Repost ~ ROTW: The Book of Negroes

Submitted by Ms. Netisha Currie, Archives Specialist at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland

This record of the week was a part of a presentation titled “Slavery, Freedmen, and Employment in Government Records,”  given at the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) Conference in Atlanta, Georgia on September 25, 2015

The Inspection Roll of Negroes (NAID 5890797), more commonly referred to as the Book of Negroes, is a record that is not widely known, but will soon become more prominent and recognized for its value to the history of American slavery, the Revolutionary War, and Canadian history. In the middle of Black History Month, Black Entertainment Television (BET) will air a three-part miniseries based on the novel The Book of Negroes (or Someone Knows My Name) by Lawrence Hill. The novel and miniseries tells the story of Aminata Diallo, a protagonist whose life is forever changed because of this real-life historical document.

The Book of Negroes is actually a set of two ledgers that lists the names, ages, and descriptive information of about 3,000 enslaved African Americans, indentured servants, and freedmen that were evacuated from the United States along with British soldiers at the conclusion of the American Revolution. Over the extent of about 200 pages, this record captures what is now invaluable genealogical information such as where a person was held in slavery, their owner’s name, and when and how the person obtained freedom.

Why was the list generated in the first place? At the suggestion of Sir Guy Carleton (commander of British forces during the War), the list was effectively an IOU to the United States. Per the terms of the Treaty of Paris (NAID 299805), the United Kingdom was supposed to return all property that was seized during the War, including slaves. Sir Carleton took exception with that component; for he intended to keep the promise of freedom that was made to African Americans who joined and fought for the British in the course of the Revolution (declarations such as Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation were made as early as 1775). Instead of giving in to the terms, Carleton negotiated that this Book of Negroes be made, as a way to tally the loss of ‘property’ to the US, of which the British government would compensate for at a later date. A record of that check has not been found.

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The 3,000 people that were listed in the Book of Negroes were evacuated by ship to the colony of Nova Scotia. From there many of the new African Canadians continued on and settled back on the continent of Africa, establishing the city of Freetown, Sierra Leone. During that voyage, in a bit of great irony, the ships that carried about 1,000 freed persons to a new home passed many ships that would bring thousands more enslaved peoples to the United States.

The National Archives in Kew, London holds the British version of the record.

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