Saturday, March 01, 2014

Book Review (#23 of 2014) Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northrup

I enjoy reading books, especially autobiographies, from the 1800s--this one published in 1853 and was a bestseller at the time. The movie made from this book is nominated for several Oscars. It bothers me that we're so ignorant of our history that we have to "rediscover" books from just 150 years ago. This book is available for free since it's way past copyright, but you can buy an updated annotated version by some professors who researched the history. The version I listened to was read by Louis Gossett, Jr. which made it great. Solomon Northrup's story was supposedly used as the historical basis for Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin.

*spoilers below*

Northrup was born a free black man and lived in New York where he owned property and made a good living for himself and his family. One day, some travelers offer to pay him for his services in playing the violin and convince him to travel to New York City, where he obtains legal proof of his freedom, and onward to Washington, D.C. where Northrup is kidnapped and cruelly sold into slavery, within sight of the Capitol; the irony of this is lost on no one.

He is transported to New Orleans and recounts the sad tales of other slaves along his journey. For example, one woman was the slave mistress of a master who seemingly had loved her and promised to free her. When she thought that day had arrived, she was instead delivered to an auction with her children, and she is to be resold in New Orleans. She is desperate to keep her children with her and her new purchaser offers to buy her daughter, but her owner will not sell her because she is beautiful and will fetch a large sum from men for her use when she's older.

Northrup is able to sneak a letter off of his slave transport, which reaches his family in New York (he later learned) but they are unable to do anything without more information on his whereabouts. This is the last letter he is able to send for the next 12 years as it was forbidden for slaves to get access to pen and paper, and illegal for a post office to mail a letter from a slave without his master's consent. It's a crime to kidnap and sell a free man, so his story could get many in trouble (and cause later masters to lose possession of him) for which he fears his own life. Northrup is given the name of Platt and lives by that name for 12 years, keeping his real story secret. This also hinders any chance of recovery by his family.

He is purchased by a "good, Christian man" and Northrup remarks at the way slavery is seen by Christians in the North as anathema but in the South they see no problem with it; his first master actually is kind to his slaves and reads Scripture to them on Sundays-- Northrup enjoys working for him and endeavors to please him. Reading and thinking recently about the theology of work, the way a man can take pride in his own work no matter the situation is very instructive for me. Northrup observes that the better slaves are treated, the harder and more earnestly they work; but always, they long for freedom. They know there are places where there is no slavery and it's a heavenly dream to them.

When the kind master falls on hard financial times, Northrup is mortgaged and then sold to a notoriously harsh carpenter who twice tries to kill him-- and Northrup responds by beating the man almost to death the first time, running away back to his original master the next. Northrup was able to escape only because he had learned to swim in the North, whereas it was forbidden for slaves to learn to swim in the South. He serves another master (Epps) for ten years, and Epps, like most masters, treat their slaves cruelly.

He encounters everything from Indians to Cajuns to runaway slaves in Louisiana and engages in various occupations on a few plantations, being repeatedly resold or leased out. He develops a reputation everywhere he goes of being remarkable-- both for his beating of previous taskmaster, and to his intelligent work. He recounts the daily fears of working the plantation during cotton season; whippings in the fields for small mistakes, whippings at the gin for bringing in too much or too little cotton, the fear of being late, or of going hungry. He details the processes of cotton, corn, and sugar harvesting and processing. He recounts the fate of slave escapes and rebellions-- always ending badly. If you've seen Roots or really any PBS documentary discussing slave life, nothing in this book will shock you. There are a couple of grotesque scenes that vividly portray the depravity of men given license to do as they wish with other men-- one act which Northrup rightly describes as "demonic." What you glean from it is the perspective of a man who was always aware of what freedom was-- like a prisoner unjustly imprisoned with little hope of release.

Some new details that stood out to me about slave life are that slaves were usually given 3-6 days off at Christmas, but worked the other 360 days. At Christmas, plantation owners would host a large feast for the slaves, and the slaves would have a lively dancing party that was looked forward to the whole year. They were also traditionally given a pass to go where they pleased for those days, and most slaves took time to visit loved ones on other plantations. Any work done in the Christmas season (and on Sundays year round) had to be compensated by law-- and that's how slaves were able to afford food and other necessities not provided. Solomon goes 12 years without sleeping on a bed, just floors with a blanket used for horses. Most slaveowning households had a tense relationship between the wife and the slaveowner's slave mistress. This plays out on several occasions in the book.

In Why Nations Fail (my review), Acemo─člu and Robinson point out that the South lagged behind the North in terms of patents filed during the slave plantation period--there was little innovation. This is evident in that Solomon modifies tools and practices based on simple things he had seen in the North and these are huge innovations on the plantations that his masters praise him for. Unfortunately, it makes him too valuable to sell to the one abolitionist he encounters-- a man named Bass.

Bass is a Canadian journeyman carpenter who finds work on the plantations. At one point he lectures Northrup's master on the equality of the races and how ungodly slavery is. Overhearing this, Northrup confides in Bass and Bass devotes his life to helping emancipate him, primarily by mailing letters to Northrup's acquaintances in the North. The Governor of New York is enlisted (by law) to begin the process of retrieving Northrup, and eventually an emissary is sent to find Northrup. It was providential that the emissary is directed to Bass just before he sets out on a long journey, and they are then able to find Northrup's plantation. Northrup's master and other authorities fight the extradition, but Northrup is freed and quickly returns to Washington, D.C. where his kidnapper is prosecuted-- and the case is dismissed for lack of evidence and due to witnesses who contradict Northrup. Northrup hopes his book's publication is some vindication, I believe.

At last, Northrup returns home. Truly remarkable providence that he encountered Bass and that things worked themselves out as they did. Northrup ends the book by remarking that doubtless hundreds of other free men are enslaved in the South. One marvels that it would be another decade and hundreds of thousands of American lives lost before the institution would be ended.

This is a 5 star book

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