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An interview with Philippa Gregory, author and screenwriter

by Richard Maurer

"Historical accuracy is the starting point and the end point"

Image of some of the cast members of A Respectable TradeSet in Bristol, England in the 1780s, A Respectable Trade confronts Britain's role in the slave trade while dispelling the myth of a barbarous Africa's complete complicity in the venture. Screenwriter and author Philippa Gregory makes these and other historical points in the gentlest possible way -- through a love story between the slave Mehuru and his owner's wife, Frances.

A University of Edinburgh Ph.D. in eighteenth-century history, Gregory has been delivering stealth scholarship through a string of bestselling novels, including the Wildacre Trilogy, The Wise Woman, and Earthly Joys. "Historical accuracy is the starting point and the end point for me," she says. In between she always manages to tell a riveting story.

She recently answered questions about the lives of her characters in A Respectable Trade, which originally appeared as a novel in 1995.

The film, of necessity, leaves out much that is in your book. Give us some of the background about Mehuru's life in Africa.

I chose to set my African hero in the kingdom of Yoruba, which was a democratic kingdom very much like ancient Greece. Yoruba was an affiliation of city-states over a huge area including modern Nigeria and quite a bit more as well. They had an elected monarchy. They didn't have writing, but they had a tradition of oral history, with recorders who would remember everything and then repeat it. They had sophisticated metal-working, mining, wood-working, leather-working, and other arts.

Mehuru is apprenticed as a priest. The priests are senior politicians, as well as leaders in a pantheistic religion which believes in the spirits of animals and trees and one's ancestors.

Unlike many of the African nations, Yoruba makes a decision that it's not going to trade in slaves. When Europeans start needing huge numbers of slaves--thousands and thousands every year--the coastal African states in particular become locked into this industry. But Yoruba decides very early on that slavery is a crime and that they aren't going to be involved in it.

How is Mehuru captured?

He's touring the outlying city-states explaining to them the policy that there is to be no slave trading. He's captured. He's taken down river. He's stored in one of the European-built forts. And when a ship comes in he's taken on the second leg of the triangular trade, from Africa to the West Indies. At the West Indies, he's not shipped out to the plantations as would happen for most slaves; he's one of an elite few who are picked by the captain to be transported to England to train as domestic slaves.

In a sense Frances, too, is captured. How is it that she falls into an unsavory marriage with Josiah?

This is the eighteenth-century so she wouldn't have the notions that we have of a romantic marriage. She has to marry in order to survive. If you think of Jane Austen novels, the issue presented by her is very often a romantic one, which is "How are we going to get this girl married?" But the hard edge behind it, which Jane Austen does show as well, is "If she doesn't get married, what on earth will become of her?" The answer is that she will have to live with her family, and if she goes to work it will have to be as a governess--the only occupation that ladies were permitted to have. Frances has absolutely no gift for governessing, and she has no substantial means. So whether or not to accept Josiah's proposal is a tough choice for her, but she has really no choice at all.

Is it a tough choice for her uncle and guardian, Lord Scott?

I think if anybody bears badly in it he does, because he is very much under the thumb of his wife, who doesn't want Frances around. She doesn't want a dependent woman in the house to interfere with their social life.

How is it that Frances, who unwittingly becomes a slave holder by marriage, ends up falling in love with one of her slaves?

First of all, she realizes that these are neither animals nor children, but individuals with as much personality and desire and spirituality as herself. Once she sees Mehuru this way, she starts admiring in him the very characteristics that she lacks in her own life. I think it is worth observing that her position as a wife under British eighteenth-century law is very similar to his position as a slave. Neither of them has rights of ownership. Neither of them has rights of free choice. She cannot leave her husband, who is allowed by law to punish her just as a slave owner can punish a slave. She could run away, but that's true of a slave as well. One of the interesting things for me was to strip away the things that made these two people look so different. This lady--who is in a sense his owner. This slave -- who has come from Africa and who she thinks is a savage. They've got an awful lot in common. I think that's one of the things that moves them into falling in love.

Josiah comes off very badly in this comparison.

He's not morally a bad man. He's a man of his time. He abuses his wife because all men abuse their wives. He owns slaves, which we would now think of as a crime against humanity, but no one is saying that very much then.

The most courageous thing he does is to turn against the prudent business practices of his sister. What incites him to do this?

The slave trade was an incredibly profitable boom business. You might put your whole fortune in and get paid ten times over for it. It's a very heady experience to be in a culture like that. And that sort of excitement is what powers Josiah out of very careful, small-time trading practices into what he thinks is the big league. And he just happens to be unlucky in it.

What were the illegal dealings that he pursued with the Spanish?

At that time Britain is formally at war with Spain. It's illegal for British merchants to trade with the Spanish. So if you take slaves to the Spanish you're smuggling. They're paying you a premium because they have to pay smugglers that bit more--and they're paying you in gold.

Josiah's sister, Sarah, seems beyond such temptation. What is her background?

She's very much his older sister. The way I envisaged it was that she had been present during the years when his father scraped together penny after penny and barely survived. But Josiah, a bit younger, is born into the years where their father is speculating more and taking greater risks. For Josiah, that's the model that he has, whereas his sister has this earlier model of how hard it is to make money and how you have to save.

Also, she is very frigid in every sense, so she's not excited by risk; she's frightened by risk. She's not excited by the prospect of luxury; she thinks it's unnecessary. A lot of the things that Josiah is so taken with are just not temptations to her.

She's admirable in an interesting way.

I'm glad you think so. I have a great sympathy for her character. She's the only one who actually takes a moral line and retains it. What matters most to her is the profit of the company. Therefore she faces slavery and the horrors of slavery absolutely straight on, when Josiah would rather slip out of the house and not see what's going on. She is a very forthright woman, which I do like about her.

Were slaves common in Britain at this time?

That's the million dollar question. At a time when Britain has a population of about five million, I would say there was a black population--of either enslaved or runaways or black free people--of something between 30,000 to maybe 100,000. It's a big, hidden population. We know that there were at least 20,000 in London because that statistic is given in a trial at the time, and it is never questioned. We also have evidence of people saying, `So-and-so's servant, a black page-boy.' Samuel Johnson, when he's traveling, says there's a black face in every village in England. So there was a substantial black population, and it was quite a dispersed population as well.

What happens to Mehuru after the end of the film?

In real life he'd probably have made it. In Britain there was not the legal enforcement of slavery which existed in America, so if somebody could get away and not get recaptured within a few months, they'd be pretty well safe. Mehuru would have probably found himself a job as a secretary to somebody. There are quite a number of black activists at that time who go around lecturing and talking to people about abolition. They link up with the French Republicans, who in turn link up with like-minded people in America, so one cannot know how far a man of Mehuru's ability might have gone.

A Respectable Trade | Interview with the Writer | Cast and Credits

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