“Then did the idea begin to break upon my mind, at first dim and confused, that I had been kidnapped. But that I thought was incredible.”
Published within months of its author’s return to liberty in 1853, 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 gives the dramatic account of Northup’s kidnapping, forced period of enslavement in the South, and eventual restoration to free life in his home state of New York.
Born into freedom in New York, Northup was a member of the rapidly growing free black community in the United States, which roughly doubled in size between the time of his birth in 1808 and the time of his kidnapping in 1841, thanks in part to the culmination of gradual emancipation measures in the North. As this population grew, however, so did the financial value of enslaved workers, and so did the risk that a free black could quite unexpectedly and illegally become enslaved. Northup’s Narrative provides a clear instance of this, as well as an informed primary-source account of the domestic slave trade and the slave experience during the 1840s.
Slavery was nearing both its peak and its abolition by the time that Solomon Northup published his narrative, Twelve Years a Slave, in 1853. Although the trans-Atlantic slave trade had been banned in 1808 and Northern states had enacted gradual emancipation laws that freed the vast majority of Northern slaves by the 1840s, the total number of enslaved African Americans in the United States grew dramatically during the first half of the nineteenth century; census records report that the US enslaved black population rose from slightly less than 1.2 million in 1810 to nearly 4 million on the eve of the Civil War. This increase was due largely to the automatic enslavement of all children born to enslaved mothers throughout the South and, for at least some of this time period, some states in the North, where gradual emancipation laws continued to require bonded labor for a set period of time.
These same laws, along with the rise of successful slave escapes and the relatively uncommon practice of Southern owners freeing their slaves, also helped create a growing free black population in the North and upper South. In 1810, free blacks numbered about 186,000 throughout the nation; fifty years later, they totaled a bit over 488,000. In Northup’s home region of the northeast, free blacks outnumbered slaves from 1800 onward. By time the Northup was kidnapped and sold into slavery, more than 140,000 free blacks lived in northeast, compared to just 765 slaves. Northup’s status as a free black was thus not unusual during his lifetime, although it afforded him fewer legal protections in practice than were received by his white neighbors.
In fact, despite their legal status, free blacks in the North faced practical dangers to their continued liberty. The high value of slaves and the poor enforcement of laws strictly barring the kidnapping of free blacks for sale into slavery meant that unscrupulous traders were willing to send free African Americans to the sale block. Multitudes of free blacks were captured and sold into slavery, with sailors, children, and residents of border regions facing particular danger. Free blacks in Philadelphia, for example, were kidnapped and sold in the nearby slave states of Maryland and Delaware. In his account, Northup relates that while he was being transported for sale in New Orleans, he met two other free men who had been kidnapped, one from the slave state of Virginia and the other from Ohio, a free state that bordered the slave state of Kentucky. While Northup’s experience as a kidnapped New Yorker was perhaps an unusual one, his illegal enslavement was not unique.
Born in July of 1808 in Essex County, New York, Solomon Northup was the son of a former slave and a mixed-race mother of unknown status. After marrying as a young adult, Northup began working as a farm laborer, a laborer and raftsman along the region’s canals, and a driver and fiddle player of some repute in the city of Saratoga Springs. It was this last occupation that would draw Northup into the trap that led him to enslavement in Louisiana.
In the spring of 1841, Northup was hired by two white men to play his fiddle with a circus act that was touring through the free state of New York and the slave areas of Maryland and Washington, DC. Because the men urged him to obtain papers documenting his status as a free man and paid him a handsome sum for his work, Northup was unsuspicious of their true intentions. After arriving in Washington, he was drugged, stripped of his papers, and sold illegally to a slave trader. Before long, Northup—renamed Platt, in part to conceal his identity—was living on a plantation in the Red River region of northern Louisiana. Over the next twelve years, he toiled under a number of masters; some he considered kind and generous, and others he deemed particularly cruel.
