Slave's Experience In Twelve Years A Slave
Twelve Years a Slave is a timeless book and film that tells the true story of a free African American wrongfully sold into slavery during the mid-1800s. Solomon Northrup lived a normal life in his years before being kidnapped. He worked many jobs to provide for his family. He then was drugged and kidnapped during a job he took to play his violin at circus performances. He was held captive and sold into slavery, even though he was legally a free man, for twelve years in the swamps of New Orleans. He served different masters during his enslavement, each treating him differently. He was finally released back into freedom when a Canadian construction worker alerts the friends of his kidnapping in New York. None of the men who were responsible for this wrongdoing were ever held accountable for their actions.
Solomon Northrup was born in July 1808 as a freeman. His father had been a slave in Rhode Island but had gained liberty soon before Solomon’s birth and moved to New York. Solomon’s family, including his father, his mother, and an older brother, Joseph, then moved to Granville, Washington County. In Washington County, his father worked on many of his former master’s friends’ farms. Solomon and Joseph were provided an education of high regard, something that was normally not provided to African Americans. Solomon also helped his father on the farms as a young boy when he was not reading or learning to play the violin.
Solomon was married in 1829 to Anne Hampton, a woman that lived in the same vicinity as his family. Now having a wife to support he took up a life in industry jobs, hoping to eventually buy a house with acreage. His first was working on the Champlain Canal during the winter. He then worked as a navigator on the canal. He also worked as a woodcutter during this early part of his life.
Solomon and his wife also took over a local farm during this stage of their life. The first season They owned the farm he planted twenty-five acres of corn and sowed large fields of oats. He would also use his violin skills to provide for his family. They also worked at the United States Hotel in Saratoga to provide for the family. By 1941, Solomon was the father of three children, Elizabeth, Margaret, and Alonzo. He was a very hard worker.
While looking for work during the offseason at the hotel Solomon met two men, Merrill Brown and Abram Hamilton. They both were traveling performers and headed for the circus in New York. These men knew of Solomon’s violin skills and asked if he would accompany them on the rest of their trip. This was an offer Solomon could not pass up and he decided to leave the same day. The first night the men stopped in Albany, where they performed their first performance. The show not having much of an audience or bringing in much revenue, they were eager to leave for New York City in the morning.
When the men arrived in New York City, where Solomon expected to be sent back home, the men urged him instead to come to Washington D.C. with them. They offered Solomon a large raise and persuaded him to go. The next morning they suggested that he get his free papers because they would be entering into the south, which Solomon thought was a waste of money but obliged as Brown and Hamilton said. As soon as Solomon placed the papers in his pocket, the men were off to D.C.
Arriving in D.C., Solomon, Merrill, and Abram met up with other men. They traveled from local tavern to local tavern and would give Solomon drinks from their cups into his own, but no one became extremely intoxicated. Later that evening, Solomon fell ill and returned to his room with a migraine and extreme nausea. In the middle of the night, men, whom he cannot remember, came into his room and told him he needed to see the doctor. He made it out into the street with them where he fell unconscious.
When Solomon awoke he was in a dark room handcuffed and chained at the feet. This is when he knew he has been kidnapped. He had very little memory of the night before and realized that the free papers he had in his pocket were gone. He struggled with this thought because he knew he was free and had wrongfully been locked away.
In the morning, Solomon was greeted by James Burch and Ebenezer Radburn. Solomon quickly learns that Burch is the main slave dealer and he is currently locked in Williams’ Slave pen destined to be shipped to New Orleans. He tried to explain that morning to Burch and Radburn that he was a freedman from New York but Burch continually calls him a liar and says he was sent from Georgia. Burch is finally so mad at Solomon that he tells Radburn to retrieve the whip and paddle and Solomon is extremely beat and whipped, as he continued to beg for his freedom. Solomon was then threatened by Burch that if he ever tried to declare his freedom again, he will be killed.
While in the slave pen for two weeks, conditions were not the greatest but Solomon did meet five other slaves that went to New Orleans: Clemons Ray, John Williams, a little boy named Randall, Eliza, Randall’s mother, and Emily, Randall’s brother. Eliza was the wife of a white man and had Emily with him.
One night, around midnight, Burch and Radburn came to get the slaves in the pen and they traveled to Richmond, Virginia where they were brought to another slave pen owned by a man named Goodin. Here the slaves were examined and Solomon was handcuffed to another slave by the name of Robert. He quickly learned that Robert’s story is quite like his, he was a freeman that should not have been sold into slavery.
The next morning everyone boarded a steamboat to continue the journey to New Orleans, except Clemons Ray, who Burch takes back to Washington. Along the journey, the boat stops close to Norfolk and picks up four more slaves, Frederick, Henry, Maria, and Arthur. Solomon soon learns that Arthur is a freeman just like himself and Robert. They all quickly form a bond and these are the men that Solomon trusts along the journey.
