Review – The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill

The title of this novel refers to an actual historical document which details information on the Black Loyalists who remained true to the British Crown during the War of Independence (1775-1783).  In 1783, the 3000 African-American former slaves recorded in the book were relocated to Nova Scotia and other North American British colonies.

Lawrence Hill has created an epic saga about the life of Aminata Diallo who was eleven when she was abducted by slave traders from her West African village and transported to South Carolina.  Aminata (Meena) narrates the story of her experiences as a slave which encompass six decades and three continents to bring us up to William Wilberforce’s efforts to abolish the slave trade.

To condense one of the most shameful parts of our history into one woman’s story is no mean feat and Lawrence Hill does an excellent job of creating something uplifting from such misery.  Aminata is a memorable character, unusual in that she becomes literate at an early age and strives to educate other slaves.  It is the memories of Africa which nurture her and keep up her spirits through the barbaric treatment of slave traders, overseers, plantation owners and almost all the white folk she encounters.  Everything is taken from her but her name and her heritage and she longs to return to her village in Mali.  Hill adapts the real life events of African American slaves creating a new settlement in Sierra Leone as Aminata seeks out her roots but the Freetown they create leaves them as shackled and dependent on the white man as they were before.  The book opens with an elderly Aminata relating her story and ends in London as she presents her story to the Abolitionists but what she really wants is the total abolition of slavery not just the slave trade.

For quite a hefty book this is a compelling, very readable story, never flagging and full of poignancy and life without indulging in over-sentimentality.  Every  location is vividly portrayed, from the daily life in Aminata’s African village, Bayo where she helps her mother “catch” babies, the foul smell which singles out the slave ships. the back breaking work on the South Carolina plantation, the destitution of Canvas Town, the sun-baked shores of Sierra Leone, the grey mizzle of London. 

It’s evident that Hill is a consummate story teller – he doesn’t dwell on the injustices or make judgements – he just tells it as it is.  The story of slavery needs to be passed from one generation to the next just as the djeli (oral historians of West Africa) have done through the centuries and the modern cynical mind needs reminding of man’s inhumanity to man.

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  1. I loved this one too! I was amazed about how little I knew about slaves in Canada/returning to Africa. I love it when a book educates as well as entertains :-)

  2. admin says:

    Jackie, I didn’t know anything about the Nova Scotia settlement so yes it was all new to me.

  3. Iris says:

    I come across the title of this book in my required course reading quite a lot, and you have made me want to read it even more!

  4. admin says:

    It’s a really compelling read, Iris, you’ll really like it. :-)

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