The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill is based on a historical document kept by the British naval officers during the American Revolution. The document contains a list of approximately 3,000 slaves who were escaping Manhattan to settle in Canada.
Set in the 18th and 19th century, The Book of Negroes narrates the life of an 11-year-old girl from Bayo, West Africa named Aminata Diallo. She dreams of learning Arabic prayers and earning an education, like her father. But after Aminata witnesses her parents’ murder, slave traders capture her and she is forced to walk naked in a crowd of strangers for several days before being shipped to Charleston.
Aminata is a figure of resistance. She fights against unwelcome attention from men and the obscene orders from her owners to show her body. She preserves her Black/Muslim identity, while other slaves in the plantation don’t mention it. Although she’s only 11, Aminata survives the ship journey to Charleston, where numerous slaves died. She also survives the strenuous physical labour at the indigo plantation. Through the figure of Aminata, Hill shares the horrors of the slave experience. Hill interestingly includes the white enslavers’ justification: “[They are] educating slaves and saving them from the threatening Africa where they would have killed each other.”
Hill also raises several themes that were considered controversial in the 18th century. Despite her status as a slave, Aminata learns to read and write in English. She resists the so-called values instilled by the white enslavers. She talks back to her owners, she works on her own, and she becomes a leading figure to help her people get back to Africa to start a new colony named Freetown.
Hill introduces a variety of characters in his novel that bring out the catastrophic impact of captivity and forced labour. Some women murder their newborns and some drown in the Atlantic Ocean for their babies. Some men lose their ability to talk and some turn into murderous rebels. Hill wants the readers to understand this gruesome part of history and the darkness of slavery that white enslavers guised with moral justification. The Book of Negroes immortalizes the struggle, courage, selflessness, and determination of the slaves who both died and survived.