As mentioned in a prior post, the amazing saga of the Black Loyalists in the American Revolutionary War is not widely known. Helping to make it better known is the novel, The Book of Negroes, by Canadian novelist, Lawrence Hill.
The novel takes the form of a memoir written in the early 19th century by a West African woman, Aminata Diallo.
She starts with her mid-18th century abduction as an 11-year-old girl from her West African village and being forced to walk for months to the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. There she is put on a slave ship that takes her to South Carolina, where she begins a new life as a slave.
Aminata is intelligent and as a slave learns midwifery skills and how to read and write. Nevertheless, her life as a slave is not easy.
Her story begins to intersect with that of the Black Loyalists near the end of the American Revolutionary War when she goes to New York City. Because she is literate, she is hired by the British to prepare the Book of Negroes, which provides identifying information for Black Loyalists to be evacuated from the City to go to Nova Scotia for a new and promised better life as free people. In Hill’s words, it was like a group passport or visa. Aminata is one of those so evacuated.
Life in Nova Scotia, however, is not as easy or as great as the British had promised, as demonstrated in the historical record and in the novel, for Aminata and the other Black Loyalists.
Eventually some of the Black Loyalists leave Nova Scotia to go to Sierra Leone in western Africa, as documented in the historical record. In the novel, Aminata is one of those Black Loyalists returning to Africa.
Aminata’s fictional life, however, also includes a trip to London, where she is used in the early 19th century by the British abolitionists to support their arguments for ending the slave trade. To her consternation, abolition of slavery itself is not part of the abolitionists’ agenda.
The novel won the overall Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, the Ontario Library Association’s Evergreen Award and CBC Radio’s Canada Reads. The book was a finalist for the Hurston/Wright LEGACY Award and long-listed for both the Giller Prize and the IMPAC Award.
When my best friend from college who lives in Toronto gave me a copy of this novel several years ago, I had never heard of it and was startled by the title, “The Book of Negroes.” Was this some racist tract? I wondered, but my friend quickly disabused me of that notion.
I found it hard to believe that any male writer, much less an assumed white man, could write so beautifully and convincingly in the first person of an African woman. It was only much later that I discovered that Hill is biracial and that his personal history coupled with his writing skills clearly helped him to write this wonderful book.
A subsequent post will explore Hill’s comments about the novel and his biography.