Posted on September 19, 2013

The Story That Will Torment America’s Soul: A New Film That Brutally Portrays the Horrors of Slavery Threatens to Reignite Racial Tensions

Guy Walters, Daily Mail (London), September 18, 2013

Of all the slaves owned by Edwin Epps, a 23-year-old woman was by far the best at picking cotton.

Her hands moved so quickly they could hardly be seen as she worked from dawn until dusk, with only a 15-minute break for a meagre lunch of cold bacon.

Whereas most slaves could pick around 200lb of cotton per day, Patsey could pick 500lb.

Some said she was the most remarkable cotton-picker in the whole of the Bayou Boeuf region of Louisiana, if not the entire state. As well as being so productive, there was another reason why her owner valued Patsey. She was beautiful and athletic.

Epps, who was tall, fat and with a huge  Roman nose, constantly took advantage of his attractive young slave, especially when he  was drunk.

If rape did not make life unbearable enough, Patsey also had to suffer the jealousy of Epps’s wife. Mrs Epps — we do not know her first name, just as we do not know Patsey’s surname — would often order her to be whipped for supposed misdemeanours. As a result, her back was scarred with thousands of stripes.

One Sunday, while the slaves were washing their clothes in the river, Patsey went missing. For two hours, an enraged Epps roamed his estate, supposing that his prized possession had escaped.

However, Patsey returned, and told Epps she had visited the neighbouring estate to get some soap, as Mrs Epps never let her have any.

Such an excuse was not good enough for Epps. With a group of slaves huddled in fear nearby, he ordered Patsey to strip off all her clothes. Patsey knew she would be beaten, but she was not to know how badly. In the distance, she could see the satisfied, smiling face of  Mrs Epps.

Patsey was then forced to lie face down, her wrists and ankles tied to four stakes in the ground. Epps passed a heavy whip to a male slave in his early 40s called Platt. ‘You lash her!’ he ordered.

Platt knew he had no choice. If he did not, then he too would be lashed, and Patsey would still be lashed in turn.

Platt followed his dreadful order. Patsey prayed for mercy, but Epps, stamping his foot on the ground, insisted that Platt did not hold back. ‘Strike harder, or your turn comes next, you scoundrel,’ Epps screamed.

After 30 lashes, Platt stopped, hoping that would be the end of it. Instead, Epps ordered him to continue.

Patsey’s back was drenched in blood, which trickled onto the ground and coated the whip.

After 15 more lashes, Platt threw the whip down. In a complete rage, Epps picked it up and whipped Patsey ten times harder and longer.

With almost all the skin on her back removed, Patsey passed out.

‘She no longer writhed and shrank beneath the lash when it bit out small pieces of flesh,’ Platt would recall. ‘I thought she was dying.’

But Patsey did not die.

Instead, Platt took her back to his cabin, where he and another slave nursed her as best they could.

After that day, Platt noticed that Patsey changed for ever.

‘The bounding vigour — the sprightly, laughter-loving spirit of her youth, were gone,’ he later wrote.

Today, the sheer sadism witnessed on American plantations in the middle of the 19th century seems almost unbelievable.

However, it was all too real, and all too common. The scene described above took place in Louisiana in about 1850, and was recounted by none other than Platt himself, whose real name was Solomon Northup (he’d been given the name Platt by his owner).

Northup wrote about his terrible experiences in a book published in 1853 called 12 Years A Slave, which shocked the American public, and, according to some historians, helped to bring about the American Civil War, in which President Abraham Lincoln led the Yankee North to victory against the South, partly because he was determined to end slavery.

Northup’s story was rediscovered in the late Sixties thanks to a white academic and journalist called Susan Eakin, who had long campaigned for black rights in her native Louisiana.

Many years earlier, a Cross had been burned on her front lawn and a fire started at her back door because she had invited black students to sing at a local auditorium.

However, she was undeterred from her civil rights work, which included republishing an annotated version of Northup’s book, having spent almost her entire life unearthing the original court documents and bills of transfer — essentially ‘receipts’ for a slave — that supported his tale.

‘I did what I thought was right,’ she said. ‘I was not trying to win some popularity contest.’

And now, 160 years after the book’s publication, Northup’s story has been filmed by the award-winning British director Steve McQueen.

Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt and Chiwetel Ejiofor in the lead role, 12 Years A Slave had an extraordinary reception when it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last week, where it won the top prize — the people’s choice award.

The film is so powerful it caused some critics to walk out, and left others in tears. When it ended, the auditorium was deathly quiet before the audience erupted into a  standing ovation.

There is much talk already that the film and its actors will win every Oscar available.

Indeed, 12 Years A Slave looks set to do for slavery what seven-time Oscar-winner Schindler’s List did for the Holocaust — in this case, conveying the horror by telling the story of one’s man’s journey through it.

Furthermore, the film has already made many Americans uneasy about their past. Some are even suggesting it could threaten to reignite the racial tensions that are always simmering below the surface of American society.

If the film is faithful to the true story of Solomon Northup, then it will  be unmissable.

Although Northup’s father had been a slave, when Solomon was born in the state of New York in July 1808, he entered the world a free black man. For his father had been granted his freedom in the will of his late employer, and worked happily on  a farm.

As he grew up, Solomon joined  his father on the farm, but during  his spare time played the violin, which was the ‘ruling passion’ of  his youth.

