The Book of Negroes

Lawrence Hill, a Canadian and himself the son of immigrants and US civil rights activists in the 1950s, with a black father and white mother, has written a compelling and absorbing account of the eighteenth century slave trade between west Africa and the US (then itself a British colony). Having just read (and reviewed) The Long Song, Andrea Levy’s account of slavery under the British in Jamaica, I was keen to read this account of the slave trade (making the distinction between slavery and the slave trade is important, and one of the successes of Hill’s book).

Hill’s account of the fictional life of Aminata Diallo, kidnapped as an 11-year old and sold into slavery, branded and transported initially to South Carolina, is told as a memoir and one which features actual events and people from the history of the times. Hill pulls few punches in raising some major, and discomforting, issues – Aminata is captured and sold by fellow Africans, who also provide logistical support for the long enforced march to the coast and who, as Aminata wonders both at the time and later (in a more reflective way), do little to help her on her march other than to make her as comfortable on it as possible. The arguments of the slave traders that slavery had brought ‘civilisation’ to the slaves is also raised, and the novel makes it clear that Aminata has, through her own endeavours, of course, but also with substantial help from those who owned and, it has to be said, at least to some, limited, extent, befriended her, benefited from her time as a slave. In implicitly criticising the lack of attention to detail of the cartographers of Africa, for whom the interior was, to coin a phrase, marked by a Swiftian ‘here be elephants’ lack of care, Hill provides an appropriate comment on the way in which the slave traders de-humanised Africa or, perhaps better said, saw it only as a resource to be raided, and traded.

The novel is meticulously researched (and the sources acknowledged, in no less than three addenda) and brings great colour and historical detail to the period and circumstances of Aminata’s immense journey. The novel lives, and breathes. In the way in which it portrays ‘the other’, whether marked by colour differences or those of language, as less than human, it reminds us that we still, today, are divided from all those involved in the slave trade by a thin and fragile, if developing, thread.

But. It’s not that, ultimately, this is a romantic tale (to deny Aminata that aspect to her life would be to de-humanise her further). It’s in the telling, which is, perhaps incredibly, given the subject matter, dispassionately objective; the tale is told in a largely journalistic style which often strays into 21st century idiom and language. It’s in the characterisation; there are almost no other characters in the novel other than the teller which, perhaps, throws a sharper relief on Aminata and which heightens the diaristic nature of the telling but which, in the end, leaves Aminata the object of caricatures when these need to be more rounded human beings. And it’s in the remarkable things which happen to her – Aminata, whatever her situation at different points in the tale, always manages to fall on her feet; being a great fan of Roddy Doyle‘s Henry Smart (with whom Aminata Diallo shares several parallels), I’m not averse to incredible things happening for the sake of fiction in the lives of ordinary people and, clearly, people’s lives can be (and frequently are) amazing. But the chances of these things happening to a slave are surely slim (and it makes the novel more uncomfortable that her life as a slave is what has given her the opportunities, if not always the tools, for these things to happen to her).

So, a flawed tale (and I’m particularly, and more than usually, conscious that these criticisms are themselves open to criticism) – but it is a magnificently flawed one.

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