Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup, published in 1854, was somewhat of a sensation that year, selling over 30,000 copies. It was one of a handful of books authored by escaped slaves and published in the decade and a half prior to the U.S. Civil War. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, had appeared in 1845 and The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave in 1850. Douglass published a much expanded version of his story called My Bondage and My Freedom, in 1855. 1857 saw The Life and Narrative of William J. Anderson, Twenty-four Years a Slave. The first slave narrative by a woman, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, written by herself, came out at the beginning of the war, in 1861, after resistance due to its sexual material. The author was Harriet Jacobs, though published under the name of Linda Brent, due to her precarious position as an escaped slave in New York. The promotion of such books were encouraged by Abolitionists who provided editorial, writing and publishing help as well as organizing speaking tours for the sometimes reluctant authors.Interest in Northup’s book was most greatly aroused, perhaps, by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s mega-best seller, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published the year before and selling over 300,000 copies in the U.S. the first year alone. Northup had read it and dedicated Twelve Years a Slave to Stowe, writing that his book afforded “Another Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
Of these early books, Northup’s was unique in several ways. Unlike Douglass and Truth who had been born into slavery and had experienced it as children, he had not. His father had been given his freedom in New York State, and Northup had been born a free man in 1807 or 1808. He was married with three children (marriage was not allowed to slaves, as “property” could not enter into contractual arrangements.) He owned land enough to till. He was a skilled craftsman, hired by many and able to make a comfortable living. Duped into joining a traveling entertainment duo because of his fiddling skills, and promised considerable wages, he was kidnapped and sold into slavery while in Washington D.C. in 1841. He was thirty-four years old. Thus, his experience of slavery was shaped against the lived, adult experience of freedom.
While all the books tell of first-hand experiences with the brutality of slavery, Northup’s is different in other ways. It was the first to tell in terrifying detail of being a field slave in the South.
Sojourner Truth (born as Isabella Baumfree,) was a slave, bought and sold in New York state from the time of her birth in 1797 until her escape to freedom in 1826, months before the official emancipation of slaves in New York State. Her work included field work, but interspersed with other tasks such as sewing, kitchen work and hauling wood. Of her last owner she says “he sometimes whipped me soundly, though never cruelly.”
Douglass, the unacknowledged son of a white man, was born in Maryland. Although one of the slave states it was notably different from those in the Deep South. Its proximity to free states, tradesmen visiting, slave sailors and porters traveling between North and South and the high incidence of free Blacks (almost 50% of the Black Maryland population) meant that white social conformity to extreme “slave management” was looser than in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. Further, being Black on public streets and workplaces was not so obvious a sign of being a slave as in the South. Douglass, despite at least one very severe year in the fields and under the lash, spent a good part of his youth in Baltimore as a house servant, where he learned to read and to write, and where, in his own words, slaves in the the city were almost freemen compared to rural slaves.
However important and revelatory their stories were to readers in the North, Northup brought a new reality in simple, unadorned prose not only of field slavery in the south, but of the lawless and brutal kidnapping of free men, women and children by the same “lawful” slave hunters operating under the authority of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. The slavery of the North, then slowly coming to an end, (15 states by 1850, see gif,) as cruel as it had been, had never had the reach and unanimity it had in the South with daily whippings — thirty for being late to the field– the pursuit by bloodhounds and death from their jaws, discipline by torture, gnawing daily hunger, no bedding, mud floors. It was this Northup testified to.
The 2013 movie by Steve McQueen made the title and, for many, the story, familiar. With Chiwetel Ejiofor in the role of Solomon Northup it won three Academy Awards including Best Picture. Watching it is a harrowing experience, much more so than the made-for-television version, Solomon Northup’s Odyssey (available here) by famed photographer Gordon Parks in 1984. The whipping of Patsy until she is “literally flayed” by her jealous white owner is acknowledged by Parks but not seen, and played for full cinematic value by McQueen.
Nothing, however, beats reading the text itself. The American experience of slavery, as told by those who actually suffered it is the foundation upon which we should our understand our history, from where we come. Interpretations today, influenced, inevitably by contemporary political and artistic concerns, may contribute much but always, deprive us of the lived original.
