Lawrence Hill's The Book of Negroes* is an exceptional work about an exceptional woman that manages to put the spotlight on a little known historical document (the titular Book of Negroes).
Spanning sixty or so years, from the mid 1700s to early 1800s, The Book of Negroes is about Aminata Diallis, a woman who as a child is kidnapped from her village in West Africa and sold into slavery. Through sheer luck and a series of coincidences she is able to learn how to read and also to "catch" babies and these two skills allow her to survive and find work wherever she goes. The book traces her amazing journey from Africa to South Carolina to Nova Scotia to Africa again and finally to England and in the process educates the reader on the path a few thousand black slaves were able to take in order to free themselves, a difficulty that Hill manages to convey is a million times more difficult that the process of enslavement was.
Hill doesn't shy away from the sheer brutality of slavery and the opening sections are an especially difficult read as they bear witness to the inconcievable violence that Aminata and others are forced to survive through, being beaten, branded, raped, stripped of all clothing and humiliated daily before being dropped off in a different country and forced to work and learn another language to adapt and survive in a situation where they can be deprived of their family and relationships based on the whim of their captors.
But the book is also a meditation of colonialism and the sheer ignorance and arrogance of Aminata's captors. From the moment she is ripped away from her home Aminata struggles to return to it and as her knowledge grows she learns that the very people who stole and enslaved her know nothing about where she came from. To them she is simply African, and when she is finally able to see maps of where she came from she finds nothing but a large blob with a few slavery coastal ports and "elephants for want of towns."
*N.B.: The book was published as Someone Knows my Name in the U.S.
- The Book of Negroes - Lawrence Hill