1 March 2014

Northup

Yesterday I finished reading  "Twelve Years a Slave" by Solomon Northup. Published in 1853, it is of course the text that inspired the blockbuster film of the same name directed by Steve McQueen. In the middle of the nineteenth century it was a bestseller - especially in the northeastern states of America. It gave a rare insider's view of what it meant to be an Afro-American slave and in its small way helped to fuel some of the North-South animosity that led to the American Civil War (1861-65).

Though the text is now over a hundred and fifty years old, it was surprisingly easy to read. There was a clarity and purposefulness about the writing - avoiding the syntactical tangles that will sometimes characterise Victorian writing.
Though Northup's principal "master" was the cruel, ignorant and boorish Edwin Epps - owner of a small Louisiana cotton plantation - he made a point of alluding to other slave "owners" and incidental white men who displayed humanity and kindness in their dealings with slaves. On Epps's property, whippings were a daily occurrence.

Sometimes Epps would visit the local town for recreation, returning late at night drunk as a lord. It amused him enormously to rouse his sleeping slaves and bring them into the big house in order to dance while Northup played tunes on the  violin. Early the next morning - woe betide any slaves who weren't at their duties on time. They'd still be lashed mercilessly.

Here's a taste of Northup's writing and of the desperation he felt in his seemingly hopeless situation:-

“Oh! How heavily the weight of slavery pressed upon me then. I must toil day after day, endure abuse and taunts and scoffs, sleep on the hard ground, live on the coarsest fare, and not only this, but live the slave of a blood-seeking wretch, of whom I must stand henceforth in continued fear and dread. Why had I not died in my young years-before God had given me children to love and live for? What unhappiness and suffering and sorrow it would have prevented. I sighed for liberty; but the bondsman's chain was round me, and could not be shaken off. I could only gaze wistfully towards the North, and think of the thousands of miles that stretched between me and the soil of freedom, over which a black freeman may not pass.” 

Ultimately, Northup owed his liberation to a passing Canadian carpenter called Bass who agreed to forward letters to influential men back in New York State - where the author had been a free man. Finally, he got home to his family.

Back in the northern states, Northup became something of a celebrity - speaking to many audiences about the ills of slavery. Nonetheless, his whereabouts beyond 1860 are sadly unknown. There's no gravestone - just a book and now a film to remember him by.
Sunset over Bayou Boeuf - Louisiana

7 comments:

  1. Oh, I knew you would enjoy it, Mr. Pudding! I have not seen the movie yet and I really don't know if I will. It makes me sad to know that it took a British director instead of the Americans to beautifully tell the story of this brave, intelligent, exceptional man.

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    1. But the British director who breathed life into the story is himself a black man whose West Indian forebears were themselves slaves. I think it really took someone like that to bring out Solomon's story with genuine compassion and understanding. And sometimes you see more of what's happening in an aquarium when you are looking in from the outside.

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  2. You have aroused my interest but Bristol and Liverpool were not built on the cotton and tobacco trade alone. It was slaves out and goods in.
    I will give the book a read. I expect Kindle haven't ignored it.

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    1. PS. I can't work out how I can edit video but dislike films and the cinema. I ought to appreciate it for the skill and artisan content but I don't. I love live acts like theatre but fall asleep watching a film. I suspect I am entranced by live performance and find modern films perfect to the point of incredulity.

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    2. Adrian - Just read the book and you will be making your own, original "film" version inside your own head.

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  3. No offense to anyone who lives in the southern states of the U.S. today, but I've met a fair share of people there who aren't much different than Edward Epps. The "good old boy" social network there allows them to thrive in their nastiness. The issue with them is not always racism. Many of them are just smart enough to avoid that topic of conversation with someone from California. They also mistreat their animals, and I'm not fond of their attitude toward women, either.

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    1. It's probably the same in South Africa. They may have got rid of apartheid but undercurrents still swirl. On the very first morning of our first family holiday to America in 2002 we stopped in Moultrie, Georgia - right next to the lovely courthouse. In the grounds a gang of prisoners were working - picking up litter, trimming the grass - all dressed in their prison overalls - and every one of those prisoners was a black man. It sent a shudder up my spine.

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