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Featured Book Excerpt: Slaves in the Family
Copyright 1998, Edward Ball
Featured Book Excerpt: Slaves in the Family, by Edward Ball

The first person in slavery to the Balls who can be identified by name was a woman called Bella. On November 10, 1720, Elias made a note that "Bella had of me 3 yards of negero cloth." It was a Thursday.

"Negro cloth" was a coarse blend of wool and cotton that slaves were given for garments, a fabric manufactured in Europe and distributed by American slave owners. Whites did not wear Negro cloth, whose name and texture separated servers from served. The fabric sometimes took another, more poetic name, "oznaburgs," from Osnabruk, a town in northern Germany known for its textiles. The rough blue or sometimes white cloth was the standard uniform on the Ball plantations from the earliest colonial days until well into the 1800s.

To judge from the small size of her allotment of cloth, Bella must have been young, perhaps ten years old. In the practice taking shape, adults received five or more yards of oznaburgs per year, children about three yards. Bella reappears in the account book several times, always in the context of taking her basic needs for survival - usually cloth but also blankets and occasionally a pair of shoes. According to the slave lists, Bella lived fot at least another thirty years. No record of her birth or death, and no record of children, if she had them, has survived. We know her only as a person trying to clothe herself.

Image: Cover Art, Slaves in the Family
With Kind Permission of Edward Ball

The first record of the Ball family's purchase of people reads as follows:


The woman (or perhaps girl) and two men (or boys) were bought apparently after they spent two weeks at the pest house on Sullivan's Island. The year 1721 was a slow one for the slave traffic. In twelve months, only 165 black captives were imported to Charleston. The previous year, more than six hundred slaves had arrived, while a decade later, thousands would be brought in each year.

Two of Elias's new slaves were given names of places in England, the county of Hampshire and the city of Plymouth, near Elias's home in Devon. The captives probably spoke languages that their owner did not understand; nevertheless, the two men would have to answer to place-names that Elias knew from his youth. A beguiling name, Fatima, appears on this list. The historical Fatima, the favorite daughter of Mohammed, died in the year 632 A.D., probably in her twenties, and memory of her life held long power over Muslims. Islam made converts in sub-Saharan Africa, some of whom were brought to America. Could the Fatima of Comingtee have been a Muslim who had somehow held onto her birth name?

Perhaps a different Fatima rattled around in Elias's imagination, the tragic Fatima of French folklore. Fatima was the unfortunate seventh wife of Chevalier Raoul, the noble tyrant known more commonly as Bluebeard. According to the well-known French fable, soon after her marriage Fatima found the bodies of Bluebeard's six previous wives in a locked room of the Chevalier's castle. As punishment for prying loose his secret, Bluebeard dispatched his seventh wife to join the others.

The disaster of being captured and dragged across the Atlantic had not broken Fatima's will to live. In 1725, four years after her purchase, Fatima had a baby girl, Pino. During the 1700s, slave women at Comingtee gave birth to their first children at the average age of nineteen. Fatima was therefore perhaps fifteen when she was bought. A few years after Pino, Fatima had a son, Giley. Only once in a while did Elias and the other Balls write down the names of the fathers of the slave children. Nevertheless, there is evidence that the father of Fatima's two may have been a field worker named Sam.

What can be said about Fatima's life? All the memorial to her that is possible can be put in the form of a slender biography:

Fatima: Born about 1706 in West Africa. Enslaved 1721. Traveled by ship to Charleston, in the English colony of South Carolina. Bought by Elias Ball, plantation owner. Taken to Comingtee, the Ball place on the Cooper River. Worked in the fields there. Took a mate, perhaps named Sam. Gave birth to a daughter, Pino, in 1725; and on April 23, 1742, a son named Giley, who died as a child. Watched her firstborn grow up to be a slave. Died on the plantation. Was laid in a cemetery far from home.

In December 1722, for the first time, Elias noted that he had sold someone. He did not name the woman or man, but the buyer was a neighbor called William Rhett. In 1717, Rhett had built a house in Charleston five minutes by foot from Elias's old townhouse. The two may have made a handshake deal while standing in the street. Elias thought nothing of the transaction. On a page where he wrote down Rhett's debts to him, he scrawled that Rhett had delivered a quantity of rice worth eighty pounds sterling "Due in part for a negro."

The person sold to William Rhett was one of many people handed from owner to owner in friendly bargains. Planters along the Cooper River bought and sold workers among themselves and bartered for them as they did for animals. Sometimes plantation owners sold people they felt they could not control, and sometimes they sold people who didn't work as hard as demanded. From time to time, masters sold people merely because they didn't like them.

This sort of traffic, so casual as to be off the tax books, irritated the colonial authorities. In an attempt to collect revenue from it, in 1723 the colonial legislature passed a bill setting up an outdoor market to be held a mile from Comingtee, in a little village near the dock of the Strawberry Ferry. At the market, one Saturday each month, buyers and sellers were required to collect taxes on "every horse, mare, gelding, calf, or slave" sold. I imagine Elias bought and sold people here on an occasional weekend walk.

One more first bears retelling, the first recorded episode of people who tried to flee. On September 4, 1731, Elias wrote the following: "Memorandum ... Taken with the runaway Negroes a shirt & shift and a jacket and britches." On this occasion it was not quite harvest season, but crops stood high in the fields and preparations for bringing them in had begun. Facing an autumn of round-the-clock work, at least two people had made a break. To judge from the clothing they took, which likely belonged to their owner, the runaways were men. In general, field hands dressed in rough-cut trousers and pull-on shirts. By stealing Elias's clothes, a runaway might be able to convince a marshal that he was a trusted servant who merely had been sent on an errand. Without knowing their names, it is difficult to say more about the runaways. They were probably not the first to have gotten free, if only for a short while, and they would not be the last.

Many thanks to Edward Ball for sharing this excerpt! To read an excerpt of Chapter One of Slaves in the Family, please visit

This excerpt is copyrighted material, and may not be presented in another form without permission from the author. Citation:

Ball, Edward
1998 Slaves in the Family. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, pp. 97-100.

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