Throughout his period of captivity, Northup never lost sight of returning to his free life in New York. While being transported south and with the help of a friendly sailor, Solomon wrote to family patron Henry B. Northup, a white man. While Henry was willing to help, the scarcity of details about the now-enslaved Northup’s fate prevented him from interceding. Years passed before Northup again had access to writing materials, and even more time passed before he found another courier he felt he could trust. In 1852, however, he trusted his secret to a white Canadian carpenter who was working on the same plantation. This carpenter agreed to write to officials in New York on Northup’s behalf, and after some months of legal wrangling, Henry B. Northup was at last on his way to Louisiana to locate the missing man. In January of the following year, Northup was finally freed, and he returned to New York, where he dictated his narrative to editor David Wilson. The book was successful, selling some twenty-five thousand copies in its first year of publication. Few details of Northup’s later life survive, although historians believe that he died around 1863.
Composed and published shortly after his return to liberty in 1853, Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup was one of hundreds of slave narratives produced during the antebellum period to generate sympathy and support for the antislavery cause. Northup’s Narrative, however, stands out for its clear and relatively objective view of the dangers of enslavement facing even free African Americans in the United States and the workings of the institution of slavery from the perspective of the enslaved. Northup’s discussion of his own experience of being tricked, kidnapped, and then coerced into bondage provides a picture of not only his own particular travails but also the challenges faced by enslaved African Americans in general, such as the constant and often-realized danger of being sold away from one’s own family, the frequent physical abuse, and the sheer futility of one’s situation under slavery—even when that situation was illegal.
The excerpts of Northup’s Narrative reproduced here begin with his ruminations on the unremarkable nature of his life up until the time of his kidnapping. Northup was one of thousands of free blacks in the United States during the early to mid-nineteenth century, and his personal story was not an uncommon one; he made a living through physical labor, dreamt of being a small farmer, and found fulfillment through his family life. In contrast to what Northup admits was an “obscure” and “humble” existence, however, he introduces the circumstances of his entry into slavery with ominous language that suggests the horrors he was about to endure. Northup’s words sharply contrast the “thick darkness” of slavery with the “sweet light of liberty,” emphasizing to the grim nature of enslavement as opposed to the clarity and purity of freedom. Such characterizations were common among abolitionist literature, particularly since the United States was widely considered to be a beacon of freedom in a world then dominated by monarchial European systems. Thus this introduction firmly establishes Northup’s Narrative as an antislavery work with rhetorical connections to other narratives, speeches, and writings in that canon.
By the time the excerpt resumes Northup’s narrative thread, the protagonist has already made the fateful decision to accompany two men calling themselves Merrill Brown and Abram Hamilton as part of a circus company traveling into slaveholding lands. Because he carried papers attesting to his freedom, Northup believed himself to be safe from enslavement. After arriving in the capital, however, Brown and Hamilton drugged Northup, who soon felt ill and returned to his lodgings on the suggestions of his soon-to-be captors. He developed a severe headache and thirst, which sent him down to the lodging house’s kitchens seeking water.
The excerpt resumes shortly after Northup’s return to his room. He recounts the events that transpired through the fog of his drugged state, leaving many of the specific details fairly vague: a group “several” men, which may or may not have included the two men with whom he had traveled from New York State, came to his room and directed him to go to a doctor to get medicine to treat his apparent illness. Precisely where he went, Northup could not remember, due to his reduced condition, which made his memories like those “of a painful dream.” Northup and a number of companions arrived at the place he believed to be a doctor’s office, although that was almost certainly a ruse to conceal a journey to a slave trader’s office or another place where a free man could be stripped of his papers, money, and other possessions before being sent to the slave cages. The drugs that had been given to Northup finally rendered him unconscious just as he approached this destination, leaving him uncertain of the events that followed. What Northup was certain of, however, was that when we awoke from his drugged state, he was not in a doctor’s office. Instead, he was “alone, in utter darkness, and in chains.” This statement offers both a literal and a metaphorical description of his situation. He was literally sitting by himself in a darkened space meant to hold slaves awaiting sale, chained to a ring on the floor; on a broader, more symbolic level, he was also alone since he was without the protection of the law or even a sympathetic ally, trapped in the utter darkness of slavery.
With the bulk of the drug by now presumably out of his system, Northup quickly determined that he was physically restrained and obviously imprisoned, with no proof of his freed status and no money with which to seek help. It was at this moment that Northup began to realize that he had been kidnapped. “But that I thought was incredible,” Northup writes. Surely, he believed, there had been “some unfortunate mistake,” because no free man who had committed no crime could possibly find himself in these circumstances. Northup had done nothing wrong, and he had spent his life as a free black man. It was difficult for him to connect his current situation with what he knew to be his innocence of any status or wrongdoing that could have resulted in such an imprisonment. Yet, as time passed, he came to realize that the unthinkable must be true.
