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Connecticut River Valley, New England, United States

Monday, June 23, 2014

A Story of Incredible Sadness

Burning ProspectsBurning Prospects by Melissa Miles
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A Goodreads first read giveaway, this is one of the saddest books I've ever read. A Revolutionary War veteran who moved from South Carolina to Mississippi with his family and slaves to establish a new plantation, before his death, makes it clear to his heirs both verbally and by dint of his written will, that his slaves are to be emancipated. He further stipulates that the income from the plantation's cotton crop and its sale is to be used to transport those slaves who wish to go to a colony in Africa, Liberia. Further that the monies be used to set them up there with a school and homes and money to establish themselves.

Captain Ross' daughter, one of his heirs, is put in charge of the estate and she is able in her lifetime to hold off her sister and her nephew from interfering with her father's wishes. Nonetheless, between their challenges to the will and the laws of Mississippi regarding the manumission of slaves, she is unable to see its stipulations enforced before she, too, dies. Fortunately, she had a codicil to her own will that was iron-clad and her own slaves were freed upon her death.

The remainder of the book tells the story of the family struggling to prevent Ross' will being enforced, the work of lawyers attempting to get it enforced, the work of abolitionists to keep the slaves informed of the progress in the courts. The life of the slaves as the years drag on as well as the lives of the owners of the plantation are told with great detail. While it is evident that the white plantation owners, in many cases, were religious people and good to their slaves, it is also evident that they saw them only as possessions. They justified their ownership through interpretation of Scriptural passages that seem to condone owning slaves--and they probably do, since these are the writings of men and from time immemorial, slaves have existed in most societies. Usually,they were taken from conquered peoples. And there is no doubt that the fortunes held by many plantation owners were achieved only through the labor of unpaid workers and that those fortunes would be reduced if not depleted were that to change.

On the other hand, while many slaves were treated well by their owners the fact remains they were not free. They were loved, cared for in every way but had absolutely no control of their own fates. As is shown in this book, once the kindest of masters died, the life of the slaves he owned was thrown into total upheaval and uncertainty. Would the new owner treat them as well? Would the new owner keep them all? If not, would the new owner sell them as family units or pick and choose who he'd keep and who he'd sell? What would the buyer be like and where would they be moving? Several people could answer those questions but not one would be a slave, nor would any slave be asked for their input on the decisions made. Even considering the times and the customs of the times, it is impossible for me to imagine looking upon fellow human beings this way---with total lack of recognition of their humanity. It is unfathomable.

Even more unfathomable to me is Ross' belief that sending these souls to Africa was humane. Africa? None of them had ever been there--they had no idea what Africa was like. And yet, I'm sure the author is correct. Much as people had flocked to America, a total unknown, to escape persecution or poverty, these slaves or at least some must have been fearful of moving to Africa but must have had hope of a better life, one of freedom at last. Unfortunately, Liberia, while it provided that, did not provide much more than that. The money Ross had hoped would carry them through to a happier life in their homeland had been squandered in the courts of Mississippi. Africans found these American blacks to be invasive and did not welcome them. Poverty and hardship followed them across the sea. But not before the tinderbox left behind when Captain Ross literally burst into flame--destroying his beloved home, killing a young child and seeing slaves hanging from the trees of Prospect Hill.

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  1. Thank you for your thoughtful and well written review of Burning Prospects. The story of the Prospect Hill slaves has haunted me for years. The book is dedicated to their fight for justice that was so long denied them.

  2. I am so pleased you liked the review. I cannot believe how many times the organization for the resettlement in Liberia has cropped up in my reading since I finished this book! Amazing