The narrative moves quickly from Northup’s happy years of freedom and family into his capture and imprisonment in a slaver’s jail within sight of the U.S. Capitol. On the first night, still believing his being jailed is a mistake and for insisting that he is, in fact, a free man, is clubbed, and whipped “without stint upon my poor body, until it seemed that the lacerated flesh was stripped from my bones at every stroke” until he stops insisting. He along with others who have either been captured under the Fugitive Slave Act and returned to slavery or, like himself, kidnapped are transported by ship and wagon from D.C. to Fredericksburg, to Richmond and finally to New Orleans.
A plan to escape is thwarted by the appearance of smallpox on the ship. Immediately on disembarking they are given a “full inspection” and sold off to “likely bidders.” Northup is given a new name, Platt, in order to hide the fact of his abduction; he is threatened with being whipped until he responds to it as his own. A mother who had been with him since Washington is separated from her two small children. He has seen the faces of mothers looking into the graves of their dead children, he says, but “…never have I seen such an exhibition of intense, unmeasured, and unbounded grief, as when Eliza was parted from her child.” Separated by main force as the child screams for her mother.
Northup is taken up the Mississippi river, by a relatively benign master, to the Red River and then further west to the town of Alexandria, Louisiana. There, in remote, rural bayous, in the hands of one master or another, he was to spend twelve years.
Northup describes other kidnappings, cruel separations driven, it seems, not only by financial decisions, but also the whims of the buyers, of attempted escapes through the bayous and pursuit by dogs, of whippings, beatings and starvation. White patrols watch for slaves without a pass. Any white can whip any slave found without one. One master applies the whip to slaves he has ordered to dance when they do not dance fast enough to suit him. Slaves are also hired out to other owners, thereby coming under the jurisdiction of two masters, and if there are overseers, three or four.
Any pretense that Southern women are kinder or more genteel than their husbands or brothers is dispensed with not only by Northup but by the other narrative authors. They had them whipped, and sometimes did it themselves, for insubordination, for not responding with enough alacrity, for perceived errors. Most in danger were the beautiful young women upon whom the master’s eye, and more, would alight. Mistresses would demand their husbands beat them, to show that he was was not attracted, as he claimed not to be. Those who bore children by their masters would be found out when the wife saw the similarity in the children’s faces to the master: mother and child would both suffer. ¹
All authors mention the combination of “lust and avarice” with which white slave owners, or their relatives, impregnated slaves, satisfying their lust while increasing their property: according to Southern law and custom children born of slave-white unions took the status of the mother, predominantly slaves. Despite being slaves, mulatto children, as they were called, ran the risk of being the perceived favorites of their masters, whatever the real case was, of being whipped less often, or less hard, of having access to more food, more favors.
Slaves sometimes – more than was admitted at the time– fought back against masters. Frederick Douglass recounts his fight in his story. Northup fought several times, and nearly paid with his life. After defeating the owner and releasing him, he was strung up from a tree for hours, with his toes barely touching the ground, until his former, kinder, master intervened.
“Suffice it to say, during the whole long day I came not to the conclusion, even once, that the southern slave, fed, clothed, whipped and protected by his master, is happier than the free colored citizen of the North. To that conclusion I have never since arrived.”
Among the most diabolical features of the Southern slave system was the selection by owners and overseers of “drivers” from among the slaves. Northup was one of them. The driver, an experienced male, was given a whip, but not a horse, and expected to drive the slaves in his group to faster work, ignoring exhaustion and injury. The driver, if he did what was expected, was rewarded by being spared the lash himself. The best he might offer his enslaved brethren was to precisely aim his whip to not touch -barely- the intended, who responded by acting out agonized pain for the eyes of the overseer.
Unusually, for these slave narratives, Northup, also comments a good deal on the daily life of slaves. He is set to lumbering and hoeing, picking cotton and working in a cotton-gin house, later to carpentering and, given his skill on the fiddle, sent around to various plantations for the entertainment of both Black and white –which didn’t exempt him from the lash. After being hired out to fiddle all weekend, he was whipped over ten times for being 20 minutes late getting up.
An observant man, even when all attention is required for one’s own safety, he comments on meeting local Native Americans, and some of their customs. Passages are devoted to details of how cotton fields are prepared and picked, details of corn harvest and hog raising, the cultivating of cane – almost as if for a new homesteader’s manual. Not in such a manual would be the information that a slave who did not pick the required allotment of cotton per day – whether through illness, injury or unskilled picking habits– “was taken out, stripped, made to lie upon the ground, face downwards, when he received a punishment proportioned to his offence.”