In December 1829, Northup married Anne Hampton and, in 1832, the industrious couple set up a small farm in Kingsbury, 200 miles north of New York City.

Two years later, the couple moved to Saratoga Springs, in New York state, where Northup worked as a cart driver and made ends meet by playing his violin.

The couple had three healthy children and were comfortable, if not prosperous. That was to change dramatically in March 1841, when Northup met ‘two gentlemen of respectable appearance’, who asked if he would go to New York to play the violin in their circus.

Eager for the income, he agreed and, expecting to be away for no more than a few days, left without telling his wife. He would not see his family again for 12 years.

The men, who called themselves Hamilton and Brown, were charming, and Northup agreed to accompany them all the way to Washington.

One evening, Northup started to feel ill during a drinking session. His head ached, and he felt nauseous. He went to bed and, almost in delirium, felt desperately thirsty.

Eventually, Northup passed out, and when he awoke, he found himself handcuffed and chained to a large ring in the floor of what looked like a dungeon.

The door was unlocked, and in walked a man called James H. Burch, who announced that Northup was now his ‘property’, and that he was being taken to New Orleans to  be sold. Naturally, Northup protested vehemently, but he was stripped and shackled to a bench.

In turn, Burch summoned another man to bring a paddle and a cat o’nine tails, and Northup was beaten so hard that the paddle broke, and the skin on his back was completely lacerated.

‘A man with a particle of mercy in his soul would not have beaten even a dog so cruelly,’ Northup wrote.

Realising that arguing with  his captors would be counter- productive, Northup decided that it would be better to stay quiet and try to escape.

Along with dozens of other slaves, he was packed onto a ship and taken down to Louisiana.

The conditions were appalling, with one slave dying of smallpox, but salvation came in the form of a sailor, who promised to post a letter to Henry Northup, a lawyer from the same white family for whom Solomon’s father had worked, whose name the slave family had taken.

However, if help was to come, it would not come quickly, and Northup was sold for $1,000 at a slave market in New Orleans to a devout baptist called William Ford.

Although Northup would later be generous in his assessment of Ford, he would be less so when writing about a man called John Tibeats, to whom he was loaned.

Tibeats was described by Northup as a ‘small, crabbed, quick-tempered, spiteful man’. On one occasion, as Tibeats started to beat Northup, he snatched the whip away before it struck him, and proceeded to lash his overseer with ferocity.

Even as he was beating his master, Northup knew his punishment for the assault would be death. A few hours later, Northup was trussed up, ready to be hanged.

However, his life was saved by another man who told Tibeats that if he killed Northup, he would have to recompense William Ford for his value.

Tibeats may not have seen moral sense, but he saw financial sense, and instead left his slave tied up in the blazing sun all day.

Tibeats was determined to seek his revenge, and some months later, he attacked Northup with an axe for another supposed misdemeanour.

Northup fought back, and nearly strangled Tibeats before running away. The slave knew his chances of escape were slight, not least because Tibeats sent a pack of dogs after him, and the swamps were infested with alligators.

Northup managed to outwit his pursuers, although he knew his escape could not be permanent. Unaccompanied black people needed to have passes.

So he ran to the only place where he knew he would be safe — the home of his previous master, William Ford. But though he was taken in for a time, he was soon sold to Edwin Epps, who treated his slaves appallingly.

From first light to dusk — and even later on moonlit nights — the slaves picked cotton and cut sugar cane, driven on by whip-wielding overseers on horseback.

Like all slaves, Northup received many beatings. The nights offered little sanctuary, as the slaves’ cabins were crude and leaked constantly.

The plea-for-help letter he had smuggled to his namesake, the white lawyer Henry Northup, while being shipped to Louisiana, was still unanswered so Solomon  tried again.

It seems unbelievable, but slaves were not even allowed to use pens and paper, and he had to steal a single sheet of foolscap, and make a rough pen and ink.

Knowing that he could not use the post office, Solomon Northup sought help from a kindly white man he thought he could trust, but he betrayed him to Epps. Fortunately, Northup was able to burn the letter in time and thus destroy any evidence.

Others were less fortunate.

One young slave called Augustus decided to run away, but he was chased by 15 dogs. When they caught him, they tore into him, with ‘their teeth having penetrated to the bone in an hundred places’.

Augustus died in agony the following day.

However, in June 1852, 11 years after Northup had been abducted, help arrived in the form of a  Canadian carpenter, Samuel Bass, who was working on the estate. A passionate abolitionist, Bass  took pity on Northup and wrote to a sympathetic lawyer in New York state.

Christmas came and went without news. Finally, early one January morning, the white lawyer Henry Northup and the local sheriff arrived.

Much to the annoyance of Epps, after nearly 12 years, Northup was freed, his enslavement ruled illegal. Several efforts were made to bring the kidnappers to justice, but, as Northup was black, his own testimony could not be used in evidence.

When he returned home, he found his wife Anne and their children were still alive and well.

They told him that they had known he’d been abducted, and the letter he wrote from the ship had arrived, but it proved impossible to track him down.

What happened to Northup next is unclear. His book was published in 1853, and it seems very likely that he helped run an underground network that transported escaped slaves to freedom in Canada.

He died at some point in the late 1860s or early 1870s, after which his fame faded, and his book fell out of print.

Now, thanks to what promises to be a brilliant film, the world  will once more be moved by this extraordinary story of suffering  and hope.