Monday, February 23, 2009

The Book of Negroes
Lawrence Hill - Doubleday, 486pp, £12.99

Review by Ian Thomson writing in The Spectator Australia 21 February 2009

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.
Read Ian Thomson's full review online.


HarperCollins released it in Australia and New Zealand under the title, SOMEONE KNOWS MY NAME.

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