Northup’s inventiveness, and experience as a free workman, often stood him in good stead. He built rafts to transport his master’s lumber to the mill faster than the competition, despite the disbelief of those around him; he had learned well while working on the new Erie Canal; he built looms which were sold around the plantations. He built self-designed fish-traps to supplement the starvation level diet.
Of course, despite his exemplary and unusual skills, property is property. When his original master “unfortunately became embarrassed in his pecuniary affairs” Northup and others were sold to take care of his debts. The new master was of quite a different temperament.
“I was now compelled to labor very hard. From earliest dawn until late at night, I was not allowed to be a moment idle. Notwithstanding which, Tibeats was never satisfied. He was continually cursing and complaining. He never spoke to me a kind word. I was his faithful slave, and earned him large wages every day, and yet I went to my cabin nightly, loaded with abuse and stinging epithets.
Joining the other authors, Northup has no few remarks about Christianity.
“… Tanner … was an impressive commentator on the New Testament. The first Sunday after my coming to the plantation, he called [us] together, and began to read the twelfth chapter of Luke. When he came to the 47th verse, he looked deliberately around him, and continued– And that servant which knew his lord’s will–here he paused, looking around more deliberately than before, and again proceeded–which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself–here was another pause–prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes.”
“D’ye hear that?” demanded Peter, emphatically. “Stripes,” he repeated, slowly and distinctly, taking off his spectacles, preparatory to making a few remarks.
“That nigger that don’t take care, that don’t obey his lord, that’s his master, d’ye see? ”that ‘ere nigger shall be beaten with many stripes. Now, ‘many’ signifies a great many”forty, a hundred, a hundred and fifty lashes. That’s Scripter!” and so Peter continued to elucidate the subject for a great length of time, much to the edification of his sable audience.”
Though the Narrative is attributed to Northup as the “writer” today would include “As Told To,” acknowledging David Wilson, a white lawyer from D.C. to whom Northup told his story. Northup could read and write, but both the historical record and the evidence of the text itself suggests that he did not actually “write” this. After twelve years of being whipped, locked in stocks, starved and chased by dogs, seeing a close friend whipped he would seem to be a candidate of what we now call PTSD. Yet the narrative as we have it, is marked not only by the experiences related, but an almost preternatural equanimity in telling it.
“She was terribly lacerated I may say without exaggeration, literally flayed . The lash was wet with blood, which flowed down her sides and dropped upon the ground. At length she ceased struggling. Her head sank listlessly on the ground. Her screams and supplications gradually decreased and died away into a low moan. She no longer writhed and shrank beneath the lash when it bit out small pieces of her flesh. I thought that she was dying. It was the Sabbath of the Lord. The field smiled in the warm sunlight. The birds chirped merrily amidst the foliage of the trees. Peace and happiness seemed to be everywhere, save in the bosom of Epps and his panting victim and the silent witnesses around him. “
Besides the passages mentioned earlier as to agricultural practices, and others about the happiness of the two days of Christmas holidays for the slaves, Northup also openheartedly acknowledges those who helped him, including a British sailor in New Orleans who gets a letter to Northup’s friends in New York, and a Canadian carpenter traveling through the South who finally gets help sent with government orders and testimony from high-placed people. As one review at the time says “”Its tone is much milder than we expected to see exhibited.” Besides his own equanimous personality I sense strong editorial advice from his co-writer as to punches pulled.
After Northup returned to the North, in January, 1853, he rejoined his family, worked as a carpenter, and worked on his book. He sued those who had abducted him. Since a Negro could not testify against a white man in Washington, he lost. He joined the anti-slavery forces but to a lesser extent than Frederick Douglas, Sojourner Truth or Harriet Tubman, and eventually dropped out of sight, even from his family.
¹ For more on the role of white women see this astounding book by Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers: They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South (2019)
The Other Books
Douglass, Truth, and Northup had all published their books before the beginning of the Civil War, and Harriet Jacobs in 1961 just as the war began. They all, and of course Harriet Tubman, brought information, urgency and courage to those resisting the continuation of slavery.
Interest in slave narratives fell off In the years following the Civil War. Even so about 55 full-length such narratives were published. Eventually some 6,000 former slaves from North America and the Caribbean wrote accounts of their lives, and over 100 book-length accounts were published from formerly enslaved people worldwide.
