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By Edward Ball
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux
504 pages, $30
The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade: 1440-1870
By Hugh Thomas
Simon & Schuster
908 pages, $37.50

African slavery, the economic and social institution that laid the foundation for modern Western industrial society, remains an uncomfortable subject even though it is nearly impossible to comprehend current American racial dynamics without at least a cursory knowledge of that so-called "peculiar institution."

A nation founded on the principles of God-given individual rights was nevertheless built with stolen labor on the backs of Africans. Two recent volumes both give an insightful and erudite look at the four and a half centuries of the slavery that evolved into modern international trade.

Edward Ball's "Slaves In The Family" is the story of a compassionate search to reconnect with his ancestors and somehow, though belated, apologize to the descendants of the more than 3,000 African slaves his family owned on South Carolina plantations since the colonial period. The book is replete with excerpts from Ball family diaries, portions of letters, family photos and financial records that illustrate how slavery became the basis for his family's wealth before the Civil War.

The Ball family estate was built on the rice plantations of South Carolina, which Ball correctly identifies as the equivalent of "Ellis Island" for African-Americans because so many were shipped to that former British colony, much like the thousands of Europeans who would walk onto America's shores in the 19th and early 20th century.

Ball spares none of the skeletons in his ancestors' closet, telling of relatives who fathered children by slave women and of some modern-day older relatives who still seem to be searching for a good explanation of why the whole business went on for so long. His contacts with the descendants of the plantation slaves yielded everything from brusque rejections to the piqued interest of African-Americans who have passed stories of slavery down over the years.

It is not the cruel, Simon Le Gree image fostered in the clamor of rising abolitionism that resulted in works such as Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin." In fact, many of the stories passed down indicate that Ball's were kind masters, or as kind as one man can be to another he owns.

This is not a book aimed at saving the family honor; rather it is a gripping human saga of how black people survived under the the most meager conditions and how one white family came to ruin -- financially -- under a system so foreign to the spirit upon which the nation was founded.

The Old South was in constant fear of rebellion. It was also very aware of the moral consequences of slavery but sought intellectual refuge in religion and the notion of African racial characteristics as inferior. Such defenses helped to separate the owner from the crude business of owning humans. As the Ball story progresses, the author shows that plantation owners who once probably joined Africans in the fields (pre-Revolutionary War era) preparing the land, very quickly evolved into a wealthy gentry that had little contact with most of the slaves on the plantation.

The slave owners wanted human history to at least conform to the impossible notion that Africans should feel lucky being slaves in the New World, given the conditions of the land of their birth. However, a good deal of the conditions of African society during the era of the trans-Atlantic slave trade mocked these notions of Africans. In his final chapter, Ball goes to West Africa to find the descendants of Africans who sold their countrymen into slavery.

Some he met still hold hereditary links to governance in their community and admit that their ancestors sold people from neighboring tribes.

"But he was engaged in an evil business," Ball tells his host.

"That is for us to say now," Peter Smart, a descendant of Gumbu Smart, retorted.

Gumbu was captured as a slave during his childhood after he supposedly killed one of his brothers and ran from the village. Snatched by slave bounty hunters, he was not shipped across the Atlantic but remained on the West Coast, eventually becoming a buyer on Bunce Island for white slave owners. Ball's family had struck deals with the well-known Gumbu.

"Nobody is innocent. Nobody can point the finger and say, 'You, you are the guilty party,' We can only sit back and say, 'It happened.' Human beings have nasty parts, and we have our good parts," the descendant of the African slave trader added.

While Ball's family story provides an emotional account of slavery in the South, historian Hugh Thomas has produced a mammoth volume that traces the trade from 1440 to its end in 1870. This is a remarkable work, not only because of its scope, but more because of its details, which include the financial dealings of firms and individuals who grew rich from the trade.

The role of Jewish slave traders (many of whom were conversos, Jews who were forced at the point of a sword to become Christians) is explored. The important role of African kings may surprise some readers. They actually attempted to revive the trade when Great Britain, the nation that probably profited the most from the slave trade, abolished the practice.

Thomas's book also serves the important purpose of tracing the development of the trans-Atlantic slave trade from kidnappings that pitted Christians against Muslims to a sophisticated business involving African political power.

Initially, only criminals and malcontents were sold into slavery. Later, African rulers raided the villages of neighboring peoples or gave premission to slave bounty hunters (of all races) to do as much in the pursuit of wealth. The majority of Africans sold into slavery were not kidnapped, as pictured on the popular television miniseries "Roots," but were traded from coastal fortresses and holding areas for weapons, clothes, cowrie shells, glass beads, liquor and other finished European products.

It is disheartening to think that human beings were put through so much suffering for goods that today would only be worth a few hundred dollars, if that. Weapons garnered high prices and, like other premium goods desired by Africans, could be traded for whole families of slaves. Perhaps the lesson of history for both races is that greed (of labor in the New World) often overpowers moral values.