Like hundreds of other free black Americans before him, Northup had indeed been kidnapped and forced into slavery. The complexity of his kidnapping was evidence of his perceived value as an adult male who was a relatively skilled in a trade, and of the lengths to which slavers were willing to go to obtain such valuable property. Aged thirty-two at the time of his capture, Northup was just past his prime from the perspective of a slave trader—the prices paid for male slaves tended to decline after a man passed his mid-twenties—but his asking price was still likely to be a high one. Northup soon met his new captors, a local slave trader named James H. Burch and his staff. Northup had fallen into the hands of the notorious capital slave trade, an institution widely denigrated both in the North and internationally. Many saw this group as a cruel juxtaposition of the symbols of a democratic government that fought for freedom and liberty and the everyday practice of slavery that stripped men, women, and children of their rights to life and freedom. Speaking in a section of his narrative not reproduced here, Northup points out this very irony, noting that the house where he was imprisoned was within ready view of the US Capitol building, allowing him to nearly hear the voices of the nation’s government speak of equality to a backdrop of the clanking of slave chains. What Northup heard was undoubtedly the debate surrounding what would become the Compromise of 1850, which among other provisions banned slave trade in Washington, DC. The practice of slavery itself did not end until the Civil War.
Northup’s narrative resumes soon after his realization that he has been kidnapped, with the arrival of the slave trader Burch. Upon querying his situation, Northup’s worst fears are immediately confirmed: Burch declares that he has purchased Northup as a slave and intends to sell him in the New Orleans slave market, the largest of its kind in the South. From this moment on, Northup’s fate to be treated as a slave—that is, a person without even the most basic legal standing or rights—becomes apparent. When he tried to proclaim his identity and status as a free citizen of Saratoga Springs and press his captor into releasing him, Burch flatly rejected his story, informing him that he was, in fact, an enslaved man from the state of Georgia. Whether Burch actually believed that story or knew Northup to be telling the truth is uncertain. Northup continued to push for his liberty, demanding that his chains be removed and shouting his claims to freedom so loudly that he believed Burch to be worried that some passer-by would overhear and investigate. As the argument escalated, it became more heated. On one side, Northup declared the truth; on the other side, Burch called him “a black liar” and proclaimed him a runaway, a fugitive slave with no legitimate claim to freedom. Burch’s unwillingness to listen to Northup’s claims rendered Northup essentially powerless to control his destiny, in much the same way that white support for the continued practice of slavery inherently robbed black Americans of their rights to pursue life, liberty, and happiness.
Northup was about to experience another harsh reality familiar to enslaved African Americans: physical punishment. Burch’s overseer—a man that Northup describes as charged with “oversee[ing] this . . . inhuman stable, receiving slaves, feeding, and whipping them”—had been present while the two men argued over Northup’s status, at first simply watching but later, on Burch’s command, practicing the last of these stated duties. For proclaiming his liberty, Northup received the first of what would be many beatings. He describes the instruments of violence in the matter-of-fact language of one who is no longer shocked by their usage. The paddle, he explains, was a sizable flat board made of hardwood in a roughly rectangular shape. In this flat board were drilled numerous small holes, which could create a blister or other especially painful, if not especially debilitating, injuries. Paddles were commonly used throughout the South to punish or simply intimidate slaves who rebelled against their master or overseer, failed to work as ordered, committed some other infraction, or simply were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Whippings were another common form of abuse, and Burch’s practices were not exceptional in this regard. Northup also describes the infamous cat-o’-nine tails, a type of whip with several strands attaching to one handle. Each of these strands, he explains, ended in a knot. These knots, like the small holes of the paddle, could inflict particular damage in the places where they struck the victim.
