Ian Thomson

Surviving the Middle Passage

The Book of Negroes, by Lawrence Hill

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The Book of Negroes

Lawrence Hill

Doubleday, pp. 486, £

The Book of Negroes, an historical romance, creates an unforgettably vivid picture of the Atlantic slave trade and the philanthropists who sought to oppose it. The novel opens in Africa in the year 1745. Aminata Diallo, a midwife’s daughter, has been abducted from her village in present-day Mali and marched in chains to a slave ship, where she is sold to white traders. In the course of the two-month voyage to America, she witnesses a violent shipboard slave revolt, yet is miraculously able to survive the Middle Passage, before reaching Carolina.

Plantation life in the American south, with its hierarchy of skin tones ranging from black to cinnamon to white, is precisely evoked by Lawrence Hill, himself a Canadian of mixed-race background. In pages of harrowing description, sugar merchants are seen to appraise their ‘cargo’ like cattle, prodding and poking orifices for signs of disease. Few in pre-independence America, let alone Britain, acknowledged that each sweet teaspoonful dissolved in tea was an added measure of black mortality.

Interestingly, ‘The Book of Negroes’ is an actual document. It was created by British naval officers in 1793, near the end of the American revolutionary war, in order to register some 3,000 African slaves in America who professed loyalty to the British crown. By becoming Loyalists, these Africans hoped to escape from New York to Canada, and eventually win their freedom. Aminata is among them.

At last set free, she arrives in Nova Scotia to work as a ‘baby-catcher’ (midwife), before journeying on to Sierra Leone, and thence to England. In London she meets William Wilberforce (and notes his sincere Christian smile). Along the way, Hill introduces other real-life characters from the slaving era. Solomon Lindo, indigo inspector for South Carolina, is a distant forebear of Chris (Lindo) Blackwell of Island Records, who ‘discovered’ the rock-reggae of Bob Marley. With its diligent archival research, The Book of Negroes offers many such incidental pleasures.

Eventually Lindo begins to question the morality of slavery, and offers a tokenistic ‘deep sorrow’ at his part in it. The novel sags in the middle somewhat, however, where an element of improbable, Mandingo-style romance intrudes. Aminata, against all the odds, is reunited with her baby girl, presumed dead after an overseer had snatched her away. Nevertheless, The Book of Negroes remains a remarkable achievement, which deservedly won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and has been a bestseller in the United States.

Ian Thomson’s The Dead Yard: Tales of Modern Jamaica is published by Faber in the spring.