Firefly: Slavery And “Jaynestown”

“Jaynestown” is commonly cited as a favourite episode of Firefly, and it’s not hard to see why: the humour of seeing a character like Jayne Cobb thrust into a folk hero role, the interaction between Simon and Kaylee, the brutal magistrate, the revenge obsessed former partner and that final scene when Jayne confronts the man he is and the man people think he is, they all add up. And the episode is also replete with numerous little nuggets of entertaining television: Simon’s blundering attempts to act like “a criminal mastermind”, the “Hero of Canton” song, the philosophical pillowtalk between Inara and Fess and the final conversation between Mal and Jayne.

But the episode drew me in for other reasons, and one of them is how it approaches the issue of slavery in “the ‘verse”. Slavery as a reality has already been mentioned on the show, back at the beginning of “Shindig” when Mal got into a barfight with men bragging about their ability to find a non-volunteering workforce for profit. Obviously Mal was disgusted with such people, happy to deprive them of said profits, “earned with the sweat of their slave-trading brows”. It established slavery as an existing thing in Firefly, which is interesting given where the shows inspirations can be found.

“Jaynestown” brings the issue front and centre, with “Higgins Moon” being our setting, a small rock seemingly owned entirely by a single man. There, in the mud farms of Canton, the workforce is mostly made up of what is described as “indentured” labourers.

Indentured servitude was quite a real thing here on Earth-that-was, a system that became incredibly popular in the 17th and 18th century. Immigrants looking to travel to the New World and find new opportunities would buy their passage by agreeing to become part of the system, whereby a set time of their labour could be freely bought by an employer upon arrival. Working for this employer for that set time, once the period was up the person in question was free to seek out their own fortune.

The system had its merits – poor immigrants found a way across the Atlantic, and room and board for the first part of their new lives, while growing businesses found cheap labour – but was essentially a form of contract slavery, with men and women forcibly indebted and unable to legally escape this debt. Indentured servitude could be harsh, as inevitably becomes the case when people lose basic freedoms and rights. And, of course, plenty of times someone classified as an indentured servant may not have initially taken the trip westwards willingly, making them a slave in all but name (though, of course, we still need to draw a line between this and chattel slavery, which was a very different, and far worse, state of existence to find yourself in). The practise was eventually outlawed in the United States in the early 19th century.

But it’s alive and well in the 26th it seems. A place like Higgin’s Moon and its mud-based economy can’t survive without cheap and easily replaceable labour – at least if the Magistrate is going to stay in his place of honour and financial superiority – and we can well imagine that large parts of the rest of the Alliance is happy with such systems too: Inara got Mal out of jail in “The Train Job” by claiming he was an indentured servant, an explanation that was readily accepted. That the practise is synonymous with slavery is fairly plain: the people of Canton don’t look or act as if their period of service is ever likely to end, the Magistrate openly talks about “the people I own” and the mudders lack basic rights or legal recourse, subject to a brutal form of summary justice for whatever infractions arise. The social stratum of the Alliance is archaic, with its literal nobility and festering underclass, and situations like those in Canton are the inevitable result. In fact, it’s right in keeping with the Alliance ethos we have been subjected to so far and will be subjected to even more in future tales: it is a government and a social system that refuses to see people as people.

I found this all fascinating for no other reason than it unexpectedly draws a line between the “Union of Allied Planets” and the Confederate States of America, when the overt link is supposed to be with the bluebellies. Obviously, the Alliance and the Union share lots of intentional similarities, in creed, federal philosophy and enmity with the forces of independence (shall we say, “Planets Rights”?).

But then again, the Alliance accepts and propagates a system of slavery in its make-up, turning men, women and children into unwilling labourers in the control of others, who are punished if they try to break out of this system. The Confederacy, regardless of the revisionism that has been going strong ever since 1865, was intrinsically tied to slavery, and it was the issue of abolition and the dispute with non-abolitionist thinking that did more than anything to begin the American Civil War (here’s a fun game: next time you encounter someone blathering on about states’ rights and what have you, ask them why a whole article (of only six total) in the CSA constitution is about the practise, when most of the document was only slightly rewritten from the USA equivalent).

And the confederacy too had its nobility, not in title but in character and social standing. The Southern Aristocracy was no theoretical thing, with much of the high society of the time and place having more in common with a Jane Austen-esque novel than the northern United States. Here was a place where, constitution be damned, a person was more often judged by his breeding: who his father was and who his family were, as opposed to who he was himself. Plantation owners and “first families” were at the top, and slaves were at the bottom. The Confederacy was neck deep in an ideology and social system which had more in common with the Old World than the New. And so, it seems, is the Alliance.

That the Independent faction might have been the one fighting against slavery adds a delicious historical irony to the universe that Firefly is constructing. But they didn’t win the war, and so Firefly takes on a slightly different hue if you look at it from just the right way: that of a universe where it is the Confederacy, and its slave economy, ingrained aristocracy and theories of social inferiority that won the war and became ascendant. And now, some years later, the poor unfortunates of the universe are dealing with what that means, with few left to stand up for them or their dignity. One could easily forgive the mudders of Canton for turning to “the man they call Jayne”, a latter age John Brown, the built up image of which ticks all of the right boxes for a required saviour.

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