Tuesday, October 23, 2007

On the Book Shelf- Edward Ball

I'm halfway through an insightful read called "Slaves in the Family." The distant grandson of South Carolinian Plantation owners recounts the 300 year history of his own family (the Balls) and also the descendants of the slaves they owned. I've had a lot of thoughts while reading this book and want to share a few.

First, tracing the story of how one English immigrant family found themselves suddenly slave owners in 1680 says a lot out the seemingly benign "slippery slope" of sin. The first step never seems that bad. The Comings were sailors and had an opportunity to buy land in the new colony of America. At first they hired indentured servants to work their farm. After seven years, the indentured servants time was up. The choice was hire more indentured servants at a cost of 25 pounds for 7 years, or "buy" one of captured Indians from war party raids, or "buy" an African slave at 30 pounds from the new fangled Royal Slave Trading Company and have his labor for life. At this early stage in the colonies most of the "servants" were equally divided 1/3 Irish indentured servants, 1/3 captured Indians and 1/3 slaves.

The Comings decide that slavery is a "better" economic decision. Instead of signing contracts for new servants, the Comings "buy" 2 African slaves. The Comings die childless and give their estate to their nephews. The oldest Ball brother is 30, has a family, and has just started out his career as a tailor. His younger brother, Elias Ball, decides to sail to the colonies to claim his inheritance. In 1698, at the ripe age of 22, he walks into the plantation system and suddenly finds himself a slave owner. The Ball family runs this plantation, and many others, for the next 229 years. Slavery is only removed from the farm after the end of the Civil War.

I'm struck by how closely economic gain is tied to sin in the case of slavery. It was simply more efficient-- is an argument for why it spread. It was simply to costly was an argument for why slavery wasn't abolished before the bloody conclusion of the Civil War in 1865. Everyone else is doing it so why should I- was an argument for the Southern slave owners by 1800. Slavery seem like such an obvious injustice in 2007, yet these same insidious arguments apply to the modern social sins of abortion, IVF & contraception. Reading history helps me to be more objective about the sins in my own time.

A second beautiful thing about this book is that Ball succinctly describes complex ideas in clear prose. Here's a brief quote on his explanation of why slavery, as it existed in colonial America, was such a unique phenomenon.

"Chattel slavery, as opposed to freehold slavery, was an English spin on the old system. A freehold slave was a worker, bound to a piece of land, who could not be transferred or sold away from an estate. The master of a freehold slave claimed possession of the individual's labor, not his or her person. Freehold slaves included those in bondage to the Spanish in South American and in some parts of Africa.

The English developed a different and ore thorough form of bondage. A chattel slave was the equivalent of movable property and could be sold away like a horse. Also, the children of chattel slaves automatically assumed the slave identity of their mother, not always the case among freehold workers." pg. 38

This invention of a new legal definition is one of the major reasons that slavery was so pernicious in America. Slavery had existed in Roman times, and was practiced contemporaneously with serfdom in Russia. Those where terrible states contrary to the laws of justice. Only the English, however, invented this awful process where a person was completely "owned" and could be transferred about at the master's whim. The effect was devastating to African-American families. At any moment, at any age, your spouse, your children, your relatives, or your neighbors could be sold to a distant plantation. The threat of that division on the auction block loomed always in sight.

As Americans, we are all caught up in the lingering effects of the social sin of slavery. It's such an ugly issue. Just like studying the Holocaust, however, it's important to look these things squarely in the eye -to stretch our empathy for the victims, and to root out the sin that still clings to our imperfect natures. I think sometimes it's easier to just say "all this happened way before my time and has nothing to do with me." I appreciate the tenderness and candor that Ball brings to this explosive topic.

In the National Basilica, an alter space is dedicated to the lives of African Americans. A large relief shows the march of a people from slavery into freedom. To get into the chapel, you have to step over a model of a coffin ship placed on one of the floor stones. There are so many bodies chained together in a cramped space. It's painful to see and think about. It's painful to know that most slave masters considered themselves to be faithful Christians. I'll be saying some rosaries in that alter space, reflecting on all of the stories contained in this book for a long time to come.

2 comments:

Joshie said...

Great post Abigail. Very moving. I hope that the African American culture really recovers and begins to thrive again- I don't think they have psychologically worked through it all yet- some have- but there's still some really negative effects that they are still facing- bittereness and seeking compensation among them. Have you seen/heard any of Bill Cosby's work in this area...

Greg McKelvey said...

wow that sounds like a great book i will have to looking into it more! i will be back to read more of your blog

greg

www.gregspeaks.blogspot.com