The Book of Negroes

  • Christian J. Krampe (Author)
    The Past is Present: The African-Canadian Experience in Lawrence Hill’s Fiction. Peter Lang Publishing Group (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Lawrence Hill (Author)
    Dear Sir, I Intend to Burn your Book: An Anatomy of a Book Burning. University of Alberta Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Ruth Holmes Whitehead (Author)
    Black Loyalists: Southern Settlers of Nova Scotia’s First Free Black Communities. Nimbus Publishing (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Maureen Moynagh

Central to all three works under review is the late eighteenth-century British military ledger known as The Book of Negroes. What could be more emblematic of British imperialism: a ledger keeping an account of the traffic in human beings. The Book of Negroes is a record of all the black people leaving New York on British convoys in 1783, whether enslaved, indentured or freed. This document of a troubling colonial legacy is important for all three of the works I consider here because of what it represents for Canada. It is a testament to the foundational role played by black people in the nation, to Canada’s involvement in the history of slavery, and to Canada’s status as both destination and point of departure among the routes that made up the Black Atlantic. Its very existence is a powerful riposte to popular narratives of Canadian exceptionalism.

Lawrence Hill, whose novel The Book of Negroes (2007) takes its name from The Book of Negroes—at least in its Canadian and UK editions—knows as well as anyone how troubling and ambivalent a document this is. As he explains in the text of the lecture he delivered at the University of Alberta in 2012, readers of the novel elsewhere in the world have found the title of the novel sufficiently disturbing to burn the book, or at least the cover bearing the offending title. Hill’s use of the term “Negro,” derived as it was from the historical record, was sufficiently offensive to Roy Groenberg and the group he represented (Honor and Restore Victims of Slavery in Suriname) to prompt the burning of copies of the Dutch cover in a park in Amsterdam next to a monument commemorating the victims of Dutch slavery. This act serves, in the lecture, as the point of departure for a meditation on book burnings and censorship and it forms the basis for an impassioned plea for freedom of expression, even in cases when one can understand the undeniable hurt experienced by some readers. Hill’s situation was, after all, not without a painful irony: the title offended many of the very readers he imagined himself to be writing for, and not just in the Netherlands, but in the US where Hill’s publishers requested a different title in anticipation of a negative response from readers and booksellers. Hill has agreed to such changes; he even proposed it himself when a German publisher approached him. Yet he also insists that “there is sometimes room to use painful language to reclaim our own history.”

For Ruth Whitehead, the import of The Book of Negroes has to do with genealogy and history. The descendants of many Black Loyalists have been able to trace the arrival of their families in Nova Scotia thanks to this ledger, and Whitehead has been able to use it alongside census records, muster rolls, court cases, church records, and estate inventories to track Black Loyalists back to the period of their enslavement and escape in the US. Black Loyalists: Southern Settlers of Nova Scotia’s First Free Black Communities concentrates in particular on the genealogical connections between South Carolina, Georgia, and Nova Scotia. Whitehead’s focus on specific Black Loyalist families and on the historical linkages between key southern states and the province of Nova Scotia during the American Revolutionary War enriches the extant historical literature on Black Loyalists. Her book also represents an important contribution to studies of slavery in North America more broadly, for as she points out, using The Book of Negroes together with other archival materials Whitehead has been able to trace genealogies for some of the Black Loyalists “seventy years earlier than any comparable record can be created for most blacks in the United States.” If parts of her book rehearse well-known aspects of the history of slavery, Whitehead’s concentration on the roots and routes of specific individuals from slavery to freedom is valuable and compelling. Perhaps most importantly, Whitehead’s study complements the body of writing, both historical and literary, that seeks to intervene in Canadian national narratives about slavery and racial (in)justice north of the 49th parallel.

Collective memory is also central to The Past is Present, Christian Krampe’s literary-critical study of Lawrence Hill’s fiction. Arguing that Hill’s preoccupation, in his historical fiction, with a “usable past” is emblematic of African-Canadian literature as a whole, Krampe offers detailed readings of The Book of Negroes and Any Known Blood that focus on Hill’s contestation of hegemonic Canadian narratives about the nation’s relationship to slavery and other forms of racial injustice. This is not by any means a new argument, but the extended readings of Lawrence Hill’s work are a welcome contribution to African-Canadian literary study. The Past is Present was Krampe’s PhD dissertation for the University of Trier, and it reads very much like a dissertation in its extended review of the theoretical literature on collective memory, historical meta-fiction, and documentary fiction as well as its methodically structured discussions of the two novels by Hill. The detailed plot summaries and the extended documentation of the ways Hill’s novels, especially The Book of Negroes, incorporate the standard topoi of slave narratives identified by James Olney are not really necessary. Revised from dissertation into book, Krampe’s study would be more engaging to read and its contribution more pointed.

Having said that, I must add that Krampe offers important insights into what sets Hill’s representation of slave narratives apart from other neo-slave narratives and marks his novels as speaking to particularly Canadian concerns. Hill’s evident preoccupation with historical veracity, Krampe rightly argues, has less to do with persuading readers of the cruelty of slavery as an institution than it does with persuading readers of Canada’s role in that history. Similarly, the critique of the myth that Canada is the promised land for escaping slaves that was rehearsed so often in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century slave narratives can be, and arguably must be, effected by Canadian neo-slave narratives. Krampe’s book includes an appendix that will be of interest to students of African-Canadian literature. In addition to very interesting interviews with both Lawrence Hill and George Elliott Clarke, Krampe has provided a table tracking the representation of African-Canadian writers in the Governor General’s and the Giller literary prizes and in the Canada Reads competition, as well as a thematic bibliography of African-Canadian poetry.

All three of these works usefully illuminate one another, particularly if one adds Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes into the mix. If relatively few readers are likely to pursue this course of reading, I would nonetheless recommend Ruth Whitehead’s study of the Black Loyalists as an illuminating companion to Hill’s novel. Putting The Book of Negroes together with The Book of Negroes seems fitting, particularly in view of the historical ambitions of Hill’s fiction, and it just might be that his bestseller has paved the way for a broader readership for works like Whitehead’s. If the hemispheric history of slavery remains a painful one, confronting it and its mixed legacies from the perspective of those who were enslaved as Hill (both in his novel and his lecture) and Whitehead do seems the only way forward.



This review “The Book of Negroes” originally appeared in Tracking CanLit. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 220 (Spring 2014): 162-164.

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