12 Years A Slave: The freedom fighter

By Alex Hannaford

Betrayed, kidnapped and enslaved, Solomon Northup fought for his life in the dying days of slavery. Alex Hannaford uncovers the story that has inspired the Golden Globe-winning, Oscar-nominated new film, 12 Years A Slave.

Chiwetel Ejiofor in '12 Years A Slave'. Photo / AP
Chiwetel Ejiofor in '12 Years A Slave'. Photo / AP

Clayton Adams' family heirloom - a leather-bound first edition of a book entitled Twelve Years a Slave - was lost even before he was born. Copies survived but, as a schoolboy, Adams was never greatly interested in reading them, even though the book's author was one of his ancestors. His mother tried to persuade him of the book's significance, but her words went in one of the teenager's ears and out the other.

Twelve Years a Slave was written by Solomon Northup, Adams' great-great-great-grandfather. It was only when he went to college to study black history and literature and the name Northup resurfaced that he began to pay closer attention. "It must have only been a brief paragraph about him in a book," he says, "but when I came back from college during the winter of my freshman year I asked mum more about him."

At home in Syracuse, New York, Adams read Twelve Years a Slave alone in his room - "quicker than any book I'd ever read in my life". And when he finished, he just sat there and cried like he'd never cried before.

"I understood then that this really was my relative who was born free, then kidnapped and sold into slavery," he says.

Twelve Years a Slave describes how Solomon Northup, born in upstate New York and married with three children at the time of his capture, ended up working in the cotton fields of Louisiana. It recounts in grim detail the suffering he endured at the hands of several slave owners before being rescued in 1853. The book, published that same year, was a bestseller, and 160 years on has finally been made into a film by British director Steve McQueen. Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup, it took the best motion picture - drama award at the Golden Globes and has nine Oscar nominations. It was an instant hit when it was released in the US in October.

The film's impact goes far beyond the awards race. For some Americans, it has reopened painful old wounds; for others, it's been a cathartic conversation-starter (a recent piece in the Atlantic Monthly was titled "Why I wouldn't see 12 Years a Slave with a white person"). McQueen has even talked of complete strangers holding hands during screenings. But as gripping as it is, the film is only part of Solomon Northup's story.

Syracuse, where Adams finally read his ancestor's memoir, is only a couple of hours' drive from the horse-racing town of Saratoga Springs; this is where Northup's horrific ordeal began. Today, it's home to Renee Moore, who in 1999 founded the annual Solomon Northup Day to commemorate him in the company of his 40 or so living descendants.

I sit with Moore in a small coffee shop in the centre of town. In Northup's day, the Union Hall stood across the street: an opulent mansion that stretched 240m along Broadway, and was described in Saratoga Illustrated magazine as a "magnificent structure of brick and iron". The Northups moved to Saratoga in 1834, and Solomon found work in railroad construction. He was an accomplished violin player (it was, he wrote, the "ruling passion of my youth") and during the summers he played at the Union Hall and the other hotels that had opened up around town.

In Steve McQueen's film, Saratoga Springs is a dusty outpost - a depiction that concerns Moore. When Northup lived there "it was a glamorous spot of great wealth," she tells me.

"It wasn't a small town with dirt roads." Moore says Northup had done well for himself and his family; he'd made his home in an affluent community and it was from here that he was cruelly removed. "It had started to be developed as a playground for the wealthy, and that deepens the experience Solomon Northup had," she explains.

In late March 1841, Northup was walking around the town when he bumped into two men, Merrill Brown and Abram Hamilton. The three struck up a conversation and they told Northup they worked for a circus based in Washington DC, and that they could use a violinist.

He'd only be away from home briefly, and the money was good, so he accepted. His wife was working 20 miles away in Sandy Hill and Northup writes: "Thinking my absence would be brief, I did not deem it necessary to write to Anne."

He rode with the men by carriage to Albany, and that night witnessed Brown's circus act, "throwing balls, dancing on the rope ... causing invisible pigs to squeal, and other like feats of ventriloquism". But back in his hotel room, Northup described feeling like he'd been drugged. When he woke up he found himself handcuffed, sitting on a wooden bench, with chains around his ankles fastened to the floor.

"Could it be possible," he wrote, "that I had been driven through the streets like a dumb beast - that I had been chained and beaten without mercy ... I lifted up my hands to God, and in the still watches of the night ... begged for mercy on the poor, forsaken captive."

