The Book of Negroes By Lawrence Hill
The Book of Negroes is the title of a fascinating new novel by Lawrence Hill, written over five years, “an exciting, daunting, endless and thrilling process,” he says - and the reader will find it so as well. The Book of Negroes was also an equally fascinating historical document, compiled in 1783, of the Negroes who were transported from the northern United States to New Brunswick and Nova Scotia by the British military at the end of the American Revolution.
Largely forgotten in Canada, this document, a detailed ledger, contains the names of three thousand black men, women and children who travelled - some as free people, others as slaves or indentured servants of white United Empire Loyalists - in 219 ships sailing from New York to Canada in 1783.
Having your name registered in the document meant the promise of a better life for those fleeing the United States. Even the northern states were not safe for former slaves.
Lawrence Hill’s novel, The Book of Negroes, is the story of a negro woman; captured as a child in Africa, who lived as a slave in the southern United States, as a free woman in New York, then transported with the Loyalists to Nova Scotia, repatriated to Sierra Leone, and then finally travelling to England to aid the abolitionists in their attempt to pass a bill through the British Parliament to abolish slavery.
The story is told by Aminata Diallo. We know that she has lived to be an old woman - and to tell her story. And her story is an amazing one.
There are times when it is hard to believe - there are coincidences worthy of Dickens - but there is an expression “truth is sometimes stranger than fiction” and this book does feel very real.
Aminata is eleven years old when she is captured - old enough to remember her home. She has come from a family of loving parents; she is literate in her own language and finds other languages easy to learn.
She has assisted her mother at births in the village, and is as accomplished as any midwife. She learns quickly and easily, and is secretly taught to read and write by an older female slave after her arrival in America. Aminata’s first owner operates an Indigo Plantation in South Carolina.
I found the description of life on the plantation, and the whole industry of Indigo production in the 1700s a very interesting part of the novel. We know and dread the inevitable rape of Aminata - but it is handled very compassionately.
Aminata is portrayed as a young woman who knows that if she rebels and fights every incident of oppression she will never survive to achieve freedom. She lives in order to become free, her only desire to somehow return to her home one day.
She hides her intelligence and her literacy but it is discovered by a northerner who visits the plantation, and she is purchased by him and taken to the north. There she lives an easier life for a time, but still she is not free.
It is Aminata’s literacy however that makes it possible for her to continue to better her life and she is well aware that she must continue to use her abilities to her advantage.
Lawrence Hill uses the story of Aminata to tell the story of the slave trade as it relates to Canada. I knew there was a black population in Nova Scotia but I had never thought about the fact that they would have come to that province as Loyalists along with the white Empire Loyalists, some my own ancestors, who left the United States in the late 1700’s.
The quality of life the former slaves found in Nova Scotia was far less than they were promised. They lived in poverty and isolation - in a cold country - and many could not imagine that their lives would ever improve.
As hard as it is to believe - there was a plan to move more than one thousand Black Loyalists back to Africa, after a decade in Nova Scotia.
Even as ships were still transporting slaves from Africa to the America, the British government was shipping former slaves back to Africa from Canada.
The British had created a town - Freetown in Sierra Leone, where they were re-settling the former slaves - many but not all had been born in Africa.
It seems an absurd plan and it was virtually impossible to have it succeed. Lawrence Hill has succeeded in writing a masterful work of historical fiction that will intrigue and excite the readers of this fascinating tale.