12 Years a Slave – Solomon Northup (1853)


“No man who has never been in such a situation can comprehend the thousand obstacles in the way of the flying slave…”

(as told to David Wilson, American lawyer, writer, politician 1818-1870)

Published eight years before the U.S. Civil War and soon after the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s bestselling novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), this memoir was also a best seller and was invaluable in adding fact to the Beecher Stowe novel. Frederick Douglass’ memoir was published in 1845, and so this, along with some other anti-slavery writing, all combined to bring the slow death of this industry. (For an abbreviated timeline of slavery in the U.S. and in the U.K., see here.)

And, similar to the critical reception of Douglass’ memoir, some [mostly white] readers did not believe the cruelty of the slave owners or their employees. What Northup’s memoir makes clear was how the slave industry promoted inhumane treatment of the slaves by not only the white overseers but also other slaves (who were placed into untenable positions of either whipping the other slaves or facing a whipping themselves).

solomon in his plantation suitNorthup’s memoir is strikingly different from some other anti-slavery memoirs and narratives as Northup did originally have his freedom. He had grown up in the North (where there was no official slavery) and he had a home and family. Being a musician, he was always on the lookout for a gig, and one day two white circus promoters approached him with offer of a well-paid job in nearby NYC. Northup took them up on their suggestion and instead found himself drugged, bound and kidnapped waking up a day or so later in a slave pen. So Northup had gone from being a free man to being in slavery (a narrative arc that differs from other earlier slave narratives which usually have the subject starting off as a slave, and then escaping and being free).

Northup_book_pageAnd his remarkable story goes on from there, traveling across the south from northern Florida to Louisiana where he is sold to a plantation owner who seems to have had a heart in some ways. He treated them like slaves, indeed, but with a softer touch than others (although “softer” is definitely all relative when it comes to this world). Northup learns that he has woodworking skills as well as playing the violin, and so that keeps him out of the fields for some of his time in captivity. But goodness – how poorly the slaves were treated and demoted to just “product” instead of people.

Northup had some writing skills, but as a slave, he had no access to pen, ink, or paper, let alone a safe way to get this letter to a post office to reach his wife and family up in upstate New York. They may as well as have been on the moon in regards to him being able to communicate with them. During his twelve years of being a slave, it took NINE years for Northup to gather together a piece of paper, a make-shift feather pen, and some bark to make ink, and then, once written, it was really dangerous for either him (as a slave) to make an unapproved trip to the post office or to find a white person who would be trustworthy. Being found out would mean certain death for him in terms of the number of lashes he would end up receiving, and enormous problems for the delivery man, whoever he might be, so it was a complicated and risky endeavor. The letter remained written, but unposted for weeks due to this.


In fact, after the first beating and lashing, Northup learned to keep quiet and not claim to be a freeman as it was going to lead to more and more problems for him if he continued to say that (even though it was absolutely correct). In fact, he kept quiet about his literacy and his freeman status for the entire twelve years that he was captive, telling no one not even his trusted slave friends. (One accidental utterance from them would have led to terrible lashings for both them and for Northup, so it was safer for all to just stay silent.)

And that was the situation for Northup. The majority of slaves were not taught to read or write (the general thought being that “they don’t need to know that and it would only bring trouble”), and so should anyone else have the thought of doing a similar plan, the obstacles would have been unsurmountable. Northup’s case was terrible, but it was better than some other slaves had it, incredible as that sounds.

Slave quarters in Louisiana (recreations).

Slave quarters in Louisiana (recreations).

This was a hard book to read, not because the writing was difficult but because the content was abhorrent in the descriptions of how the slave owners and the overseers treated these very innocent people – thousands and thousands of them. Nothing can justify or rationalize this shameful part of the world’s history. (America gets a bad rap for this – as it should – but other countries participated in the slave trade as well. I happened to pick up a World Atlas of World History from the library the other day, and learned that Brazil in the nineteenth century actually had the highest slave trade import numbers for its Portuguese-owned silver mines and sugar plantations.)

Another eye-opening book and should be required reading for those concerned with the history of civil rights and race relations in the U.S. today. I don’t think this history is an excuse for unrest, but it sure can’t be ignored as part of the package. It’s almost too bad to be true except it is true (which makes it even worse in some ways). It’s very hard for me to understand how someone can devalue another human’s life in such a way (and for such a long time).

This account fell into obscurity for 100 years until it was re-discovered on two separate occasions by two different Louisiana scholars in the 1960’s. (Their research also included a retracing of Northup’s journey which was published as an academic book in the late ‘60’s by Louisiana State University Press.)  Wouldn’t that be an interesting title to find?

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