For Black History Month, or at any time, here is a book worth reading. “The Book of Negroes,” a novel by Lawrence Hill (published by Harper Collins, 2007, Toronto, 680 pages), won the 2008 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and was CBC Radio’s “Canada Reads” 2009 top choice.
Hill’s protagonist is a holocaust survivor. Aminata Diallo, an 11-year-old girl, is stolen from her village in West Africa and forced to walk for months to the sea in a “coffle”—a long chain of yoked and shackled slaves. The “toubabu,” European slavers, jam Aminata and hundreds of her African “homelanders” into a filthy, stinking, tomb-like vessel for a hellish voyage that many did not survive. History records that the infamous “Middle Passage” extinguished the lives of millions of the over 115 million Africans who were killed or enslaved in the 16th to the 19th centuries.
Eventually, she arrives in South Carolina, where her life as a slave begins. Due to her mother’s training and her own bright mind, Aminata develops certain advantages other slaves do not: she possesses the skills of a midwife, speaks several languages, and learns how to read and write.
These abilities save Aminata’s life, but do not shield her from horrific physical cruelties (including branding with a hot iron, beatings, rape), plus the seizure of one of her two children, and a very lengthy separation from the other.
In the 1770s, seeking freedom, she serves the British in the American Revolutionary War and inscribes her name, and many others, in the historic “Book of Negroes.” This book, an actual historical document, is an archive of freed Loyalist slaves who requested permission to leave the United States in order to resettle in Nova Scotia, only to discover that this new place was also oppressive and unyielding.
Aminata eventually returns to Sierra Leone, passing ships carrying thousands of slaves bound for America. The colony at Freetown is under-resourced, stagnant, and totally dependent on its British sponsors. Moreover, it is surrounded by slave trade operators. Aminata has a close brush with death when she hires slavers who promise to take her to her ancestral village of Bayo, deep in the interior.
Later she finds herself crossing the ocean once more, to England, to present the account of her life to a British parliamentary committee, hoping it may lead to abolition of slavery, or at least end the trade in humans, which is all the liberals and progressive religious leaders thought could be attained at first. The trade was outlawed in 1807, and slavery itself abolished in the British Empire in 1833.
It took a civil war in America to legally ban slavery in 1865 (by adoption of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution). But as documented in “Slavery By Another Name” (Douglas A. Blackmon, Doubleday, 2008), peonage, the chain gang, sharecropping, and other nefarious devices kept the super-exploitation of Blacks rampant right through the 1950s in the USA.
The original “Book of Negroes” is about 18 inches by 18 inches, with just over 150 pages. The remarkable hand-written ledger is a historical treasure. Detailing names, ages, backgrounds, and often degrading physical descriptions (“stout wench”), it’s the first public documentation of Black people in North America—specifically, the 3000 freedom-seekers who left New York for Nova Scotia and other British colonies near the end of the American Revolutionary War. In exchange for their service to the empire, Black Loyalists were promised liberty and land. What they received was little better than the circumstances they left behind—poverty, hunger, disease and servitude.
Pretty well known is the underground railroad in Canada; less so is the country’s own history of slavery and its dubious distinction as the site of North America’s first race riot. In 1784, gangs of unemployed white men attacked the Black settlement of Birchtown, Nova Scotia, destroying 20 homes. Angry at their betrayal by the British, 1000 Black Loyalists sailed for Sierra Leone just 10 years after arriving in Canada, embarking on the world’s first return-to-Africa journey.
Lawrence Hill’s work is a brilliant, easy to read, compelling story of personal triumph over impossible circumstances. Populated by endearing, appalling, inspiring, sympathetic and maddening characters, vividly drawn, the story exposes the system that ushered modern capitalism into the world, “with blood dripping from its every pore” (Karl Marx, “Capital,” Vol. 1).
The author, a light-complexioned African-Canadian male who resides in Hamilton, Ontario, transported himself into the skin and mind of an indomitable, sensuous, dark daughter of West Africa from three centuries ago—no mean feat. His narrative of the times, and of the complexity of the mercantile relations that ensnared perpetrators and collaborators of slavery alike, enables the reader to see that we are dealing with a profit system that cultivates evil.
Hill describes a revolt on the ship that carried Aminata to America. But it is a lonely example in a book suffused with submission. In truth, there were constant revolts against slavery—in Africa, on the ships, and in the New World.
These revolts initially involved Blacks and poor whites. In the British West Indies between 1638 and 1837 there were 75 major slave rebellions, 22 of which involved thousands of slaves. In Jamaica, the Maroons made war on the English in the 1700s and won territorial autonomy. It was the great revolution in Saint Domingue (today’s Haiti) in 1794, led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, that rang the death knell for slavery. Half a million Black inhabitants repeatedly fought off the combined armies of Europe. The slaves’ cry of self-emancipation was the real motor for abolition.
The British supported abolition because they wanted to weaken the French Empire, which was based on the wealth of Saint Domingue. But the masses stormed onto the stage of history, not as helpless victims, but as shapers of their own future. While such analysis is not found in “The Book of Negroes,” its moving depiction of a remarkable woman in horrendous times arises like a humanist anthem.
> The article above was written by Barry Weisleder, and first appeared in the March 2012 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.