Northup’s only written work is his autobiography, Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853, from a Cotton Plantation Near the Red River, in Louisiana (1853) Northup’s slave narrative, the tale of a free African American man who is kidnapped, sold into slavery, and lives as a slave for twelve years, was not only a best seller for its genre and time, it was revolutionary. Twelve Years a Slave is praised for its meticulous examination of slavery and plantation society, especially against the contrast to his previous life as a musician and citizen of New York. Northup’s story has also been cited as representative of slavery’s horrors and has been used to support the depictions in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Northup’s narrative is valuable for the accurate description of his experiences and defines many of the slave experiences that are known.
I was ambivalent about reading this and am still not sure that I could watch the film, but I found it a gripping, well written account. Initially I had to get used to the rather formal language because it was written and published in 1853, however, that did not detract from the quality or content of the book and the style was more contemporary than many written in that era.
Solomon Northup was born in Minerva, New York in July 1808, to a liberated slave and his wife. Northup is a free man and brilliant musician. In 1841 he has an encounter outside Washington DC with two men "Merrill Brown and Abram Hamilton”. They drug and kidnap him and sell him into slavery. He is sold to the notorious Washington-based slave trader James H. Burch, who brutally whips him for protesting that he is a free man. From there he ends up deep in Louisiana where he spends the next 12 years of his life until rescued by a prominent citizen of his home state who knew him.
From the narrative, Solomon Northup comes across as an intelligent, cultured, caring man of integrity. In contrast, many of the slave owners were despicable, brutish, ignorant thugs. Not all - Northup describes some slave owners who were loved and respected. Of his first master, William Ford, Northrup says, ‘In my opinion, there never was a more kind, noble, candid, Christian man than William Ford.
The influences and associations that had always surrounded him blinded him to the inherent wrong at the bottom of the system of slavery. He never doubted the moral right of one man holding another in subjection’.
Unfortunately after being in that household where he was treated well, due to his owner William Ford’s financial difficulties, Northup was sold on to a couple of vicious, vindictive masters whose cruelty is beyond belief. First to John Tibeats who Northup describes as a ‘small, crabbed, quick-tempered spiteful man’ and then to Edwin Epps who he refers to as "repulsive and coarse” and describes as being devoid of any redeeming qualities "and never enjoying the advantages of an education". Northup spent most of his captivity as a slave on the cotton plantation of this drunken, vicious oaf Edwin Epps who used the whip and abuse his slaves savagely and freely.
Northup comments, ‘The effects of these exhibitions of brutality on the household of the slave holder, is apparent. Epps' oldest son is an intelligent lad of 10 or 12 years of age. It is pitiable, sometimes, to see him chastising, for instance, the venerable Uncle Abram. He will call the old man to account, and if in his childish judgement it is necessary, sentence him to a certain number of lashes, which he proceeds to inflict with much gravity and deliberation. Mounted on his pony, he often rides into the field with his whip, playing the overseer, greatly to his father’s delight.
This was a very interesting, thought provoking insight into on the one hand, man’s inhumanity to man and on the other, man’s resilience and ability to survive and even find moments of pleasure despite horrendous living conditions and desperate circumstances.
The story of Northup’s eventual rescue and release was full of suspense and it was such a relief when he was eventually reunited with his wife, children and family - although his mother had died whilst he was in captivity.
The sad thing for Northup and the reader was the knowledge that the rest of the slaves had no such happy ending to look forward to.
Subsequently, Northup became an advocate for abolitionism and in the 1860s began helping fugitive slaves via the Underground Railroad. It is believed that he died sometime between 1863 and 1875 but both the date and circumstances of his death are unknown.
Northup's book only re-emerged in the 1960s after being rediscovered by two Louisiana historians. It’s an excellent read and a very valuable historical account. There is further information available on line.