A fresh look into ‘Book of Ne­groes’

Black his­tory is shown through N.S. on­line por­tal

Cape Breton Post - - PROVINCE/ATLANTIC - BY MICHAEL MACDON­ALD THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

The im­age on the com­puter screen looks in­no­cent enough: A ledger show­ing a list of names, ages and de­scrip­tions of phys­i­cal stature - all of it writ­ten in a pre­cise script that hasn’t been prac­tised in more than two cen­turies.

But a closer ex­am­i­na­tion of the “Book of Ne­groes” on­line re­veals a time when black peo­ple were - legally speak­ing - noth­ing more than prop­erty.

The book was com­piled in New York be­tween April and Novem­ber of 1783 at the con­clu­sion of the Amer­i­can Revo­lu­tion­ary War. It is a record of the 3,000 black refugees - all of whom sided with the Bri­tish dur­ing the war - who were loaded on ships bound for Nova Sco­tia, then a Bri­tish colony.

In col­umn af­ter col­umn, the list of hu­man souls reads like a com­mer­cial in­ven­tory: “Aaron Jon, 42, stout fel­low.” “Isaac Jon, 10, fine boy.” “Sarah Gor­don, 28, tall, lim­ber wench.”

And with each black loy­al­ist’s name, their sta­tus as a cur­rent or for­mer slave is also cited with cold de­tach­ment:

“Prop­erty of Thomas Prichard, (and) a refugee from Philadel­phia.”

“For­merly slave to Sam Dyer, Rhode Is­land. Left him ... four years ago.”

“(Be­longed) to P.G. Brook Liv­ingston, who gave her free­dom.”

The reg­is­ter, now kept at the Na­tional Ar­chives in Lon­don, is de­scribed as the sin­gle most im­por­tant doc­u­ment re­lat­ing to the im­mi­gra­tion of African Amer­i­cans to Nova Sco­tia.

“It gives the de­scen­dants their iden­tity if their an­ces­tors came on that mi­gra­tion route,” said Lois Yorke, di­rec­tor of the Nova Sco­tia Ar­chives. “It gives them back who they are.”

The book’s con­tents, in­clud­ing high-res­o­lu­tion im­ages of each page, have been avail­able on­line as a search­able data­base for sev­eral years, but the Nova Sco­tia gov­ern­ment re­cently added most of the data to its open data por­tal. That means the lists can be down­loaded for re­search or used by de­vel­op­ers to cre­ate new ap­pli­ca­tions.

Aside from names and ages, all 3,008 records in­clude the name of the ves­sel boarded, its com­man­der and the ship’s even­tual desti­na­tion.

Sylvia Hamil­ton, a film­maker and pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of King’s Col­lege in Hal­i­fax, says the “Book of Ne­groes” - an in­spi­ra­tion for the 2007 Lawrence Hill novel of the same name - pro­vides a tan­gi­ble record of im­mi­grants whose past might oth­er­wise be for­got­ten.

“Those names have been read into the record,” Hamil­ton said in an in­ter­view. “They are peo­ple who can­not be erased ... They were in­di­vid­u­als. They were peo­ple with agency. They es­caped by the thou­sands - men, women, chil­dren. It’s a re­mark­able his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ment.”

The book also doc­u­ments the cases of a small num­ber of fugi­tive slaves like “Betty,” who were claimed by their Amer­i­can own­ers be­fore they could leave New York. The book says the Bri­tish gave the woman to a Thomas Smith “to be dis­posed of by him at his plea­sure.”

One slave owner who ap­peared in New York to re­claim his prop­erty was none other than Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton, com­man­der in chief of the Con­ti­nen­tal Army and the first pres­i­dent of the United States. In her book, “Black Loy­al­ists,” Hal­i­fax au­thor Ruth Holmes White­head says Wash­ing­ton failed in his bid to re­trieve three slaves, who fled to Nova Sco­tia un­der the di­rec­tion of Bri­tish com­man­der-in-chief Sir Guy Car­leton.

How­ever, the “Book of Ne­groes” also makes it clear that some on the list were still legally con­sid­ered slaves when they ar­rived in Nova Sco­tia with their white, loy­al­ist own­ers.

CP PHOTO

Sylvia Hamil­ton, film­maker, writer and ed­u­ca­tor, is seen at the Univer­sity of King’s Col­lege in Hal­i­fax on Thurs­day. At first, the im­age on the com­puter screen looks in­no­cent enough: a ledger show­ing a list of names, ages and brief de­scrip­tions of phys­i­cal stature, all of it writ­ten in a pre­cise cur­sive that hasn’t been prac­tised in more than two cen­turies. But a closer ex­am­i­na­tion of the “Book of Ne­groes” re­veals a time when black peo­ple were noth­ing more than prop­erty. Sylvia Hamil­ton, a film­maker and pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of King’s Col­lege in Hal­i­fax, says the book pro­vides a tan­gi­ble record of im­mi­grants whose dark past might oth­er­wise be for­got­ten.

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