Twelve Years A Slave tells the tale of the son of a freed black slave who was married and lived in upstate New York. He was an accomplished violin player. He is tricked by a bunch of conmen and convinced to go to Washington, D. C., supposedly for a lucrative position as a violinist in a circus. When he arrives, he is drugged, kidnapped, and sold into slavery. He will spend much of the next twelve years of his life in the hands of a cruel master. He will eventually be rescued by one of his northern friends and he returns to his family. This book is an excellent account of life as a slave.
One of the main strengths of the book is that it was originally written as an autobiographical account in 1853. The account in the book is verifiable and reflects an event that to the modern eye, would seem horrific, but one that was common at all in pre-Civil War America. Northrup gives such detail in his narrative that the facts of the story could be verified, making this one of the most valuable pieces of American history, a true artifact. He speaks out about hypocrisy and costs of slavery to everyone involved.
When Solomon first captured, he is placed in a filthy, crowded pen with other slaves. His sale is delayed because he contract smallpox, which nearly kill him. His name is changed from Freeman to Platt, erasing the evidence that he was ever anything more than a slave. He goes to work as a slave in the lumber mill of William Ford, who is kind. However, due to financial losses, he is then sold to Tibeats, as cruel carpenter. At one point, he tries to whip Platt, but plant ends up whipping him instead. Tibeats sells him to Edwin Epps, known as the “nigger breaker.” Under Epps, the reader gets a glimpse of the extent of cruelty that the slaves had to endure.
The young girls are often raped and whipped at the insistence of jealous wives of the slavers. The slaves lived in crowded cabins and often got into fights. They would be awakened after a hard day and made to dance for the master’s entertainment. If they danced to slow, they were whipped. There were daily whippings for someone almost every day. They worked long days in the hot sun planting, growing and harvesting cotton. They would be whipped for not meeting their quota or for appearing to be idle in the fields.
The plantation owners are Christians. Northrup is able to earn a few extra wages by playing violin a Sunday service. They have little food and they have nowhere to go to spend their meager wages. Northrup builds fishing traps so that they can add fish to their diet. The slaves at Epps farm were only granted three days off the entire year, which was at Christmas time.
When Platt is made a “driver” a slave who must whip the other slaves to make them work harder and faster, he shows resistance by giving them softer blows when the master is not around. He cannot do this when Epps is around, because he would then be whipped himself. Any attempt at escape to form a rebellion was met with whippings, torture, usually to the death. Slaves who turned in other slaves for planning rebellions were rewarded by their white masters. This created a sense of mistrust, rather than solidarity among the slaves, making it almost impossible to form a resistance. The slaves were too frightened to speak of such a thing aloud. The slaves lived lives of quiet obedience, more out of fear than loyalty.
The young children of the slave masters make a game of running and laughing through the fields, whipping the slaves as they go. This is encouraged and rewarded by the white owners of the plantation. This is the way slave culture was passed on from generation to generation. The lives of eh slaves had no value. They were viewed as if they were livestock. Epps finds pleasure and delight in beating old slaves who are too slow to keep up. Beating and subduing the slaves is seen as a delightful game to play, usually with whip in hand.
When Northrup is finally rescued and once again a free man, the reader then gets a glimpse at another cruel fact of the world in which Northrup lived. When he tries to prosecute the man who kidnapped him, with the help of a lawyer friend, he soon finds that his does not even get to speak. His testimony provide undeniable facts, but all the man who kidnapped had to do was to make up a lie to be absolved of the crimes that he committed. Even the free black man has not rights under the law.
This glimpse into the lives of both the free and the slaves paints an accurate picture of life during those times. Northrup is able to contrast his life as a Northern free black man and his life as a slave in the south. The Northern freeman had no legal rights, and significantly less opportunity than the slaves, but at least they were not subjected to the cruel whippings and hard labor of the slave. They had it much better than their Southern counterparts, but not nearly as well off as the whites.
Twelve Years A Slave is one of the best glimpses into what it was like in the Deep South. To the slave, their lives were not their own. The best that they could hope for was to be sold to someone who was kind, or at least not as evil as some of those such as Epps, who had a reputation for cruelty. The slave never knew from day to day what would happen to them. They may be sold, whipped, or come down with a sudden case of life ending small pox. The slavers had many means of control. Their biggest challenges was keeping the slaves from rebelling. They did this through creating mistrust. The slaves could marry, but there was no guarantee that they would live the rest of their lives together. This book is one of the best glimpses into the precarious world of the Southern slave. As such, it is a valuable historical treasure.
- Northrup, Solomon. 1968. Twelve Years A Slave. Mineola, NY. Dover Publications.