The kidnapped man was about to experience these abuses for himself. In the same matter-of-fact tone, Northup describes the first beating that he experienced as an enslaved man. The process of this punishment was quite similar regardless of location, master, or cause. Northup was immobilized by his captors and stripped naked. Unable to resist and without even the slightest barrier between skin and weapon, he was then beaten with the slave paddle. Such paddlings were usually directed at a slave’s posterior or rear upper thigh, where they were painful but unlikely to wound too severely to impede a person’s ability to perform physical labor. Burch asked Northup if he was ready to give up his claims to freedom; when Northup refused, he was beaten further, “faster and more energetically, if possible, than before.” Only Burch’s own energy level would temporarily halt the beating, not the effects on Northup’s person. Despite this attack, Northup remained firm in his claim to liberty, refusing to speak “the foul like that I was a slave,” and thus faced continued assault. Eventually, Burch’s enthusiasm and strength with the paddle caused it to break. This did not end Northup’s beating, however, as Burch continued his attack with the more painful and injurious whip. Northup believed that he would die if the whipping continued, and in retrospect, he expresses surprise that a man would beat any living creature so harshly. The implication is clear: slavery was a cruel institution that made monsters of those who practiced it, an obvious antislavery message meant to horrify and persuade Northerners to oppose the institution more fervently in this pre-Civil War era.
Shortly after the beating concluded, Burch returned and advised Northup not to proclaim his liberty to anyone else, lest he continue to suffer from similar physical effects. Several days later, Northup was moved from Washington to Williams’s slave pen, a holding facility in northern Virginia for slaves awaiting transport to the Deep South for sale at a market there. There, Northup came face-to-face with another injustice wrought by slavery: the separation of families. Confined in the same pen as Northup was a young boy named Randall who was slated to be sent away. Northup witnessed the arrival of a woman and young child the night before the group’s planned transport and soon learned these arrivals to be Randall’s mother, Eliza, and sister, Emily. Both of these new additions to the slave transport were well dressed, with the mother especially “amazed at finding herself in such a place as” the slave pen. Her sorrow at the fate of her children, “her sweet babes,” was so great that Northup proclaims himself without words to adequately describe it. All three family members were unlikely to remain together after reaching the auction block. Sales that split up families in this way were common, since no laws prevented the divisions of families in the South. The youngest of children were typically kept by their parents’ owners because they offered no practical value as workers and thus commanded a low price at market. As children aged, however, they could be trained to perform household or field tasks, and they became valuable commodities. The scene moved Northup, who proclaims that “it was enough to melt heart of stone to listen to the pitiful expressions of that desolate and distracted mother.” Like the rest of the narrative, the description is also aimed at the white reader and seeks to reinforce the overall argument that slavery was an inhumane and unjust institution that inflicted legal, physical, and emotional damage upon those who suffered under it.
The overall intent of Twelve Years a Slave, as with essentially all slave narratives of the pre-Civil War era, was to encourage widespread support for the antislavery cause. Northup’s work, which was reprinted one year after its initial publication with a dedication to Harriet Beecher Stowe, abolitionist and author of the highly influential antislavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852),wore that mantle openly. Northup’s story was particularly shocking and presumably offensive to Northern readers willing to be persuaded to work against slavery, for, unlike most US slaves who had legally been held in bondage since birth, Northup was born free and was forced into slavery in contravention of both federal and state laws. His narrative thus demonstrates not just the horrors of slavery in a direct and firsthand way but also the risks posed even to free blacks just because slavery existed. The abolition of slavery, Northup’s narrative suggests, was necessary not only to liberate enslaved African Americans but also to guarantee the legally affirmed rights of free US citizens. This message, along with the inherent drama of Northup’s story, helped make his slave narrative one of the most successful of its time, selling some twenty-five thousand copies in its first year of publication.
Important to the quality of Northup’s narrative, from both a contemporary and a historical perspective, is the timing of its composition. Because Northup and his editor worked to produce the volume just months of the protagonist’s return to his home in New York, the events discussed in the narrative remained relatively fresh in Northup’s mind. Many slave narratives, composed by fugitive slaves who faced the risk of re-enslavement should they provide details of their lives too soon after their escape, were published years or even decades after the events that they detailed had taken place. As a result, their stories suffered from the natural failings of time and memory and were colored at times by the public retelling of these accounts, with modified names or events to protect the speaker’s identities. Northup, having regained his freedom through an unimpeachable legal process, ran no such risk in telling his story, and he was able to do so fully and accurately, down to the slightest detail. Although Northup’s narrative is somewhat less studied than other famous narratives of its time, it has thus long commanded the respect of historians for likely being among the most accurate depictions of the slave trade, slave life, and slave economics from the perspective of a slave inside the system.
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