Violence During Slavery: Twelves Years a Slave by Solomon Northup

Solomon Northup’s memoir ‘Twelves Years a Slave’ has received notable recognition in contemporary media. Among the many themes he explores, violence is central, narrating accounts of his and other slaves’ experiences in the hands of white slave owners. While it is apparent that violence was part of slavery in America, most slaveholders tried to deny this, masking it with such explanations as the slave tried to escape with every chance they got. Violence was a common aspect of slavery, used to achieve capture, punishment, silence, and submission in Northup’s narrative.

Twelve Years a Slave is narrative on Solomon Northup, a free man deceived into slavery by two men who lead him to believe that they are offering a lucrative job at a circus. Unknowingly, Northup follows them without notifying his family, and ends up captured and sold to slavery. The narrative takes the reader through twelve years of Northup’s slavery, explaining his experiences with each master to whom he is sold. Throughout the narrative, it is obvious that some slave-owners are not violent and do not mistreat their slaves. However, others believe that slavery would not thrive without ill-treatment of the slaves, such as Edwin Epps, who enjoyed “lashing them (slaves) about the yard with his long whip just for the pleasure of hearing them screech and scream as the great welts were planted on their backs.” Later, Northup is freed, by the help of a New York attorney and a carpenter known as Bass who helps him send letters to his family back in the North.

lashing them (slaves) about the yard with his long whip just for the pleasure of hearing them screech and scream as the great welts were planted on their backs.

The first instance of violence towards slaves is presented in Northup’s capture by the two men. What Northup thinks is an opportunity turns into violence when the men drug and kidnap him only to wake up in a cell, chained. In this case, the slave owners used violence as a means for capturing African Americans to work as slaves. The narrative also reveals later that Northup was among a multitude of other captured slaves.

After capture, Northup meets James Burch, the man who has ‘bought’ him, and is going to oversee his transfer to the South where he will be sold to slave owners. When Burch tells him that he was about to become a slave, Northup becomes infuriated and insists that he is a free man, with a family in Saratoga. Burch tells him that he is a slave from Georgia, and beats it into his head. Burch threatens to kill him if he ever mentions his state to anyone. Violence, in this case silences and forces the slaves submit, while covering up for the crimes of people who illegally obtain slaves. “He endeavored to hush me as if he feared my voice would be overheard.”

Another use of violence in Northup’s narrative is a form of punishment, both fair and unfair. When Northup begins working for Tibeats, he realizes that he is not as kind to his slaves as William Ford. Tibeats resents him and one morning as Northup is working on an assigned carpentry project, Tibeats becomes angry and starts shouting, accusing him of failing to follow instructions . At this point, he begins to whip Northup as a punishment for a mistake he does not bear. After his return from Ford’s house where he escaped to after fighting Tibeats, Eliza tells him, “it would be better if you had drowned. You have a cruel master, and he will kill you yet, I am afraid. Another way to look at this instance of violence is a s a form of resistance from the slaves.

What are your thoughts and questions on Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup? Let me know in the comment section.

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