Further Reflections on “The Book of Negroes” Novel

A prior post summarized Lawrence Hill’s novel The Book of Negroes while another post provided a brief look at the relevant historical background of the novel–the fate of the Black British Loyalists in the American colonies during and after the American Revolutionary War.

Lawrence Hill
Lawrence Hill

Now we examine Hill’s own reflections about his novel and how his biography has influenced this novel and his other books. [1]

He first heard about the historical Book of Negroes in 1980 when he read The Black Loyalists: The Search for a Promised Land in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone, a scholarly book by Canadian historian James W. St. G. Walker.

Hill immediately knew from reading the Walker book that one day he would write the fictional story of a woman who had to have her name entered into the Book of Negroes.  But it took at least 15 years before he felt he was ready to tackle such a large project. In 2002 when he began to research and write the novel, he examined for the first time reproductions of the actual Book of Negroes. Another topic of his research was the activities of the British abolitionists. The size of this project is indicated by the five years it took to research and write the novel.

His greatest surprise from his research was discovering that among the Black Loyalists who left Nova Scotia for Sierra Leone in 1792 were some who had been born in Africa and thus were returning home. This back-to-Africa exodus took place 30 years before American slaves went to Africa to found Liberia and more than a century before Jamaican Marcus Garvey urged blacks in the Diaspora to return to the motherland.

From the moment of his conception of the novel, Hill said, it was a woman’s story. As a writer, he locates stories in the lives of the people who have the most to lose, and Aminata as a mother had the most to lose.

A constant question for him in all of his writing, he said, was how does someone survive horrible events in life. Every book or story requires an overarching theme, which for him is what does the main protagonist want. For Aminata in The Book of Negroes it is “I want to go home to Africa.”

Lawrence Hill’s parents — a black father and a white mother —were U.S. citizens who emigrated  to Canada the day after they married in 1953 in Washington, D.C.in order to escape racial discrimination and anti-miscegenation laws. Both of them were involved in the human rights movement, an influence Hill readily acknowledges.

Born in Canada in 1957, Hill was raised in a predominantly white Toronto suburb. He has a B.A. in economics from Laval University in Quebec City and an M.S. in writing from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Although Hill always wanted to be a creative writer, he immediately recognized that he needed to have some kind of gainful employment to support himself financially as he was starting his writing career. These sidelines, he acknowledges, helped his creative writing.

He spent three years as a journalist with Toronto’s The Globe and Mail and The Winnipeg Free Press and learned how to write quickly on short deadlines and to recognize that his words could be changed by editors. He then spent a year in Spain writing short stories, but realized that his quickly written letters from Spain to friends were more lively and better written. For the next 15 years he was a free-lance speech writer for Canadian politicians and in the process learned how to write for different voices.

Hill’s international travels have also influenced his writing, especially his volunteer trips to West Africa. While in Mali, for example, he met a midwife by the name of “Aminata,” which he used as the name of the main character in The Book of Negroes.

Now Hill is an accomplished and recognized author. In addition to The Book of Negroes, he has published two other novels, a memoir, three other non-fiction books and the script for a film.

He is a member of the Council of Patrons of the Black Loyalist Heritage Society. Hill has received the Diamond Jubilee Medal from Queen Elizabeth II, the Medal of Distinction from Huron University College, the Freedom To Read Award from the Writers Union of Canada, the Award of Excellence from the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, and the Rev. John C. Holland Award of Merit from the Hamilton Black History Committee. Hill also holds honorary doctorates from the University of Toronto, Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Waterloo.

This coming fall Hill will be Canada’s Massey Lecturer and has said the lecture’s theme will be “how beliefs, traditions, rituals, phobias, and obsessions about blood influence how we see ourselves individually and societally.”

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[1] This post is based primarily upon materials on Hill’s own website and his recent remarks at the San Miguel Writers’ Conference.

The Black British Loyalists Through the Eyes of Novelist Lawrence Hill

Lawrence Hill
Lawrence Hill

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-book-of-negroes1

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.

Book of Negroes (page)
Book of Negroes (page)

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.

Guides for the novel for teachers and readers are available on Hill’s website.The novel is now being made into a TV series.

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.