While on the boat, Robert is appointed as a waiter and Solomon as the overseer of the cooking department. He is in charge of distributing food and water to the slaves aboard each day, but the conditions of the ship are tough and very unpleasant. When a storm is set to hit the ship, many slaves aboard, especially Robert, Arthur, and Solomon, wish to drown before they are forced to become a slave. At one point in the journey, the three planed an escape. They were going to hide in a lifeboat on deck when they were all sent to bed for the night and gain control of the captain’s quarters. The plan is not executed though as Robert fell ill and died from smallpox.
After the passing of Robert, Solomon fell into a slump. He was approached one day by a kind sailor. He confided in the sailor about being a freeman and the sailor helped him write a letter to his family and promises to mail it as soon as they arrived in New Orleans.
When they arrived in New Orleans, Arthur was greeted by friends from home telling him he once again was a freeman. Solomon was not greeted with such luck. He, along with Eliza and her children, and many other slaves were given to the slave trader known as Theophilus Freeman. Solomon was given the new name of Platt and they were all transported to Freeman’s slave pen. Here they were able to shower and given clean clothes, the men’s suits and hats, and women’s dresses and handkerchiefs to prepare to be sold.
Many slave owners arrived to examine the slaves. They felt their bodies, asked them about their talents, and examined their teeth. They also examined their backs to check for scares to see if they are well behaved. They are treated like animals and given no respect. One man took a liking to Solomon, especially for his musical talents, but he did not offer what Freeman wanted for him.
The next day many of the slaves come down ill. Eliza, Emily, Solomon, and other slaves were taken to a hospital where they are diagnosed with smallpox, which was caught by Robert, and they stayed there for two weeks. When they returned to Freeman’s, a man named William Ford comes to purchase slaves. He examined Solomon, Eliza, Emily, and another slave named Harry. He offered to buy everyone but Emily. This broke Eliza’s heart and she begged Ford to purchase her daughter, but Freeman refused to even when Ford agrees. She was too valuable and will be sold when she is older.
When they arrived at Ford’s plantation the slaves were welcomed to a nice surprise. Ford treated his slaves very well. While on Ford’s plantation they were taught scripture and taken well care of. Solomon was tasked with cutting lumber. He then came up with the idea to transport the lumber by way of water and was allowed to. While there he also gave making cloth a try, which he was very good at. A carpenter, John Tibeats, then came to Ford’s plantation to help with a construction project. Solomon was assigned to help and Tibeats treated him very poorly.
Ford ran into financial trouble and now had to sell Solomon to Tibeats to pay for his debt. These were some of the worst years of Solomon’s enslavement. He was transported to a plantation named Bayou Boeuf run by a white man, Chapin. Chapin was a kind man that did not agree with the way Tibeats treated the slaves.
Under Tibeat’s ownership, Solomon was forced to work harder than ever. Tibeats was never happy and takes it out on the slaves on a routine basis. For one instance, Solomon was asked to retrieve nails from Chapin to be able to work that day. When he returned and began to work, after being told by Chapin that he could exchange the nails if Tibeats did not like them, Tibeats did not like the nails and was going to whip Solomon. Solomon refused and started to fight with Tibeats and gained control of the situation. Solomon was not immediately punished for this action. Later that day though, Tibeats and other men came back with a rope to hang Solomon. They were stopped because of Ford’s partial ownership of Solomon but Tibeats always was trying to kill Solomon.
After being defiant, this started the trading of Solomon from plantation to plantation. Many times he was rented out to different slave owners to complete jobs. Whenever he was no longer needed on a plantation he would be sent back to Tibeats and would have to protect his own life because Tibeats was constantly trying to murder him. One time Solomon escaped to Ford’s house after a run-in with Tibeats. Ford accompanied him back to Bayou Boeuf where Tibeats was told that he can no longer live with Solomon. Solomon was then sold to Edwin Epps.
Epps was not much of a better keeper than Tibeats. He was an alcoholic and many times beat his slaves for no reason. Many times he would come home drunk and hide and secretly whip his slaves or make them dance and Solomon would play the violin, and if they did not dance fast enough they would be whipped. They were forced to sleep on wooden planks with wooden pillows. Epps’s main crop was cotton. Solomon was forced to pick cotton and meet a quota and not damage any of the bushes during the process. While at Epps’s plantation, Solomon came down with smallpox but was forced to work until the brink of death. He was finally treated but was not strong enough to pick cotton so he was forced to chop wood.
While also under Epps’s ownership, Solomon is leased out to harvest sugarcane. During this time he is also hired out to play the violin. He made money doing these jobs and dreamed of what luxuries he would spend the money on. He returns to Epps’s where he was forced to find a source of food when the bacon supply was infested with worms. He learns to trap fish and kill opossums and raccoons.
The only holiday the slaves got on Epps’s plantation is Christmas and they looked forward to the feasts and celebrations all year long. Solomon always played the violin and was hired by many plantations to do so at that time of year.
