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Solomon Northup: Twelve Years a Slave

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

In the spring of 1841, Solomon Northup, a free Black man from New York State, was abducted while visiting Washington, a place where slavery was legal. Sold into bondage by his captors, he became the property of an inhumane planter in Louisiana. After a dozen years, he was rescued and wrote a book about his experiences.

Solomon Northup.

Solomon Northup.

The Capture of Solomon Northup

Among other talents, Solomon Northup was a talented violin player, and he was offered a job as a circus musician in Washington. The job offer was bogus and Northup was drugged and passed into the possession of a vile slave trader named James H. Burch.

Northup woke from the drug-induced haze to discover he was shackled to the floor of a slave pen. The New York Times reported in 1853, that Northup asked Burch why he was in chains and was told it was none of his business although “The colored man said he was free and told where he was born.”

Burch called in a helper “and the two stripped the man and laid him across a bench . . . Burch whipped him with a paddle until he broke that, and then with a cat-o’-nine-tails, giving him a hundred lashes, and he swore he would kill him if he ever stated to any one that he was a free man.”

They even took away his name, from then forward he was called Platt Hamilton. Then, Northup was put in chains and shipped to New Orleans, where he was put on the auction block and sold to a planter. So began Solomon Northup’s 12 years as the property of other men.

Brutal Enslavement

Thirty-three-year-old Northup began his life of slavery under the ownership of a kindly man who got into financial trouble, so he was sold on to another planter.

Eventually, he ended up as the possession of Edwin Epps. Encyclopedia Britannica describes Epps as a man who was “proud of his expertise with a lash, [and] had a sadistic streak.”

Epps, in common with most slave owners, found support for bondage in the pages of the Bible. The highly problematic text in Genesis IX, 18–27 tells how Noah cursed his son Ham, turned him black, and condemned all his descendants to be slave. This was conveniently construed to mean that owning Black people in slavery had God’s permission.

For ten years, Northup toiled as a field slave, cultivating land and picking cotton under the cruel hand of Epps.

The History Collection notes that “Throughout his spell as a slave, Solomon wrote about the various indignities they suffered. This included eating bacon infested with maggots, physical and sexual abuse, and the constant hard toil.”

In 1852, Samuel Bass, a Canadian carpenter, arrived on the Epps plantation to do some work. Bass expressed views sympathetic to abolition, so, for the first time since his capture, Northup revealed to Bass that he was a free man.

The Epps property now stands on the campus of the Louisiana State University Alexandria.

The Epps property now stands on the campus of the Louisiana State University Alexandria.

Freedom for Solomon Northup

Bass was able to get letters from Northup to friends in New York State and the legal machinery for his release was set in motion.

The case was taken up by lawyer Henry Northup, the grandnephew of the man who had freed Solomon’s father. He employed a statute from 1840 that made it possible to free New York State citizens who had been sold into slavery.

New York Governor Washington Hunt was supportive as were a senator and a Supreme Court justice. With all the paperwork he needed, Henry Northup travelled to Louisiana and met with Samuel Bass and local lawyers. By early January 1853, Solomon Northup was released from enslavement.

Solomon Northup’s Testimony

Throughout his enslavement, Solomon Northup had to keep the fact that he could read and write a secret. In the cruel world of slavery, a literate slave was seen as a dangerous slave who might foment revolt and so would be subjected to extra punishment.

Now he was free, he began work on his book, Twelve Years a Slave. From this, future generations have been able to get a first-hand look at the appalling conditions under which slaves were kept.

The goal of the slave owner was to destroy any hint of rebellion in his Blacks ; this was done through inflicting pain. The ever-present fear of whippings and worse turned most slaves into subservient workers, but it didn’t destroy their humanity. They kept their thoughts to themselves and Northup wrote that “Ninety-nine out of every hundred are intelligent enough to understand their situation, and to cherish in their bosoms the love of freedom, as passionately as themselves.”

Northup recounted the whipping of Patsey, a slave girl who Epps raped whenever the mood took him. On one occasion, Epps had her stripped naked and tied to stakes in the ground. Northrup wrote that Epps placed a whip in his hands and “commanded me to lash her. Unpleasant as it was, I was compelled to obey him.” After 30 or more strokes, Northup threw down the whip and refused to deliver anymore punishment.

He wrote that Epps “then seized it himself, and applied it with ten-fold greater force than I had. The painful cries and shrieks of the tortured Patsey, mingling with the loud and angry curses of Epps, loaded the air. She was terribly lacerated—I may say, without exaggeration, literally flayed.”

This atrocity occurred on the Sabbath.

Bonus Factoids

  • Arkansas State Representative Jon Hubbard (Republican―Jonesboro) said in 2010 that slavery was “a blessing in disguise.” His reasoning is that it brought African-Americans to the United States where they enjoy a better standard of living than they would have if they were in Africa.
  • Republican Congressman Trent Franks of Arizona gave it as his opinion in 2010 that “far more of the African-American community is being devastated by the policies of today than were being devastated by policies of slavery.”
  • In 2020, Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton said the Founding Fathers of America saw slavery as a “necessary evil upon which the union was built.”
  • According to Free the Slaves, there are about 40 million enslaved people in the world today. The group adds that “In 1850, an average slave in the American South cost the equivalent of $40,000 in today’s money. Today a slave costs about $90 on average worldwide.”
  • In 2003, a dramatizing of Solomon Northup’s book was made into a movie; Twelve Years a Slave won the Best Picture Oscar.

Sources

  • “Twelve Years a Slave.” Solomon Northup, 1853.
  • “Solomon Northup.” Rachel Cole, Encyclopedia Britannica, undated.
  • Solomon Northup Foundation.
  • “The Kidnapping Case.” New York Times, January 20, 1853.
  • “Excessive Cruelty.” The History Collection, undated.
  • Free the Slaves.
  • “Biography of Solomon Northup, Author of Twelve Years a Slave.” Robert McNamara, ThoughtCo.com, April 30, 2019.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Rodric Anthony from Surprise, Arizona on November 04, 2020:

This was a great article. I must admit that I cried a little. The fact that any human would have to endure the inhumanity of slavery and abuse racks my soul with anguish. I did not watch the movie or read the book, but I will. My coworkers called me 12 Years A Slave for a long time without me getting the reference. They would tell me that I looked like the actor who played him. Thank you for telling me more about the story, a true story.

Lorelei Cohen from Canada on November 04, 2020:

I watched the show last year and it was very chilling. What a sad history so many countries have re their support of slavery. Sadly too is the thought that modern day slavery still exists.