The challenge in historical fic tion is to bring the past to life without suffocating the story. Who needs a lecture?
A novel must entertain.
Still, to write The Book Of Negroes, the story of a woman abducted as a child from her African village in the mid-1700s and sold into slavery in the United States, I had to build a credible historical foundation. I began reading 18th- and early 19th-century memoirs of blacks who had been enslaved like The Interesting Narrative Of The Life Of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African, Written By Himself , first published in 1789. But one of the limitations of reading memoirs by ex-slaves is that they rarely said much about Africa, because most of the writers had never lived there, having been born in the Americas. I read some of the most respected accounts of the Atlantic slave trade, including The Slave Trade, by Hugh Thomas, but among the most helpful documents were memoirs written by whites who had travelled in Africa in the mid- to late 1700s.
They were so struck by what they saw exotic, mystifying and terrifying as it must have seemed that they wrote about their experiences. These accounts revealed astounding and troubling details that helped me visualize things that are hard to understand from the vantage point of middle class life in the 21st century.
I wanted to know how black people travelled, what they wore, what they carried on their heads and in their hands, what their villages looked like, how they were kept alive or killed on the slave ships.
It didn't hurt that I had travelled three times to West African countries years earlier as a volunteer with Canadian Crossroads International, but I couldn't have written the novel without the benefit of European writers who were busy scratching quills across paper more than two centuries ago. Their works reveal all the prejudices of the day, but are also teeming with details.
Mungo Park, a Scottish physician and author of Travels In The Interior Of Africa: Performed In The Years 1795, 1795, And 1797, became the first European to penetrate deep into the heart of the landlocked West African land now known as Mali. He recorded striking details about the movement of slaves overland, yoked by the neck in "coffles," or strings of captives, who walked not just hours or days but sometimes months to coastal areas where slave ship captains waited to fill their festering holds.
Anna Maria Falconbridge travelled to Sierra Leone with her husband, a slave ship surgeon named Alexander Falconbridge who later renounced his former life and become an ardent abolitionist.
While her husband was busy with his duties in Sierra Leone, Falconbridge would visit the "factories' where slaves were kept waiting before embarking for the Americas. Her detailed observations provided me with raw material from which I could begin to imagine the situation of my protagonist.
A reader who seeks an intimate understanding of life among British slavers and abolitionists on the coast of Africa in the late 1700s could do far worse than to read her letters, contained in Narrative Of Two Voyages To The River Sierra Leone During The Years 1791-1792-1793. Her husband penned his own book, An Account Of The Slave Trade On The Coast Of Africa.
Since I wanted to write in the voice of a woman, I looked for memoirs by and books about black women. Two of the most captivating were the stories of Harriet Jacobs and Mary Prince, as well as books and articles about the clothing and hairstyles of black women in 18th-century America. One of the most detailed accounts, a terrific book called Stylin': African American Expressive Culture, From Its Beginnings To The Zoot Suit, was written by Shane White and Graham White, two Australian white men.
All these works fed my imaginings for The Book Of Negroes, the unusual title of which is worth explaining. In 1783, thousands of blacks, many of them fugitive slaves, found themselves huddled in Manhattan after having sided and served with the British on the losing side of the American Revolutionary War. When the war ended, the British much to the consternation of American commander-in-chief George Washington arranged to reward them with passage to Nova Scotia in dozens of ships.
But before the blacks could flee the Hudson River to Canada, which they imagined as a sort of promised land, they had to establish that they had spent a year behind British lines and have their names registered in The Book Of Negroes, a massive military ledger.
This unusual document of more than 100 handwritten pages listed the names, ages, physical descriptions and life circumstances of 3,000 blacks who fled Manhattan, seeking refuge and freedom in Nova Scotia.
Copies of The Book Of Negroes can be found in the National Archives of Canada and the Nova Scotia Public Archives, among other places, and I spent much time consulting details in that fascinating document. I found that The Book Of Negroes hinted not just at one novel the one I chose to write but at one for each of the 3,000 blacks it describes, all of whom must have had their own fascinating and troubled stories to tell.