 

 

 

The Fate of Black British Loyalists in the American Revolutionary War

At the start of the American Revolutionary War in April 1775, the population of the American colonies was approximately 1.5 million. Of these at least 300,000 were black slaves, mainly in the south. [1]

Lord Dunmore
Lord Dunmore

On November 14, 1775, John Murray, Earl of Dunmore and Royal Governor of the Colony of Virginia, issued a proclamation offering freedom to slaves who would leave their masters and join the British side. That proclamation declared, in part, “all indentured Servants, Negroes, or others, (appertaining to Rebels,) free that are able and willing to bear Arms, they joining His MAJESTY’S Troops as soon as may be.” [2]

Sir Henry Clinton
Sir Henry Clinton

By 1776 the Dunmore Proclamation became general British policy throughout the colonies, and in 1779 Sir Henry Clinton, who was a top British General, issued the Philipsburg Proclamation expanding Dunmore’s Proclamation to include any rebel slave who could escape, ready to serve for the British or not, anywhere in the colonies.

Although only an estimated 800 slaves immediately joined the British in Virginia as a result of the Dunmore Proclamation, eventually as many as 30,000 slaves throughout the colonies did so and worked as soldiers, laborers, pilots, cooks, and musicians for the British.

General Charles Cornwallis
General Charles Cornwallis

In the final battle of the War, the Battle of Yorktown, in October 1781, the British were defeated, and British General Cornwallis surrendered and thereby abandoned hundreds of black soldiers to the Americans for a return to slavery.

By the winter of the next year (1782), it had  become clear that the British would soon have to evacuate the American colonies. At the time thousands of Loyalists were in the British-held strongholds of New York, Charleston, and Savannah. All Loyalists knew that staying in the new country invited retaliation against them by the victorious Americans, and as a result many left the colonies.

The Black Loyalists were at the even greater risk of being returned to slavery and subjected to cruel punishment for having escaped. Indeed, the terms of the Treaty of Paris ending the War required the British to return the former slaves to their owners.

When those treaty terms became widely known in the colonies, many white slave-owners and their agents from the southern states went to New York City to kidnap and seize their former slaves in anticipation of the signing of the treaty. In addition, the British abandoned some of the Black Loyalists to the Americans or sold them in the West Indies or traded them for White Loyalist prisoners.

When the War formally ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris on September 3, 1783, the British were nearing the end of their seven-year occupation of New York City (then only the southern end of Manhattan). Thereafter, over the next three months, the British evacuated more than 29,000 military personnel, Loyalists and liberated slaves from the City although the Treaty of Paris required the British to return the slaves to their owners.

Among those evacuees were 3,000 former black slaves or Black Loyalists who were listed in “The Book of Negroes.” [3]

Nova Scotia
Nova Scotia

The Black Loyalists on the List of Negroes were taken to British-controlled Nova Scotia where they formed the first free settlements of free Africans outside Africa.  Despite British promises of freedom and land, they soon were subjected to racial discrimination and even slavery and to very difficult conditions.

By the 1790’s the Black Loyalists had given up hope of fair treatment in Nova Scotia. They were ready to leave for a new promised land, and soon their opportunity arrived in the form of the Sierra Leone Company, eager to recruit Black Christians for their new colony on the west coast of Africa. Many of the Black Loyalists decided that an uncertain future in Africa was better than certain misery in Nova Scotia.

In January 1792,15 ships with over 1,100 Black Loyalists left Nova Scotia. When they arrived in what is now Sierra Leone in March of that year, they met conditions that were not better than what they had left.

Today the descendants of the Black Loyalists from Nova Scotia are an important ethnic group in Sierra Leone and still meet and dominate certain churches.

Conclusion

As a white U.S. citizen in 2013, I confess that I did not know any of this history until I had read the Lawrence Hill novel about The Book of Negroes and did research for this and the earlier post referencing the novel.

For the African slaves in the colonies in 1775, the Dunmore Proclamation must have seemed like the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to escape the horrors of slavery. Yet it required great courage for anyone in those circumstances to attempt to, and actually, escape slavery in the hope that they would be free people. I give thanks for their courage and for their descendants’ creation of a Canadian society to honor their ancestors’ courage and history.

At the same time, once must also acknowledge that the estimated 30,000 Black Loyalists were only roughly 10% of the black slaves in the colonies at the time. The other 270,000 black slaves did not have the courage to try to escape or for whatever reasons had decided to cast their lot with the rebelling colonists. Some even fought for the colonists in the War. It would be interesting to know more about them.

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1 This post is based upon secondary sources, primarily upon the superb “Black Loyalists: Our History, Our People.” I encourage comments correcting any errors in this post or amplifying on the history of the Black Loyalists.

2 In response the next month (December 1775) the Virginia legislature passed a law that prescribed death for “all negro or other slaves, conspiring to rebel or make insurrection” against their owners while offering pardon to those who ”return in safety to their duty.”

3 “The Book of Negroes”  was mentioned in a prior post along with the novel of the same name by Canadian novelist Lawrence Hill. A subsequent post will discuss recent comments about the novel by Hill along with some of his biographical information.