Solomon Northup’s “Twelve Years a Slave” Memoir

Northup’s life like before slavery

Being born a free person, Solomon Northup enjoyed all the privileges granted by liberty and managed to use many opportunities of his position as a free man. His father managed to educate him and, thus, he could read, write, and he even played the violin. Solomon married a woman he loved and could be regarded as a lucky man. He and his wife worked quite hard but their efforts were successful and soon they even were able to start farming. Solomon worked in the field and his farming was also successful, he succeeded to plant corn and oats. Northup was a respected person for his being laborious and talented. He was famous for his playing violin and he often participated in different celebrations. Northup later admitted that those times were very happy and they should have stayed at their Kingsbury farm to live such a prosperous and simple life. However, they moved to Saratoga Springs.

There they continued living their simple life. They had three children but, unfortunately, Solomon did not have the prosperity they enjoyed in Kingsbury. Solomon could not find a permanent well-paid job. It is remarkable that at that time he worked at a hotel and frequently saw slaves who came with their masters. Solomon saw them in neat clothes, quite satisfied with their masters. In a few years, he will see that a slave’s life is not that satisfactory (no neat clothes, no proper food). Of course, Solomon could not understand why slaves did not run away, but he saw a great fear of possible punishment that could be a good explanation. However, this job could not bring enough money, so he was trying to find something else. One day he was trying to obtain a job, he met two gentlemen, Merrill Brown and Abram Hamilton, which were unknown to him. It is necessary to add that in the book Northup claimed that he was not sure whether these were their real names. These men offered him a job (he was to play the violin) and promised to pay him a dollar a day and three dollars for each performance. This was too tempting to refuse.

On top of that, Solomon thought it would not take him too long, so he did not even write a note to his wife. However, it was not that short trip. When they came to New York Brown and Hamilton persuaded Northup to go to Washington with them, since the season was approaching and it is possible to make more money. Before they left New York they told Solomon to get “free papers” since they were going to enter a slavery state and it would be much safer. When they finally arrived in Washington, Brown, and Hamilton gave Northup forty-three dollars which were more than he expected. Northup was ready to go back to Saratoga, but his new friends asked him to stay for another day. That day was the funeral of Harrison so the whole city was very crowded and excited. Brown, Hamilton, and Solomon were wandering the city and dropped in several bars. Brown and Hamilton were accustomed to visiting such places and drank quite a lot, they poured a glass of liquor to Northup as well. In the evening Northup felt “very unpleasant sensations” and the rest of the night he was unconscious: Solomon was drugged. When he regained consciousness he found himself in chains in some unknown place. He was shipped to New Orleans to be sold as a slave.

Slave life on the different plantations

The first misfortune of being a slave Solomon experienced when he was brought to William’s Slave Pen when he started telling him he was a free man. Solomon was called a liar, and a fugitive slave from Georgia, and after that, he was beaten heavily. This was the first time when he found out what a paddle and a cat were, the tools for torturing slaves. In this place, Solomon experienced the life of a slave who is to be sold. He had no proper bed; his wounds caused him a lot of suffering. Of course, the food (some pork and bread, and water) was brought twice a day but Solomon was thirsty and only drank water. Solomon spent some time in slave’s pens, during this period he was severely beaten, slept on a blanket which was his bed, almost died because of illness, and finally, he was sold to a man called William Ford who lived in the “Great Pine Woods” (Louisiana). This period of his slavery can be called quite smooth. He was not beaten; he even was praised for his intelligence and skills.

Mr. Ford was very religious and even read the Bible for his slaves. Of course, Solomon did not understand how a religious man could have slaves which contradicted the principles of religion. However, life was quite good since slaves have enough food, they could have rest. Of course, they slept in cabins on blankets instead of beds, but they had some clothes to wear and proper food to eat. They were not humiliated or tortured. Northup admitted that slaves were eager to do more for their master for his being so kind. However, soon he was sold to another man, Tibeats. This man had a very bad reputation for his cruelty to slaves. Being his slave Solomon was constantly beaten, humiliated, of course, he used to eat little, (some corn food which he could not eat because his body was constantly hurting because of beating). After an infernal period at Tibeats’ plantation, he was sold to Tanner who had a lot of slaves and a big plantation. Sometime later he was sold to Epps who resided on the plantation at Bayou Huff Power.

Epps was not that cruel as Tibeats but slaves had to suffer many misfortunes. For instance, the food was often rotten, slaves were beaten. The beating was a kind of motivation to work harder. Solomon had to fulfill very hard work with no rest and little sleep, moreover, he also had to watch the slaves who were to work, if Solomon did not do it properly he was punished. The life there was even worse than in previous periods because slaves did not have enough food and more than that the food they were given was rotten (worms got into bacon). Only severe hunger made slaves eat that. Very often slaves were to go long distances and such trips were very dangerous since slaves had to move on was it a day or a night, a sunny or stormy day. However, it is necessary to add that Solomon, due to his playing violin and other useful skills, could enjoy more freedom than the others. Sometimes he even could have some money, but even such fortune could not make him free.