Epps promotes Solomon to a driver on his plantation where he was in charge of keeping the other slaves working hard. He learned ways of whipping them without hitting them with the whip but still making the noise to satisfy Epps in the distance. During enslavement, Solomon always dreamed of writing to his friends and family. He was finally able to make a pen and ink and steal paper to write. He befriended one of the poor white men working for Epps and asked him to send the letter. The man agreed but told Epps about Solomon’s writing. He was confronted but told Epps that the guy was crazy and drunk. He burned the letter and no word was able to leave the plantation.
Solomon thought about escaping many times. He knew many slaves that attempted but were brought back every time and they all received cruel punishment. He had seen plenty of that in his days under Epps’s ownership and did not want to be the victim no matter how much he longed to see his family. Solomon lived a hard life during the twelve years he was a slave. He was constantly fearing his own life while trying to meet the expectations of rich white men that wanted nothing but to hurt their “property” if they misbehaved.
Solomon’s opportunity to finally return to New York arose when a white Canadian contractor named Bass arrived on Epps’s plantation to help with a construction project. Bass did not agree with slavery and had frequent arguments with Epps about what he was doing. Solomon stayed quiet around the men until he was sure that Bass was trustworthy. He began to talk to Bass and Bass quickly realized that Solomon had been a free man. He pledged to Solomon that he would do everything in his power to set him free and reunite him with his family.
One night Solomon and Bass met to compose letters to friends back home that could help Solomon gain his freedom again. They wrote to Judge Mervin, William Perry, and Cephas Parker and one to the collector of customs in New York. The process was predicted to take six weeks to receive a reply. When Christmas comes and Solomon had not heard from Bass he began to lose hope. But Bass showed up at the plantation and sadly tells Solomon he did not hear anything but he was taking jobs to hopefully reach New York after April when he had the money.
One morning, soon after Christmas, Epps became angry with his slaves and stormed into the house to retrieve his whip. While gone, Solomon saw two men in a carriage approaching the plantation. In that carriage were Henry B Northup, Solomon’s father’s owner, and the local sheriff. They approach the fields and Solomon became overwhelmed with joy. The three then go into Epps’s house and finalize that Solomon is a free man with his owner.
Solomon later finds out that the letters Bass wrote did reach Perry and Parker and they were able to get it to his wife, Anne. Anne reached out for Northrup’s help. A long process of proving Solomon was a freeman conspired. They had to talk to the governor of New York and many other important officials during the process of getting Solomon’s papers. They had to then figure out Solomon’s whereabouts. They were lucky to narrow down the plantations and that they were able to hear rumors of Solomon’s whereabouts.
After being free, Solomon and Henry traveled back to New Orleans and boarded a steamboat back to Washington, D.C. Here they immediately find Burch, the original slave trader, to charge him with wrongful enslavement, but is proven innocent when Solomon is not allowed to testify because of the color of his skin. Burch then tried to charge Solomon with a conspiracy of fraud against him, but later dropped the charges. Henry and Solomon finally reached New York in late January where he was reunited with his family.
Solomon’s narrative depicts the hardships slaves faced daily. He does not shy away from the good, bad, or indescribably nasty things that were done to him and his friends daily. Solomon’s story was transformed into a movie to try and depict his story. Sadly, I did not believe that the movie did the book justice. While there were nasty and gruesome scenes, the movie was done more dramatically and parts were left out to make the movie more “Hollywood” so that it would do well at the box office.
A few major plot changes were made as well as small details changed or left out to fit Solomon’s story into a motion picture. While the movie does cover flashbacks of Solomon’s life before slavery, the majority of the movie is spent on his time as a slave. Less time was also spent on the time leading up to his kidnapping and the process of him being sold. The time spent on Henry Ford’s plantation is combined with the time he spends under Tibeats ownership, which makes the story much foggier and does not depict any slave owner as treating their slaves well, as Ford did. I think much of this is substantial information that allows the reader to fully understand Solomon’s story and connect with him as he goes through his journey and if it were possibly not be omitted.
Several characters are combined with other characters instead of being their own in the film as well, such as Clemons Ray and Arthur. Clemons travels the whole time with Solomon instead of being sent back to D.C. and is the one rescued instead. Also, none of the slaves ever came down with smallpox, which was a very real disease and problem during this time. Instead of Robert dying from the disease, he is killed by a knife. Solomon also only has two kids in the film instead of three. The film also focuses on Patsy’s treatment on Epps’s farm, such as her being rapped and being his other “wife” much more than in the book. This is probably done to dramatize the story and to keep the audience in tune with the movie because of its loner length.
Small factual details like these are not prominent to understand Solomon’s story but are important as we remember that this history and we can tell Solomon’s story for years to come. The best way for history to not repeat itself is to tell of what happened before, which needs to be done factually and honestly to prevent such tragedies from ever happening again. While the movie gives a decent look into Solomon’s story, the book gives a better depiction of what slavery was like.
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