A moving, vital testament to one of slavery’s ‘many thousand gone’ who retained his humanity in the bowels of degradation.
Born a free man in New York State in 1808, Solomon Northup was kidnapped in Washington, DC, in 1841. He spent the next 12 harrowing years of his life as a slave on a Louisiana cotton plantation. During this time he was frequently abused and often afraid for his life. After regaining his freedom in 1853, Northup decided to publish this gripping autobiographical account of his captivity.
As an educated man, Northup was able to present an exceptionally detailed and accurate description of slave life and plantation society. Indeed, this book is probably the fullest, most realistic picture of the “peculiar institution” during the three decades before the Civil War. Moreover, Northup tells his story both from the viewpoint of an outsider, who had experienced 30 years of freedom and dignity in the United States before his capture, and as a slave, reduced to total bondage and submission. Very few personal accounts of American slavery were written by slaves with a similar history.
Published in 1853, Northup’s book found a ready audience and almost immediately became a bestseller. Aside from its vivid depiction of the detention, transportation, and sale of slaves, Twelve Years a Slave is admired for its classic accounts of cotton and sugar production, its uncannily precise recall of people, times, and places, and the compelling details that re-create the daily routine of slaves in the Gulf South.
Solomon Northup was a free, black, married, educated man, skilled as a musician and carpenter, and living in Saratoga Springs, New York in 1841 when two white men approached him with a job offer as a fiddler in a traveling circus.
The three trekked to Washington, D.C., where Northup was drugged, bound and gagged by his new “friends.” He awoke on the floor of the infamous Williams Slave Pen, on the site of what is now the Air and Space Museum, and so began his grueling life under different slave owners for the next dozen years. Northup narrates his predicament vividly, recreating scenes fused with drama, dread and determination.
Taken to New Orleans first, then to plantations in central Louisiana, Northup describes picking cotton, the soul-corroding fear of beatings and the inner dialogue of a man living a horror story. “Every few moments I could hear the yelpings of the dogs,” he writes. “They were gaining on me.”
Throughout all this, Northup struggles for his freedom – and his sanity. He proves himself a keen observer of the South’s “peculiar institution,” and though he is victimized by it, displays an enormous capacity for empathy and love.
Northup finally won his freedom when a visiting white carpenter from Canada wrote letters to family, friends and a kindly storekeeper.
As unbelievable as Northup’s story is, it was not uncommon – historians have documented hundreds of such kidnappings of free African-American men and women.
What makes Northup’s story so unique is that by his own wit and will, he freed himself from bondage, and survived with his humanity intact – then wrote a best seller about the odyssey.