“The Book of Negroes: a novel” by Lawrence Hill (Norton, 2008) originally published in the U.S. as “Someone Knows My Name”

Lawrence Hill’s books were recommended to me by a friend living in Nova Scotia who is directing me to good historical fiction about the Maritime Provences of Canada.  We will be visiting there this summer.  

Hill is the son of a black father and white mother who emigrated from the U.S. to Canada in the 60’s.  Both parents were active in the Canadian civil rights movement and influenced Hill’s life work as a journalist and author.  He continues to live and work in Canada.

The Book of Negroes is the story of the Black Loyalists—slaves in the North American colonies who were promised freedom for remaining loyal to the British during the War of Independence.  They worked for the British in the military and in all sorts of skilled and unskilled trades. The story centers around the fictional life of Aminata Diallo, from her childhood in Mali, through capture, slave life, runaway life in New York, emigration to Nova Scotia, emigration to Sierra Leon, and final emigration to London.  As befits a heroine, Aminata is clever.  She becomes literate and numerate, speaks several languages and manages through a long, difficult and sad life.

There were about 3,000 slaves listed in The Book of Negroes, which is the hand-written list of former slaves given their freedom and transported to various places in the Maritimes of Canada.  They did not flourish.  The British government did nothing for them and the locals hated them.  You can’t say these former slaves would have been better remaining in the new United States.  To even return would have risked capture and re-enslavement.  In the 1790’s, British abolitionists funded a colony in Sierra Leon and invited former Black Loyalists settle there.  Life was ultimately no better, as they were abandoned by the abolitionists.  

When we visit Nova Scotia, we will be able to visit Birchtown, the original settlement of the Black Loyalists.  Because of the upcoming trip, I enjoyed this book immensely. Like most historical fiction, the story had to bend to reveal the events.  So, there is a feeling of a contrived plot, but it is all for a good purpose.