah's friend and mentor, Sir Charles Fairley, who is everything Josiah would like to be: rich, convivial, admired by Bristol society, and feared by his throngs of submissive, terrorized slaves on profitable Caribbean plantations.
There are also abolitionist stirrings, involving a local doctor (Ralph Brown) and a freedman (Hugh Quarshie) who are dedicated to aiding and abetting runaway slaves.
Meanwhile, off stage, the great abolitionist William Wilberforce is leading the Parliamentary movement to end Britain's involvement in the corrupt traffic in human lives, though again and again he is defeated by commercial interests that find nothing wrong with profiting from this "respectable trade."
It isn't until 1807 that Parliament finally put British slave ships out of business. And not until 1833 was slavery itself abolished throughout the Empire -- though in the former colony of the United States, it takes a civil war in the 1860s to end the institution.
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