Slaves in the Family by Edward Ball - review by Barry Unsworth

Barry Unsworth

They All Wanted Money

Slaves in the Family


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This book is the product of two different kinds of legacy. The first was in 1698, when a young man named Elias Ball, son of poor tenant farmers in rural Devon, learned that he had inherited – from an aunt he never met – a part share in a plantation in South Carolina, together with twenty-five slaves. It was the beginning of a slave-owning dynasty founded on rice – Carolina Gold, a it was called – that lasted for close on two centuries. By 1865, when Emancipation was forced on them at gunpoint by the Unionist forces, the Ball family had acquired more than a dozen plantations along the Cooper River near Charleston and something like 4,000 slaves. The author of Slaves in the Family is the seventh generation grandson of Elias Ball and the book came into being through his efforts to discover the meaning of such an inheritance in the only way possible: by establishing the facts as far as this can be done, by looking at what plantation slavery really meant, as a way of life, for both blacks and whites, and what it means now for their descendants. In this pursuit he left New York, where he usually lives, for a stay in the different world of South Carolina.

The result is an entirely absorbing combination of historical reconstruction and social observation. Edward Ball is a journalist and he uses investigative journalism to very good effect, mixing documentary research and historical narrative with a series of expertly handled interviews. He is greatly helped by the copious records left behind

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