The first in, in England, was The Interesting Narrative of the Life of O. Equiano, or G. Vassa, the African. (1780) Equiano had been born in present-day Nigeria in the 1740s and was captured when he was about 11 years old. He was able to write about his childhood in West Africa before he was captured, giving British reformers of the time testimonial witness of the horrors of the slave trade by one who had suffered from it.
The first, and best-known in America, “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave,” (1845) sold some 5,000 within four months of its first printing; 6 new editions were published between 1845 and 1849. It was also translated into French and Dutch and published in Europe. The income from the sales allowed Douglass to purchase his freedom.
Douglass was born on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, now favored by boaters and vacationers as a bucolic rural get-away. As a young child, he wrote, he had witnessed violent whippings, and suffered from continuous hunger and cold.
“I was kept almost naked, no shoes, no stockings, no jacket, no trousers, nothing on but a coarse tow linen shirt, reaching only to my knees. I had no bed.”
At the age of nine he was sent, as a slave, to live with relatives of his owner in Baltimore — a “loan” of sorts. He was taught to read and write and served as a house servant for the family. After the death of his owner, he and the other ‘property’ of the deceased were given or sold to new owners.
“We were all ranked together at the valuation. Men and women, old and young, married and single, were ranked with horses, sheep, and swine. There were horses and men, cattle and women, pigs and children, all holding the same rank in the scale of being, and were all subjected to the same narrow examination.”
Douglass spent the worst year of his life as a field hand, leased out to a man known as a “nigger breaker.” During the first six months, Douglas writes, “scarcely a week went by without his whipping me.” Finally, one day he fought back, and was thereafter free of whippings, unlike those in the South which Solomon Northup tells us were murdered for such resistance.
Alone among the writers, Douglass did not write fondly of Christmas and the few days granted to the slaves.
“The holidays are part and parcel of the gross fraud, wrong, and inhumanity of slavery. They are professedly a custom established by the benevolence of the slaveholders; but I undertake to say, it is the result of selfishness, and one of the grossest frauds committed upon the down-trodden slave…”
He, as the others, was scathing about Christianity and slavery.
“I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land … They would be shocked at the proposition of fellowshipping a sheep-stealer; and at the same time they hug to their communion a man-stealer, and brand me with being an infidel, if I find fault with them for it.”
And much more…
He was returned to Baltimore still a teenager and began to plan his escape to freedom in 1838 at the age of 21. There he took the surname we know him by, Douglass. Up until that time he had had several, as it was the custom for slaves to be given the surname of their masters, no matter how often they were sold.
He finishes his first, of three, narratives by
“Sincerely and earnestly hoping that this little book may do something toward throwing light on the American slave system, and hastening the glad day of deliverance to the millions of my brethren in bonds, faithfully relying upon the power of truth, love, and justice, for success in my humble efforts and solemnly pledging my self anew to the sacred cause, I subscribe myself,
Isabella Baumfree was born into slavery in 1793 in Ulster County, New York to a landholding Dutch family. She spoke only the Dutch of the family until years later, and English always with a bit of a Dutch accent. The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave (1850), unlike the others, is written in the third person by Olive Gilbert; Isabella/Sojourner is referred to as she and her throughout. Gilbert also inserts observations and opinions of her own, so the Narrative has less intimacy than the other stories. Of all the authors, Truth was the least educated, never learning to read or write. She was also the most religious. A good portion of the Narrative is about her religious calling. She took the name Sojourner, not as an anti-slave witness or speaker but as one who had been called to God in the way William James celebrates in his Varieties of Religious Experience. In fact, I was surprised to find no mention of her in his text as she so perfectly fits his examples of those experiencing otherworldly communication: George Fox of the Quakers, Joseph Smith of the Mormons, Martin Luther, John Wesley, Saint Augustine. Â She adopted the name Sojourner as she wandered Long Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts as an itinerant preacher. The Narrative ends before she begins to undertake her abolitionist work, after having lived in a commune with William Lloyd Garrison, and gone on the road to sell her book.
