Solomon Northup’s memoir ‘Twelves Years a Slave’ has received notable recognition in contemporary media. Among the many themes he explores when narrating accounts of his and other slaves’ experiences in the hands of white slave owners, violence is central.
While it is apparent that violence was part of slavery in America, most slaveholders tried to deny this, masking it with such explanations like the slave tried to escape with every chance they got.
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, is captured and sold to slavery. The narrative takes the reader through twelve years of Northup’s slavery, explaining his experiences with each master he’s sold to.
In Northup’s narrative, violence is a common aspect of slavery used to capture, punish, silence, and force the slaves into submission.
Literary Analysis: The Theme of Violence in Twelve Years a Slave Book by Solomon Northup
Throughout the memoir, it’s obvious that some slave-owners are not violent and don’t mistreat their slaves. However, others believe that slavery will not thrive without ill-treatment of the slaves.
Northup’s most inhumane master, Edwin Epps, enjoys “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 with 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 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 to capture African Americans and force them into slavery.
After capture, Northup meets James Burch, the man who has ‘bought’ him, and is going to oversee his transfer to the South. When Burch tells him that he’s about to become a slave, Northup is 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 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”. For the slaves, drowning is a better option compared to violence from their masters.
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