The US Congress had banned the import of slaves to America in 1808 - the year Northup was born. So, Renee Moore tells me, "abductions were happening for financial reasons; to support the economy of the South. Picking cotton, sugar cane, tobacco, and indigo dye was labour-intensive, so they abducted slaves."

Renamed Platt, after one of the local slave owners, Northup was sold in a slave auction and taken to a plantation in Louisiana. Later, Northup would write of the deep love he had for his wife and three children, and how important it was to understand that depth of feeling in order to fully comprehend the impact of what happened to him. (In the film he only has two offspring - something Renee Moore says could be troubling to descendants of that third child who has been left out of the story.) Northup goes into forensic detail about his life as a slave: the maggots that often infested the bacon they ate; the fear they had of going to sleep in case they failed to wake before sunrise, which would result in lashes with a whip; the simple pleasure of making "coffee" by scorching cornmeal in a pan and adding water; the joy that slaves felt of having a couple of days free each Christmas, during which they could see their friends on nearby plantations.

He writes, too, of Eliza, a slave sold to William Ford, a plantation owner and the man who first purchased Northup. On being separated from her two young children she "burst into a paroxysm of grief".

At one point a particularly wicked overseer on the plantation, John Tibeats, attempted to whip Northup for using nails on a carpentry job that were "too large". Northup fended off the attack, turning the whip on Tibeats instead. In one of the most disturbing scenes in both the book and the film, Northup has a noose placed around his neck as punishment and is about to be hanged from a tree when another overseer intervenes. But he doesn't free Northup entirely. Instead, he is left partly suspended, his toes barely touching the ground, for an entire day in the hot Louisiana sun, delirious, sweat pouring from his face, until William Ford returns in the evening and cuts him down.

In a later incident - not reproduced in McQueen's film - Tibeats attacks Northup with an axe, after which he escapes. Northup explained that most slaves didn't know how to swim, but as he had been born free he was able to make his way across the swamps surrounding the plantation. "My clothes were in tatters, my hands, face, and body covered with scratches, received from the sharp knots of fallen trees, and in climbing over piles of brush and flood wood. My bare foot was full of thorns."

McQueen does, however, dwell on what is probably the most egregious brutality meted out in the book. Slave owner Edwin Epps (played in McQueen's film by Michael Fassbender) orders Northup to whip his fellow slave Patsey repeatedly after he discovers she had gone to a nearby plantation to get some soap to wash with. Northup wrote that he struck her 30 times, but that when Epps ordered him to continue, he refused. Epps picked up the whip himself and attacked her with "tenfold" the force. "Her back was covered with long welts, intersecting each other like a network," he wrote. "She was terribly lacerated ... literally flayed."

In the basement of Glens Falls public library in upstate New York, the library's director, Todd DeGarmo, pulls out two first editions of Northup's book and opens one on a table.

The overpoweringly musty smell isn't the only proof of its authenticity; there's an embossed stamp inside showing it's the original library copy. "This wasn't in some historical collection," DeGarmo says. "It was in circulation in the library when it was published."

The book was also very much of its time. In 1852, the year before Northup's story came out, Harriet Beecher Stowe published Uncle Tom's Cabin. Her somewhat sugar-coated tale became the bestselling novel of the 19th century and helped to further the abolitionist cause. Interestingly, while Beecher Stowe's book sold 300,000 copies in one year in the US, it sold far more - 1 million copies - in Britain. It seemed to resonate with an international audience as a protest novel. "But," says DeGarmo, "Northup's book was much more compelling because it was a real story. This wasn't fiction." It sold a respectable 30,000 copies.

Northup begins the book by explaining that his ancestors were slaves in Rhode Island and belonged to a family by the name of Northup (slaves were generally forced to assume the surnames of their owners). His father, Mintus, was born in bondage but emancipated after his slave owner died, according to instructions set out in the owner's will. Ironically, Henry B Northup, a lawyer and distant relative of the Northup slave owners, was Solomon Northup's friend and ultimately responsible for freeing him from captivity in 1853.

After Solomon Northup married his sweetheart, Anne, the couple moved into "the old yellow building then standing at the southern extremity of Fort Edward village ... which has since been transformed into a modern mansion," as it says in his book. "It is known as the Fort House." Now a museum, the Fort House still stands in Fort Edward. An impressive Dutch Colonial building surrounded by trees, it's one of the oldest houses in northern New York: George Washington dined there in 1783 while inspecting military installations. Paul McCarty, a tall man with a grey goatee, is the Fort House's executive director. He tells me Northup lived here from 1829 until 1832. "Back then it was a boarding house and he and Anne probably rented a room with kitchen privileges," McCarty says.