Until she was set free in 1826 by New York’s emancipation order of that year, she had been the property of five different owners. At the death of her original master she was auctioned off to a new one, the worst she was to experience. She was nine years old, and separated from her mother. She could only speak Dutch, he only English. All misunderstandings were hers alone, for which she was whipped, once, bare-backed with a flaming switch. Of a later one she said
“Oh yes, he sometimes whipped me soundly, though never cruelly. And the most severe whipping he ever give me was because I was cruel to a cat.”
Her older brothers and sisters had been sold while she was still an infant. Her own children were sold as well.
For a fuller appreciation of Sojourner Truth, her abolition work and nursing of wounded soldiers and escaped slaves during the Civil War you’ll have to choose from a plethora of books written about her. The most thorough is Nell Irvin Painter’s 1997 Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol
Twelve Years a Slave, published in 1854 by Solomon Northup, as detailed above.
Frederick Douglas expanded his original narrative with My Bondage and My Freedom in 1855. It was over three times the length of the original. Douglass writes of his life as a freeman, and includes a fifty-eight page appendix of excerpts from his speeches. It was reprinted in 1856 and again in 1857, its total publication running to 18,000 copies.
William J Anderson 3 years following in 1857, The Life and Narrative of William J. Anderson, Twenty-four Years a Slave; Sold Eight Times! In Jail Sixty Times!! Whipped Three Hundred Times!!! or The Dark Deeds of American Slavery Revealed. Containing Scriptural Views of the Origin of the Black and of the White Man. Also, a Simple and Easy Plan to Abolish Slavery in the United States. Together with an Account of the Services of Colored Men in the Revolutionary War–Day and Date, and Interesting Facts. Published by Daily Tribune Book and Job Printing Office, Chicago, 1857.
Perhaps the most interesting narrative in my reading is Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, written by herself, (1861) by Harriet Jacobs. Helped by L. Maria Child, a published author and active abolitionist, Jacob’s comes closest to a full autobiography. Separating her from the other authors, is the place her two children figure in the narrative. Choosing to yield to a relatively kind white lawyer in North Carolina, to escape the constant predations of her master, she spent years trying to ensure their freedom. In her mid twenties, hiding from her master, she spent seven years in a dormer barely enough to hold a body, even a small one, measuring no more than seven by nine feet and only three feet high at the center. The few times she ventured out she could barely walk for lack of exercise. During this time everyone, including her two children thought she had escaped to the North.
( I can’t help but be struck by how familiar Anne Frank is to every Western reader – as she should be- for her two years spent, with her parents, in a secret garret big enough for cramped living — yet Harriet Jacobs, hiding for seven years in a space barely big enough to turn over in, is known by virtually no one. It would seem some memories are less welcome than others.)
Finally, in 1842, Jacobs was able to escape to the North, secreted on a sailing ship. The dangers, delays, missteps and fears of betrayal easily match the many POW escape movies popular in Western cinema As with the missing seven year sequestration it seems to exist outside the frame of ‘this-is-important.” Arriving in Brooklyn, she is able to see her daughter only secretly, from time to time. The Fugitive Slave law was still in effect. Any knowledge of her whereabouts could trigger a “lawful” capture and return to the South.
Jacobs, as the others, are clear that the women of the South were, by and large, no kinder or better than their husbands. At times, goaded by jealousy, they were worse. Nor did their Christian faith soften them. Jacobs tells of her Mistress, the mother of a five year old girl,
” … her nerves were so strong, that she could sit in her easy chair and see a woman whipped, till the blood trickled from every stroke of the lash. She was a member of the church; but partaking of the Lord’s supper did not seem to put her in a Christian frame of mind.”
Though The Incidents shares much of the sentimentality then favored by women readers, even as it tells of suffering and privation, it retains the force of truth for todays’ readers.
The most famous escaped slave, Harriet Tubman, seems not to have written such a memoir. An abolitionist admirer in the north, Sarah Hopkins Bradford, wrote an authorized biography, published in 1869 and 1886.Â Though another biography didn’t appear until 1943, several impressively researched volumes have been published in the past several decades.
In 1881 Frederick Douglass again expanded and published what is now called his third autobiography. The Life and Times of Frederick Douglas did not sell well. On July 19, 1889, its publishers regretfully informed Douglass that although they had “pushed and repushed” the book, it had become evident that interest in the days of slavery was not as great as we expected.”
A comparison of the three Douglass autobiographies.
Dozens and dozens of slave narratives were collected between 1936 and 1938 by the WPA Federal Writer’s Project headed by Alan Lomax.