Essays

Twelve Years A Slave

In the spring of 1841, Solomon Northup accepted an offer of short-term employment as a musician, accompanying a pair of white men, circus performers working their way back to their troupe. A free African-American and resident of New York state, Northup expected the job to take him from Saratoga Springs to New York City, entailing only a brief absence from home so brief, in fact, that he did not leave word for his wife, also employed away from home for a number of weeks, since he expected to return before her.

When they reached New York City, however, his employers urged him to continue with them to Washington, D. C. here they were to meet the circus, promising employment at high wages for the season about to start. Northup accepted their offer, but the very night before the circus was due to start, he fell mysteriously ill soon after taking a drink given him by one of his employers. Nauseated and in pain, assailed by a burning thirst and hallucinations, he finally lost consciousness. When he awoke, hours or days later, he was manacled on a bench in a slave pen; a dozen years would pass before he was freed and returned to his family. In the same year as his return, 1853, Northup’s story was published under the title Twelve Years A Slave.

Much of his narrative echoes themes from the course: the use of Christian and Revolutionary ideology and rhetoric in critiques of slavery and inequality; accommodation, resistance, and negotiation; Black Codes; the power of literacy; the solidarity of African-Americans; and the precarious position of free blacks in a culture and economy predicated on the forced labor of blacks and reinforced by an ideology of inferiority. Twelve Years A Slave was actually written by David Wilson, a lawyer and sometime author in upstate New York, and the attribution of the tone and style of the narrative is therefore rather a murky question.

Throughout the narrative, however, are ringing denunciations of slavery as brutal, unjust and inhuman, and these are most likely Northup’s opinions alone, as there is no evidence that Wilson was ever an abolitionist. The book is dedicated to Harriet Beecher Stowe and begins with a quotation from an anti-slavery poem by Cowper. Though Northup’s stated objective at the beginning of the narrative is somewhat muted (“to give a candid and truthful statement of facts… aving it to others to determine, whether even the pages of fiction present a picture of more cruel wrong or a severer bondage”) as his story unfolds, the language becomes clearer and more decisive, as the facts of what Northup endured and witnessed are set out as incontrovertible evidence of the immorality of slavery.

Separation is a paramount theme, entwined for Northup who had a free family awaiting his return, rather than a slave family he might have had to leave behind with strategies of survival and plans for escape. Not only Northup’s own story, but those of the slaves he met and lived with are included in his narrative,. pecially in the first half, which details how Northup was transported from Washington to Richmond and finally to Louisiana, where he was sold to a planter in the Bayou Boeuf area, William Ford.

Northup’s experience, while not commonplace, was also not unique: of the fourteen slaves on the trip to New Orleans, two others were kidnaped free men, wrested from their families. (The closing of the African slave trade in 1808, as the plantation revolution was taking hold in the Mississippi Delta area, created a voracious appetite for slaves in the deep South.

The contemporary decline of the staple-crop plantation system in the Chesapeake area made slaves a profitable export for the Chesapeake states, and Washington, D. C. , a logical place to sell slaves, and that profitability no doubt was an inducement to kidnappers. ) In Williams’ slave pen in Washington, Northup met a man named Clemens Ray, who had long lived in Washington, and was “wholly overcome…. [at] leaving the friends and associations of his youth every thing that was dear and precious to his heart in all probability never to return.

Later, in a slave pen in Richmond, he met David and Caroline, a married couple whose “greatest source of anxiety was the apprehension of being separated. ” Perhaps the saddest of all he met were a woman named Eliza and her children, Randall and Emily. Northup first encountered Randall by himself, in the slave pen in Washington, and “his mother’s absence seemed to be the great and only grief in his little heart. ”

Though his mother and sister arrived soon after, they were together only for the journey south, and were sold separately; when Northup encountered Eliza later, he described her as “still mourning her children…. nk beneath the weight of an excessive grief,” and still later, informed of her death, ascribed it to her enslaved state and the loss of her children. Northup grieved for his own family, of course. From his first days as a slave, in the slave pen in Washington, “thoughts of [his] family, of [his] wife and children, continually occupied [his] mind. ” Throughout his twelve years of slavery, his thoughts turned to them, as he wondered if they were still alive, if he would die before he could escape to them, if he would ever see them again. As much as Northup was separated from his family, they were also separated from him.

