Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 10, 2014

Twelve Years a Slave (1853), by Solomon Northup

Twelve Years a SlaveAs everyone knows, Twelve Years a Slave has been made into a rather high profile film with countless reviews (e.g. The Guardian; or Margaret and David At the Movies)  so there is not much can be said about the book without spoiling the film.  The bare bones are enough: it’s the true story of Solomon Northup who was born free but kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841 when he was 30.  He endured 12 brutal years before he was rescued and returned to his wife and children.

As it says in one of the reviews I read, it isn’t possible to depict the real horror of slavery on screen.  The 2013 film is described as ‘stark, visceral and unrelenting’ but I can’t imagine how it could possibly have the draining effect of reading Northup’s personal testimony.  The narrative is ‘as told to and edited by David Wilson’ who recorded it at the time as part of the campaign to abolish slavery: it is written in calm, considered prose which makes it all the more harrowing.

All the people named in Twelve Years a Slave are memorable, but two stand out for me:  Patsey, the sweet, simple girl who attracts the attention of the slave owner Epps, and as a consequence, the brutal jealousy of his wife; and Eliza, a mother parted from her children Randall and Emily, never to see them again:

The same man also purchased Randall. The little fellow was made to jump, and run across the floor, and perform many other feats, exhibiting his activity and condition. All the time the trade was going on, Eliza was crying aloud, and wringing her hands. She besought the man not to buy him, unless he also bought herself and Emily. She promised, in that case, to be the most faithful slave that ever lived. The man answered that he could not afford it, and then Eliza burst into a paroxysm of grief, weeping plaintively. Freeman turned round to her, savagely, with his whip in his uplifted hand, ordering her to stop her noise, or he would flog her. He would not have such work— such snivelling; and unless she ceased that minute, he would take her to the yard and give her a hundred lashes. Yes, he would take the nonsense out of her pretty quick— if he didn’t, might he be d— d. Eliza shrunk before him, and tried to wipe away her tears, but it was all in vain. She wanted to be with her children, she said, the little time she had to live. All the frowns and threats of Freeman, could no not* wholly silence the afflicted mother. She kept on begging and beseeching them, most piteously, not to separate the three. Over and over again she told them how she loved her boy. A great many times she repeated her former promises how very faithful and obedient she would be; how hard she would labour day and night, to the last moment of her life, if he would only buy them all together. But it was of no avail; the man could not afford it. The bargain was agreed upon, and Randall must go alone. Then Eliza ran to him; embraced him passionately; kissed him again and again; told him to remember her— all the while her tears falling in the boy’s face like rain.

Freeman damned her, calling her a blubbering, bawling wench, and ordered her to go to her place, and behave herself, and be somebody. He swore he wouldn’t stand such stuff but a little longer. He would soon give her something to cry about, if she was not mighty careful, and that she might depend upon. The planter from Baton Rouge, with his new purchases, was ready to depart.

“Don’t cry, mama. I will be a good boy. Don’t cry,” said Randall, looking back, as they passed out of the door.

What has become of the lad, God knows. It was a mournful scene indeed. I would have cried myself if I had dared.   (Chapter 6)

* The proof-reading in this edition isn’t very good and gets worse as the book progresses, as if they lost interest altogether.

19th century restraint prevents Northup from explaining in full the fate that awaits beautiful little Emily.  Freeman will not sell her now because he knows that he only has to wait a short while before he can sell her for a very great deal more.

No film could realise the savagery of the cotton plantations:

It was rarely that a day passed by without one or more whippings. This occurred at the picking season.

The number of lashes is graduated according to the nature of the case. Twenty-five are deemed a mere brush, inflicted, for instance, when a dry leaf or piece of boll is found in the cotton, or when a branch is broken in the field; fifty is the ordinary penalty following all delinquencies of the next higher grade; one hundred is called severe: it is the punishment inflicted for the serious offence of standing idle in the field; from one hundred and fifty to two hundred is bestowed upon him who quarrels with his cabin-mates, and live five hundred, well laid on, besides the mangling of the dogs, perhaps, is certain to consign the poor, unpitied runaway to weeks of pain and agony.  (Chapter 13)

The most chilling passage concerns William Ford, who although described in benign terms by Northup, not only consigns him to misery by selling him on to Epps in payment of a debt, but returns Northup to his subjugation when he knows that Epps is likely to kill him.  I do not understand how Northup can write this excerpt:

