Solomon Northup (1808-1857?) was an American farmer, carpenter and canal worker from New York state. He was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841 – not an uncommon thing for free blacks in those days. After 12 years a slave in Louisiana he was freed and wrote “Twelve Years a Slave” (1853). He became an abolitionist – but then suddenly disappeared in 1857, never to be heard from again.
The book has been made into a film twice:
- “Solomon Northup’s Odyssey” (1984), directed by Gordon Parks for PBS. Stars Avery Brooks.
- “Twelve Years a Slave” (2013), directed by black British director Steve McQueen, written with John Ridley. Stars Chiwetel Ejiofor.
Note: The photos come from the 2013 film, but the post is based on the book.
Unlike “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, which came out the year before, his book seems to be a matter-of-fact account of slavery. Even historians use it. He wrote it with the help of David Wright, a white writer.
He does not claim to know what slavery was like throughout the South, just what it was like in the middle of Louisiana:
Slaves were not content, contrary to a common white belief. The only happy time of year was the few days they got off for Christmas. They thought about running away or rising up against their masters all the time. Slaves understood perfectly well what freedom was, despite their masters trying to keep them in fear and ignorance.
Some masters were kind, others cruel. One taught him from Scripture and took his ideas seriously. Another tried to kill him.
Edwin Epps, his master of ten years, thought blacks were little better than monkeys. He whipped them all the time, often for little things or for nothing at all. Sometimes to the point where they could not move for days. Sometimes to the point where it crushed their spirit and they were never the same again. One slave (old Uncle Abram) he stabbed. Another slave (Patsey) he raped regularly – causing his wife in turn to have her whipped out of jealousy.
Sometimes Epps would come home drunk and, whip in hand, force his slaves to dance all night long for his entertainment. He forced Northup, a violin player, to provide the tune.
One of the most painful things was being separated from one’s
family. Northup thought of his wife and three children up north
constantly. He saw one woman’s life ripped apart after she was sold away
from her two small children. She never saw them again.
Nearly all the money he made in those 12 years went to his masters.
Unlike most slaves, Northup could read and write – and swim. Swimming meant he could escape the dogs sent after runaways.
Slaves were not allowed to use the post office. It was hard even to get paper and ink. Several months after his third attempt to send a letter north, a white man he knew from New York appeared one morning, walking across the cotton field towards him. And then he was freed.