A Message from Award-Winning Author Lawrence Hill

Image: Lawrence Hill, author of The Book of Negroes (courtesy HarperCollins Publishers)

“I must earnestly entreat your assistance, without servants nothing can be done … Black Slaves are certainly the only people to be depended upon … pray therefore if possible procure for me two Stout Young fellows … [and] buy for each a clean young wife, who can wash and do the female offices about a farm, I shall begrudge no price…”

These lines come from a letter written in 1763 to John Watts in New York. Who do you think wrote the letter? Perhaps a farmer in Barbados, South Carolina, or Virginia? Actually, this urgent request for slaves came from James Murray, Governor of Quebec.

The average sixteen-year-old in Canada can tell you something about slavery and abolition in the United States. Many of us have read American novels such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Roots.

But have we read our own authors such as Dionne Brand, Afua Cooper and George Elliott Clarke? Do we know that the story of African-Canadians spans four hundred years, and includes slavery, abolition, pioneering, urban growth, segregation, the civil rights movement and a long engagement in civic life?

I wrote the novel The Book of Negroes to remove the dehumanizing mask of slavery and to explore an African woman’s intimate experiences and emotions as she travels the world in the 18th century. I like to think that there is a novel for every one of the 3,000 Black Loyalists whose names were entered into the British naval ledger known as the “Book of Negroes” and who then – as a reward for service to the British on the losing side of the American Revolutionary War – were sent by ship from Manhattan to Nova Scotia in 1783. Imagining Aminata Diallo’s life helped me appreciate the struggles of the 18th century Black Loyalists as they travelled back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean, touching down in colonial America, early Canada, West Africa and Europe in pursuit of freedom and home. Luckily for writers and readers, fiction helps us see where we have been and who we are now.

Synopsis: The Book of Negroes

Abducted as an 11-year-old child from her village in West Africa and forced to walk for months to the sea in a coffle—a string of slaves—Aminata Diallo is sent to live as a slave in South Carolina. Years later, she forges her way to freedom, serving the British in the Revolutionary War and registering her name in the historic “Book of Negroes.” This book, an actual document, provides a short but immensely revealing record of some 3,000 Black Loyalists who left the United States for resettlement in Nova Scotia. A trained bookkeeper, Aminata is enlisted to record the names of these African-Americans travelling to Nova Scotia in pursuit of land and a new way of life. But when the Loyalists arrive in Canada in 1783, they find that the haven they’d been seeking is steeped in an oppression all its own.

Aminata is among the pioneers of Nova Scotia to settle Shelburne and the neighbouring Black community of Birchtown. Her journey from slavery to liberation, and her struggle against a world hostile to her colour and her sex, speaks to the experience of a founding generation of African-Canadians.

Discussion Questions

  1. How would you feel to be taken from your homeland, never to return?
  2. How is the concept of dislocation central to servitude in the experience of enslaved Africans like Aminata?
  3. Consider the meaning of freedom. Is it signified by the absence of physical captivity, or are there other requirements to true freedom?