On his return home, he discovered that his younger daughter, only seven when he left, did not recognize him and that in the years he’d lost, she had married and had a child, his first grandchild. The child was named Solomon Northup Staunton Unlike Eliza, Northup had hope of a reunion with his family, a hope which sustained him in his twelve years of bondage. The defining moment of that bondage the moment in which it became clear to him that he was now a slave, with no rights to his own person occurred not when he awoke to find himself in chains, but when he informed his new “owner” that he was in fact a free man.

The owner, a slave-dealer named Burch, was incensed rather than concerned. When Northup refused to recant, Burch beat him with a large wooden paddle bored with holes, stopping only to inquire if Northup still insisted he was a free man. Northup did still insist, and was beaten again with the paddle; when that broke under the force of Burch’s blows, the slave-owner whipped him with a cat-o’-ninetails until Northup remained silent to the repeated question of his free status. From that time on Northup knew that he was in the maw of an institution which denied him every right, and used every strategy available to him.

On arriving in New Orleans he discovered that even his name was not his own: he was listed as “Platt” on the bill of lading, and Platt he was thenceforth called. Recognizing the danger to himself in asserting his rights as a free man (Burch had explicitly threatened to kill him if he continued to do so) he never again told a slave owner that he was free. He sought instead the help of two white men he encountered who spoke out against slavery, and of a sometime overseer named Armsby who was so poor as to be reduced to laboring with slaves, reasoning that his position would make the man somewhat sympathetic.

Northup’s owner, a man named Epps, aware that Northup could read and write, had threatened him with a hundred lashes if he were caught with pen and ink. After nine years of slavery, “always watchful and alert,” Northup had finally managed to steal a sheet of paper, concocted a formula for ink after much trial and error, and wrote a letter to an acquaintance in New York. He had had the letter hidden for some time when he first encountered and cultivated Armsby. The post office would not mail a letter for a slave without written instructions from his owner; all Northup asked of Armsby, not divulging its contents, was that he mail the letter.

When Armsby betrayed him to Epps, Northup who had been careful not to be noticed in his attentions to Armsby, and who clearly understood his owner’s weaknesses denied all knowledge, persuading Epps that Armsby had invented the story as way to curry favor and gain a position as an overseer for Epps. As soon as Epps had left, Northup burned the letter. (He was vindicated in his decision not to confide in Epps by the man’s reaction on being told by white officials that Northup was free “he raved and swore…. thought of nothing but his loss, and cursed [Northup] for having been born free.

Nor was this the only type of dissembling Northup practiced in resistance. Assigned work as a driver, he was forced in the presence of Epps to whip other slaves in the field if they were not working to Epps’ satisfaction. But Epps was often content to observe at a distance, and Northup, with practice, was able to flick the lash “within a hair’s breadth” of the field workers without actually touching them; the workers completed this deception by shrieking and squirming when he did so, and mumbling in Epps’ presence that they were being whipped severely.

Once, when Epps was drunk and attempting to attract the attention in the field of Patsy, a slave on whom he regularly forced himself sexually, to her distress and his wife’s fury, Northup advised her to pretend she had not seen him. Epps divined this, staggered to where Northup was working, grabbed him by the shirt, and tried to cut his throat for his insubordination. Northup spun away, leaving the shirt in Epps’ hand, and led him on a chase about the yard, stopping each time Epps stopped for breath.

Aware that Epps’ brutal whim would pass with his intoxication, and that he would not care to divulge to his wife the cause for it, Northup ran directly to Mrs. Epps when she appeared by the fence, and Epps gave up the chase. On another occasion, hired out to a planter named Tanner, Northup was ordered to put three young men in the stocks as punishment for stealing watermelons; when the family drove away to church, Northup released them, locking them back in shortly before Tanner’s expected return hours later.

Northup did not restrict himself to non-violent resistance when his life was endangered, and Epps, his third owner, was not his worst. His first owner, William Ford, he considered kind, but Ford’s financial embarrassments forced him to give Northup to a carpenter named Tibeats in payment of a debt. Since Northup’s value was greater than the debt, Ford retained a chattel mortgage of several hundred dollars on Northup. Tibeats was a brutal master with an unreasoning and furious dislike of Northup, and on two separate occasions attacked Northup for trivial and imagined offenses, trying to kill him.

The first time, Northup wrested Tibeats’ whip away and proceeded to beat him. Northup paid for it dearly: after he kicked Tibeats away at the end of the beating, the carpenter fled, returning with two white companions prepared to lynch Northup. The plantation on which they were working also belonged to William Ford, and his overseer, Chapin, interceded and saved Northup’s life not with arguments based on humane grounds, but with a reminder (backed up with pistols in each hand) that Ford was technically still a part-owner of Northup, and the men therefore had no right to kill him without Ford’s consent.