Our master’s name was William Ford. He resided then in the “Great Pine Woods,” in the parish of Avoyelles, situated on the right bank of Red River, in the heart of Louisiana. He is now a Baptist preacher. Throughout the whole parish of Avoyelles, and especially along both shores of Bayou Boeuf, where he is more intimately known, he is accounted by his fellow-citizens as a worthy minister of God. In many northern minds, perhaps, the idea of a man holding his brother man in servitude, and the traffic in human flesh, may seem altogether incompatible with their conceptions of a moral or religious life. From descriptions of such men as Burch and Freeman, and others hereinafter mentioned, they are led to despise and execrate the whole class of slaveholders, in discriminately indiscriminately. But I was sometime his slave, and had an opportunity of learning well his character and disposition, and it is but simple justice to him when I say, 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. Looking through the same medium with his fathers before him, he saw things in the same light. Brought up under other circumstances and other influences, his notions would undoubtedly have been different. Nevertheless, he was a model master, walking up rightly uprightly, according to the light of his understanding, and fortunate was the slave who came to his possession. Were all men such as he, slavery would be deprived of more than half its bitterness. (Chapter 7)

But then, I do not understand how anyone could treat human beings as slave labour…

To read more about Sue Eakin, the historian who unearthed the book and whose research confirmed its veracity, see this article at The Yorker (pay wall permitting).

Author: Solomon Northup
Title: Twelve Years a Slave
Publisher: Harper Perennial Classics (Harper Collins Canada) 2013, first published 1853
ISBN: 9781443433099 (Kindle edition)
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Amazon.


  1. A powerful review, Lisa and a heartfelt one at that. Having heard so much of the film and the wonderful performance of Lupita Nyongo, I can only say that like you I do not understand how anyone could treat human beings as slave labour!


    • I don’t know how the slaves bore it, I really don’t….


  2. I want try this later in the year thanks for the review the film looks wondeful for this book


    • I forgot to say, it’s in the public domain so you can get it on your kindle for nothing.


  3. The film is savage, so much so that Mr Gums was close to walking out as he was physically distressed, and I closed my eyes several times. I’m sure the book is confronting too … The story is confronting.


    • I don’t think I could watch it on top of reading the book, not straight away anyway.


      • Fair enough, Lisa … I don’t imagine I’ll read the book, not because I don’t want to but because having seen it, I feel I’d rather read books on my pile! I’m not one of those who feels I MUST read the book first (or even at all). It depends on the book and the film. Some books, I definitely feel I must read first. Others, I think the film will do and I’ll move on because it wasn’t a book in my sights anyhow. And others I think I’d still like to read the book. If all that makes sense!


  4. Perfect sense: I’m the same. Sometimes the book makes me want to see the film and sometimes vice versa, and sometimes the book is so good I feel that a film would spoil it for me, and vice versa.
    Patrick White’s The Eye of the Storm was a good example of that. I knew the film was coming so I read the book, and then really enjoyed the film too.


  5. This puts me in mind of Hughes’s ‘The Fatal Shore’, another harrowing account of demeaning slavery and suffering; although maybe this account issues from closer to its source.


    • I see where you’re coming from, though there are some crucial differences between the convicts and the US slaves. . Although one can argue that the punishments were disproportionate and that transportation was inherently inhumane, the convicts in Tasmania had committed some sort of crime to *deserve* having to work for no pay under cruel conditions; their loss of freedom did not transfer to their offspring; and there was a system whereby they could eventually get their ticket of leave and eventually be free. And they were not actually ‘owned’ by the people they worked for, they were not regarded as property that could be bought and sold.


      • I was thinking of the effects of the abitrary brutality itself: the loss of self-esteem and the sense of one’s own worthlessness that endures long after the term of punishment ends – if indeed it does; and too the collapse of ones own moral order.

        I also suspect that from our distance in time it is easier for us to say things like “one can argue”, but for an individual lost on the other side of the globe and lost even in ‘the system’ established there, tied to a rack and lashed until the bones in their shoulder blades are exposed, the difference between slavery and convictry must have seemed scant at best.

        Well, it is very hard for me to imagine being in either scenario, as it is to imagine how those people dealt with it, to whatever extent they were able.


        • Yes, I think you’re certainly right about the impact on the individual, I was thinking more about the system that underpinned it, and the accountability flowing from that.


  6. The film was apparently awfully hard to watch: when I heard that my friend Bill wept, I knew I could not see it. The screenwriter Bill Ridley said in an interview that when he saw the film with an audience, he and everyone around him were crying. I find it compelling that the book was widely known before the Civil War and inspired the Abolitionists.


    • Hello Charlotte, thank you for contributing to this chat:)
      You know, I’d love to read the testimony of one of the ex-slaves in the aftermath of abolition. It must have been an incredible experience to be free from bondage at last.


  7. Here’s a link to a letter from an ex-slave to his former master that’s fun to read: The wikipedia entry about slave narratives includes those who wrote after emancipation, including Lucy Delaney and Booker T. Washington.


    • Wow, thank you, Charlotte, that link is just brilliant. I’ll chase the others up too, but I suspect that Jourdan’s deserves its immortality best:)


  8. […] of testimony and trauma arises.  Discussing Frederick Douglass’s Twelve Years a Slave (see my review, in which, BTW, I classified it as a memoir), Marcus says that a number of former African-American […]


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