Upstairs, McCarty and his staff have recreated Northup's room. There's a small wooden bed with a bedpan, towel and table next to it. A violin is propped up in the corner. In a glass cabinet by the door are a set of chains, of the type used on slaves in the South.

Across the road from the Fort House is the Champlain Canal, where Northup worked during the winter, carrying out repairs. He details in his book how he saved up his wages and bought a pair of horses, before starting a small business transporting timber by raft from Lake Champlain to the lumber mills in Troy, 70km south. A short walk from the Fort House is the small wooden home where Northup's father, Mintus, lived and where he and his wife raised Northup and his brother Joseph. McCarty says that a map from the era pinpoints the house with the words "Black Northup".

After Fort Edward, Solomon and Anne moved with their children to Kingsbury, where they ran a farm, but they were only there for a couple of years before they left for Saratoga.

Although Northup doesn't say in his book why they left the farm (he even writes that they were leading a "happy and prosperous life" there), the move to Saratoga would seal his fate.

After several years as a slave, Northup managed to make ink by boiling down white maple bark and wrote a letter using a duck feather, revealing his whereabouts. A white man, Armsby, had been toiling in the fields with the other slaves ("a rare and unusual spectacle", wrote Northup) and he asked him to post the letter from a nearby town. But Armsby betrayed Northup's trust, forcing him to deny the existence of the letter to his owner.

Only when a Canadian carpenter, Samuel Bass, appeared at the plantation to help construct an arbour did Northup find a sympathetic ear. Bass - played in the film by Brad Pitt - agreed to send a letter on his behalf, prompting Northup to write that he "clung to him as a drowning man clings to the floating spar, knowing if it slips from his grasp he must forever sink beneath the waves".

Northup asked Bass to write to Cephas Parker and William Perry, two men he was friends with in Saratoga. They in turn contacted his lawyer friend, Henry B Northup, who travelled to Louisiana with Northup's free papers and released him from the plantation.

Both the film and the book are heavy going - particularly, says Renee Moore, for Americans still trying to come to terms with their country's bloody past. "I think older Americans, black and white, already knew what to expect when they went to see this film," she says.

"They'd seen Roots. And some may have seen Gordon Parks's version." (Parks, who also directed Shaft, made an adaptation called Solomon Northup's Odyssey for American television, in 1984.) "I think the younger generation will be shocked by the violence in the film," she says.

"As an older black person I say 'wow, what did they think it was like?' And actually I think the film portrays the violence of slavery in a much more passive way. In real life a lynching would have involved tarring, setting a live body on fire, and possibly splitting a body with a hatchet like a piece of beef or cutting body parts off for souvenirs. It was much, much more brutal."

Much to Moore's chagrin, Saratoga Springs has been less than willing to embrace the annual event in Solomon Northup's honour that she started 14 years ago (this year's event, held in July, was attended by 12 Years a Slave actress Lupita Nyong'o, who plays Patsey). There is no budget, she says, and she is forced to "raise the cash, beg, borrow and steal in order to arrange food, speakers and transportation". The city, says Moore, "is very racist and classist in a lot of ways. But it's insidious and subtle. I think if Solomon were to visit Saratoga Springs today, he'd be more than a little disappointed."

Northup's own life was full of such disappointments, even after he was reunited with his family. In his book, he had very carefully listed as many identifying details as possible - names, dates, places - in order to see justice served. But although his kidnappers were apprehended and sent to trial, the case against them collapsed.

The details of Northup's later years as a free man are sketchy. There are documents showing he worked with the Underground Railroad - a secret network of safe houses and routes used by slaves to escape the South - and there's good evidence to show he embarked on a lengthy lecture tour, even making it to Britain. But there's nothing to suggest how, or when, he died. Speculation that he was murdered in a revenge plot by his kidnappers has been largely dismissed. The more convincing theories posit that he died in poverty or went to live with his daughter in Virginia. Clues, however, are scarce.

All of which makes the last lines of Twelve Years a Slave especially heartbreaking: "I hope henceforward to lead an upright though lowly life," he writes, "and rest at last in the church yard where my father sleeps." Mintus Northup's gravestone is in a churchyard in Hudson Falls, a town close to Saratoga Springs. Nobody knows where Solomon is buried.

12 Years a Slave opens in New Zealand on February 6.

- Daily Telegraph UK

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