The men left, and Ford was sent for, but Northup remained beneath the tree, tied tightly at wrists, ankles and elbows and with a rope around his neck, without food or water until Ford arrived hours later. Tibeats’ second attack, a month later, went further. He seized a hatchet and flew at Northup, and Northup, seeing no recourse, throttled him to a standstill, kicked him in the groin, and threw the hatchet away. Tibeats grabbed a five-foot-long oak stick, which Northup wrested away from him, casting it aside also.

Tibeats next laid hands on a broad-axe, and Northup jumped on his back, pinning the axe between the carpenter and the workbench on which the axe lay, but was unable to loosen Tibeats’ grip on the axe. Again Northup throttled him, almost to unconsciousness. Aware that “if [he] killed [Tibeats], [his] life must pay the forfeit if [Tibeats] lived, [Northup’s] life only would satisfy his vengeance,” Northup threw him off the workbench, leapt a fence, and headed for the bayou, a runaway.

Pursued by Tibeats, his companions, and their dogs, he headed south at first, aided by his ability to swim. But by midnight, long after he had ceased to hear the dogs, he stopped. His prospects for escape were dismal (“it was difficult to know which [he] had most reason to fear dogs, alligators or men”), but he had once before been saved by Ford’s intercession and the power of that chattel mortgage. Northup turned around and headed for Ford’s main plantation, where he stayed for four days, recruiting his strength after the rigors of his flight.

When Ford accompanied him on his return to Tibeats, he was spared the five hundred lashes that were customary punishment for runaways, perhaps through Ford’s intercession. A month later, Tibeats sold him to Epps. Though Solomon Northup was clearly not a meek, martyred “Uncle Tom,” these experiences and others including a brutal beating for merely wishing he’d be sold to someone else also defined slavery for him, convincing him that the difficulties and penalties of rebellion were too high: he wanted to live to rejoin his family.

Though “there was not a day throughout the ten years [he] belonged to Epps that [he] did not consult with [himself] upon the prospect of escape,” nowhere in his narrative is there anything approaching David Walker’s exhortations to rebellion in Walker’s Appeal. Northup’s understanding of the position and relative power of slaves, based on actual experience of slavery and of flight, led him to conclude that “no man who has never been placed in such a situation, can comprehend the thousand obstacles thrown in the way of the flying slave.

Nor did he believe that a rebellion of slaves alone could succeed. Whether the words are his or Wilson’s, his conclusion is based on his experience: “More than once I have joined in serious consultation [about rebellion], and there have been times when a word from me would have placed hundreds of my fellow-bondsmen in an attitude of defiance. Without arms or ammunition, or even with them I saw such a step would result in certain defeat, disaster and death, and always raised my voice against it. ” Rebellion as a survival strategy had only worked for him when combined with negotiation.

There is one further theme that runs throughout Twelve Years A Slave: a response to presumptions that Northup’s tale is an invention, not a history. As stated in the narrative itself, Northup’s kidnaping and return occurred as slavery was becoming perhaps the central topic of political discussion in the United States. In those heated times, pro-slavery advocates stood staunchly by the rhetoric of benignly paternal planters and happy, infantile slaves a picture directly challenged by the facts of Northup’s story, the chicanery of his abduction, and the brutality he endured and witnessed.

As a black man, his word was worth little he was not even allowed to testify at the Washington trial of Burch, the slave-dealer who illegally purchased him, solely because he was a “colored man the fact of [his] being a free citizen of New-York state not being disputed. ” The parallels to Uncle Tom’s Cabin noted by contemporary accounts could easily have been twisted to deny the truth of Northup’s story.

The narrative itself addresses this question of truthfulness directly and early on: “It is necessary in this narrative… speak of well-known places, and of many persons who are yet living. I am… an entire stranger in Washington and its vicinity…. What I am about to say, if false, can be easily contradicted. ” Much of the narrative, however, addresses this issue obliquely. Large sections are devoted to descriptions of the manner of raising cotton and cane, of the customs at Christmas celebrations, of the character and relations of quite incidental characters.

While these sometimes add color to the narrative or provide context (and are certainly useful to historians), it was the dramatic nature of Northup’s experiences that attracted public attention and led to the publishing of Twelve Years A Slave, and these sections do not in any way contribute to that dramatic impact. It seems clear that they are included to prove the truthfulness of Northup’s account, supplying facts which can be checked and which he had no way of knowing other than through his experience of kidnaping and slavery.

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