SLAVES IN MY FAMILY; SLAVES How a Poor Farmer from Devon Built a Slave Empire That Brought Huge Wealth but Is Still Blighting His Descendants

Article excerpt

Byline: PETER LEWIS

YOUNG Elias Ball left his home in a tiny Devon hamlet in 1698 and embarked on a 3,500-mile journey across the Atlantic to Charleston, South Carolina.

He was 22, the son of a lowly farmer from Stoke-in-Teignhead, near Torquay, and he had inherited just 12 sheep, ten lambs, an old mare, a brass pan and a kettle. His fortunes were about to change.

An uncle, a pioneer settler in the English colony of South Carolina, had died childless, leaving Elias part of a rice plantation and 'all my negroes and Indian servants, cattle, furniture, goods and chattels'.

Elias had never seen an African, let alone a Native American. Now he found himself the absolute owner of perhaps two dozen of them. When he died in 1751 he owned more than 100, the beginnings of a slave dynasty that would last almost 200 years. By the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, Elias Ball's descendants owned more than 20 plantations along the Cooper River - and close to 4,000 slaves.

Slavery has been a taboo subject for many white Americans, especially in families whose ancestors owned slaves and grew rich on their labour.

In recent decades black historians and novelists, such as Alex Haley, Patricia Williams and Alice Walker, have begun to uncover the story. Now journalist Edward Ball, a seventh generation grandson of Elias, has plunged into his own well-preserved family papers to find out what happened to both blacks and whites on the once-prosperous family's plantations.

Slaves In The Family is a groundbreaking book.

Edward Ball's motive, he says, is not one of guilt. 'I felt accountable for what happened, rather than responsible, called on to face the plantations rather than ignore them or make excuses for them.' He had grown up with denial. 'My father would say: "There are five things we don't talk about in the Ball family, religion, sex, death, money - and the negroes".' But when Edward was 12, his father had given him a battered copy of a published history of the Ball family. 'He said: "One day you'll want to know about all of this your ancestors " With the gift of the book, Dad seemed to be saying that the plantations were a piece of unfinished business.' Ball tried to find the descendants of his family's slaves. 'The progeny of slaves and slave owners are forever linked. We have been in each other's lives.

We have been in each other's dreams. We have been in each other's beds.'

He found that the last part was certainly true.

Elias Ball prospered in the New World, raising a rice crop whose colour and quality gave it the name Carolina Gold. As his business rice crop whose colour and quality gave Carolina Gold. As his business expanded, he bought more slaves to work his newly-acquired estates.

There was no shortage of manpower. The Royal African Company, based in London, shipped slaves in from West Africa and sold them for [pounds sterling]20 to [pounds sterling]30 per adult. The company had a monopoly on the Atlantic slave trade granted by Charles II whose brother, the Duke of York, was its principal director.

Slaves they transported were often branded with the letters DY Duke of York.

The slaves were collected from tribal chiefs of the African coastal kingdoms who were paid in cloth, brandy, rum, guns and trinkets.

Prime young male slaves from the Gambia could be had for goods worth [pounds sterling]10 in England.

THE SLAVE trade, in which the English played the second largest part to the Portuguese, made Liverpool rich. Traders took a 10 pc commission on the resale of slaves, after transporting them across the ocean in appalling conditions.

According to the port doctor at Charleston, the largest American slave port, the ships he inspected on arrival 'smell most offensive and noisome for filth, putrid air and dysenteries. It is a wonder any escape with life'.

Many of the slaves in the holds did not; and their bodies were thrown overboard to the sharks. …