Northup’s near-death experiences

Slaves were often at risk of death. Solomon was a strong man who could not be too patient and could repulse. This is why he was often beaten and had to suffer numerous pains. Northup’s life was very hard and dangerous during his being a slave. First, he thought he could die was when he was shipped to another slave pen. He had smallpox, and after a few weeks of struggle, he recovered. Another dangerous situation he found himself in was during his fight with Tibeats which led to several other dangerous consequences. Thus, after a fight (Solomon defeated Tibeats) Tibeats tried to execute Solomon. Northup was standing with a rope on his shoulders when he was rescued by a nobleman, Mr. Ford. So, he managed to escape the revenge of his filthy master, Tibeats. However, he got into another dangerous fight with this man who brandished an ax trying to kill Solomon. Fortunately, Northup escaped this danger as well. However, when he was sold to another planter his pains were not over.

For instance, when he was working for Epps he got very ill. His health collapsed gradually and got worse because he had to work hard and was constantly beaten which should be a good stimulus to work. One day Solomon could not come out of his cabin. Epps called a doctor since he decided it was too expensive to lose a slave, so it was cheaper to cure him. A doctor claimed that it was because of the climate did not think Solomon could recover since the poor slave was too weak. However, Epps invented his treatment. Solomon did not work but had to keep to a strict diet, i.e. he got just enough food to keep life in his body. Surprisingly, this treatment worked and Solomon recovered. However, the illness was not the only danger, Solomon suffered at that plantation. Epps was also quite a filthy man. He entertained himself watching his slaves dancing all night long.

He punished those who did not want to dance, his whip was constantly with him. Despite slaves’ tiredness and sleepless nights slaves had to work hard in the light part of a day. But when Epps was in a bad mood his entertainment was even crueler, he came to the slave’s cabins and bashed them up heavily. Of course, the life of a slave was very hard but Solomon risked even more because he tried to escape. Thus, once he asked a man who constantly went to the city to deliver his letter to his family. This was very risky because Epps could even kill if he knew that Solomon did try to deliver the letter. Unfortunately, a man who served Epps, Armsby, told about Solomon’s plan. However, Northup managed to convince Epps that Armsby was lying and he did not plan anything at all. Any attempt to say anything to strangers could result in severe punishment. However, Northup took a risk one more time and started communicating with a Canadian, Samuel Bass. They even made friends. Of course, they communicated secretly because if their friendship was revealed, Epps would punish Solomon. Being a quick-tempered man Epps could even kill Solomon. However, Northup was ready to risk his life to have a chance to see his family once again.

Northup’s escape from slavery

Of course, Northup, being once a free man, could not endure the position of a slave. He wanted to escape, to become free, and see his family. He never stopped thinking about this. Even when they were on a boat to New Orleans they planned their escape. However, the plan failed. Quite a lot of time has passed before he made another attempt to become a free person. He wrote a letter to his family and persuaded a sailor to send it to his family. The sailor did so, but Northup’s wife, Anne, could not rescue him because the exact place he lived was unknown. Of course, Solomon’s wife addressed Henry Northup, who was a lawyer and a son of the former master of Solomon’s father. However, they could not rescue Solomon at the moment. It was only after Solomon met Samuel Bass. Northup met this nobleman when he was working for Epps. When Epps was absent Solomon came up to Bass and they started communicating. A few times they became quite attached to each other.

Of course, Solomon knew that he could trust Bass. So, he asked Bass to send a letter to his family. Of course, Bass was faithful enough and kept his word. Eventually, Bass succeeded in sending the necessary information about Solomon to his family. After Northup’s wife received the letter she could finally rescue her husband since there was a law that if a free man was kidnapped and enslaved he was to be released after his status of a free man was proved. So, Henry Northup came to Louisiana and rescued Solomon with the help of local authorities. Solomon pointed out that officials were quite committed to helping him. For instance, Henry Northup addresses many officials who helped him to prepare all the necessary documents, and Solomon mentioned that even Senator Soule expressed his determination to solve such a situation. Henry Northup also addressed Mr. Conrad, Secretary of War, and Judge Nelson, of the Supreme Court of the United States, who “certified copies of the memorial and affidavits”.

They also gave Northup an open letter to officials of Louisiana where they asked to assist in solving the case. Fortunately, officials in Louisiana were also committed to regain justice and return liberty to a free man. The Judge and sheriff assisted Henry Northup in every possible way. So, Northup made the necessary agreements and took Anne to prove that a slave working for Epps is her husband, Solomon Northup, a free man. Thus, they came to the field where Solomon was working at the moment. Of course, Solomon said that he knew those people and Epps had to acknowledge that Solomon was a free person and could not keep him there anymore. After the necessary papers were signed Henry Northup and Solomon Northup immediately left for home. Thus, Solomon could enjoy all the privileges of liberty once again. Unfortunately, Solomon had to face some more problems after his rescue but he was a free man and that was the most important for him.