The Book of Negroes
By Lawrence Hill
486 pages, hardcover.
Reviewed by Stephen Kimber
It hit me like the text’s “sack of hammers.” Somewhere around page 389 of Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes, I realized I’d become so completely engrossed in his masterful telling of the hard life and crueler times of Amanita Diallo I’d forgotten I was reading a novel. But I was. And it is a brilliant one.
The Book of Negroes tells the epic story of Amanita, a precocious, eleven-year-old girl stolen from her home in West Africa by slave traders in 1756. After being force-marched overland to the sea, she is squeezed into the bowels of a slave ship and dispatched across an unfamiliar, dangerous ocean to America, sold to a plantation owner, used and abused, then sold again. Near the end of the American Revolution, she escapes and becomes part of an exodus of black loyalists seeking British-promised freedom in Nova Scotia. But when reality turns out be less than advertised, Amanita ultimately joins another historic exodus — this time back to Africa.
Amanita is an amazing literary creation, at once lifelike and larger-than-life. The dramatic details of her personal story may be fictional, but as in the best fiction, my guess is that readers of the future who want to understand the lived truth of slavery will turn first to Hill’s book.
We first meet Amanita as an old woman in turn-of-the-nineteenth-century London, where she and her life story have become useful symbols for members of Britain’s abolitionist movement, “big-whiskered, wide-bellied, bald-headed men boycotting sugar but smelling of tobacco.”
The abolitionists are far from the first whites who turn out to be less than they claim — and who all ultimately disappoint Amanita. There is Solomon Lindo, for example, the intriguingly complex Jewish indigo inspector in Charles Town. He buys Amanita from her slave master and treats her well enough, even teaching her to read sums. In the beginning, he urges her to think of herself as a family servant rather than a slave but, in the end, it’s clear he regards her as his slave too.
Lindo’s encouraging her to read and write, however, allows Hill to make plausible the implausible notion that Amanita who describes herself as a “little bitty, pint-sized, fast-talking African woman,” would have ended up in the middle of so much history. In the book, she helps the British army compile “The Book of Negroes,” an important historic document listing the names of 3,000 freed blacks eligible to leave America after the revolution, and then, nearly a decade later, serves as an assistant to abolitionist John Clarkson preparing lists of black Nova Scotians who want to resettle in Sierra Leone.
In the process, Amanita encounters any number of actual historic figures — Sam Fraunces, the big-hearted black New York tavern owner, “Blind Moses” Wilkinson, the charismatic black Birchtown preacher — who wander off the dry pages of history and into flesh-and-blood literary life in The Book of Negroes.
It is Hill’s ability to seamlessly weave the real and the imagined into the whole cloth of his larger truth that stopped me cold around page 389.
By this point, Amanita was in Birchtown, Nova Scotia, the literally dirt-poor home to 1,500 freed slaves. The lucky lived in shacks, “but others dug deep pits into the ground, covered them up with logs and evergreen boughs, and huddled together to stay alive during the winter.” They endured “a long hard, muddy walk” of two miles to Shelburne, the neighbouring white loyalist community where many of the former slaves had ended up as indentured servants — another kind of slave — or worked for wages beneath the dignity of hundreds of unemployed, disbanded soldiers who were also trying to make new lives in this cold, unwelcoming place. Conflict was inevitable.
Which was how Amanita, by then working as a maid for a white Shelburne couple, found herself in the middle of North America’s first race riot. One July evening, she and her toddler daughter were returning from work when they encountered a mob of drunken louts attacking a black labourer. The rioters had thrown him into Shelburne harbour and then, when he tried to escape, “beat him until he lay still.” Later, Amanita watched, horrified, as the mob encircled a Negro woodcutter named Ben Henson. He fought back, but he was no match for his assailants. “’While he was dodging the knife of a fourth man,’” Amanita would recall years later, “’yet another slid behind him, raised a musket and shot him through the head. Big Ben Henson dropped like a sack of hammers.”
And that’s when it hit me too. I had spent much of the past two years rummaging around in the attic of Shelburne’s early years, researching my own nonfiction book about the era. I’d never come across any evidence anyone had actually been killed during the 10 days of rioting in the summer of 1784. Had I missed something? It couldn’t be… Could it?
I ended up emailing Hill just to be sure I hadn’t overlooked some key document. I hadn’t. Hill wrote back to say he’d invented the murders because they “enhanced the drama and made it more believable for Amanita to take the risky and dangerous decision to leave her daughter temporarily with the couple in Shelburne.”
I tell you this not to quibble with Hill’s narrative decision-making — I don’t — nor even raise the endlessly intriguing but ultimately unanswerable question about the obligations, if any, writers of historical fiction have to the facts of the stories they borrow from, but simply to testify to the seductive power of Hill’s storytelling, which led me so quickly to question the thoroughness of my own library research.
Thanks in part to this year’s 200th anniversary of Britain’s abolition of the slave trade, slavery itself has belatedly become a fit subject for scholarly, historic and literary exploration. American historian Simon Schama told part of the real-life story of The Book of Negroes in his stunning 2006 book, Rough Crossings, while author Adam Hochschild focused more tightly on the abolitionists in Bury the Chains. More recently and less successfully, director Michael Apted mined the same territory for Amazing Grace, his dramatic film biography of abolitionist William Wilberforce.
My guess is that The Book of Negroes is likely to outlast them all. It is a remarkable novel in many ways, not the least of which is that — whatever “minor and intentional departures from historical fact” Hill might have taken (and Hill notes most, though unfortunately not all, of the significant ones in the book’s “A Word About History” afterword) — this story is true in the larger and more important sense of what Hill calls “the history of the times.”
It is all of that, and a compelling read too.
Stephen Kimber is the author of six books, including Reparations, a novel about the destruction of Halifax’s Africville. His next nonfiction book, Loyalists, Layabouts and Dancing Beggars, focuses on Shelburne’s rapid rise and faster fall after the American Revolution. It will be published by Doubleday Canada in 2008.