12 years a slave

Joan and I watched this film at a crowded Cinema 3 in Glasgow’s Renfrew Street Cineworld on Sunday evening.  I have added Solomon Northrop’s account of his captivity, subjugation and eventual escape (click here to read online) to my ever expanding list of ‘must reads’.

12 years

The film was compelling viewing with script, cinematography, music and actors combining to deliver a moving personal story in the most powerful medium.   Like the story of Kunta Kinte (here), the hero of Alex Haley’s 1970s novel ‘Roots’, it brought the worst reality of the slave trade straight to the heart.

Of course, as a onetime student of History, I think I know a great deal about the Atlantic slave trade, and its many parallels in other parts of the world and other eras such as the Muslim Indian Ocean equivalent (less publicised and active much longer).  But  the emotionally engaging technology of a well-made full size film touches the heart in quite a different way.

As a onetime teacher of History, I can only envy the capacity of the film maker to spin the story of the past, whether evidenced or imagined or a mixture of both, to tell an important truth about humanity in such a powerful and affecting way.  The proper study of history, with due attention to evidence, is a necessary part of the truth of the past, ensuring that those with access to the most powerful media do not distort the story for their own ends.   Yet film can communicate in a way that a history book never can.

I like to believe that had I been a Scottish or Irish gentleman of the 18th or 19th Century, forced to seek my fortune elsewhere by family poverty, I would have avoided the southern states or the West Indies and gone for the clean living honest labour of the frontier, like John Muir, though I acknowledge that even he had the advantage of being able to follow a peaceful path across the continent, as his predecessors had already eliminated most of the original inhabitants!

In fact, I have my own ancestral ‘get-out’ clause, an easy route to an easier conscience.  When Solomon Northrop was labouring as a cotton picker on the Louisiana plantation where much of the action is set, many of my ancestors were starving in the Irish potato famine, or fleeing Ireland to settle in the worst slums of Victorian Edinburgh.   Yet I still feel a strong sense of ‘guilt by association’, as a child of a country that profited more than most from the slave trade.  This is not about race.  It is important to recognise the conceptual trickery by which a false, ‘white’ identity can be assumed. I completely reject such a ‘white’ identity.  I equally dislike the false prison of ‘national’ identity, one of the reasons I am uncomfortable with the nationalist undertones of ‘Scottish independence’.  I assert a human identity.  Pale skin cannot make me responsible for the crimes of the 19th Century slavers.

However there is some responsibility.  The wealth of contemporary Scotland was built not just on the labour of the cotton factories or coal mines, or the Irish navigators who built the railways and canals, but  also in part on the backs of the sugar and tobacco plantations of the New World.   My current wealth and ease is built on the stories of the past.

We, who live today in comfort, must acknowledge the harm that was done, empathise with the sense of loss and injustice of those who share a slave heritage and ensure that the future is built on stronger foundations of human dignity and rights, our shared humanity and our shared responsibility for each other.

I commend both the film and the book.  I want now to read his story, to hear Solomon Northrop speak to me down the ages; to hear him speak for himself.   The following extract from the book, faithfully portrayed in Steve McQueen ‘s film, finds Solomon at the point when he has been kidnapped into captivity and refuses to accept the demands of the slave trader, Burch, that he should acknowledge his new identity as a slave:

As soon as these formidable whips appeared, I was seized by both of them, and roughly divested of my clothing. My feet, as has been stated, were fastened to the floor. Drawing me over the bench, face down-wards, Kadbum placed his heavy foot upon the fetters, between my wrists, holding them painfully to the floor. With the paddle, Burch commenced beating me. Blow after blow was inflicted upon my naked body. When his unrelenting arm grew tired, he stopped and asked if I still insisted I was a free man. I did insist upon it, and then the blows were renewed, faster and more energetically, if possible, than before. When again tired, he would repeat the same question, and receiving the same answer, continue his labor. All this time, the incarnate devil was uttering most fiendish oaths. At length the paddle broke, leaving the useless handle in his hand. Still I would not yield. All his brutal blows could not force from my lips that I was a slave. Casting madly on the floor the handle of the broken paddle, he seized the rope. This was far more painful than the other. I struggled with all my power, but it was in vain. I prayed for mercy, but my prayer was only answered with imprecations and with stripes. I thought I must die beneath the lashes of the accursed brute. Even now the flesh crawls upon my bones, as I recall the scene. I was all on fire. My sufferings I can compare to nothing else than the burning agonies of hell!


At last I became silent to his repeated questions. I would make no reply. In fact, I was becoming almost unable to speak. Still he plied the lash without stint upon my poor body, until it seemed that the lacerated flesh was stripped from my bones at every stroke. A man with a particle of mercy in his soul would not have beaten even a dog so cruelly. At length Eadbum said that it was useless to whip me any more — that I would be sore enough. Thereupon, Burch desisted, saying, with an admonitory fist in my face, and hissing the words through his firm-set teeth, that if ever I dared to utter again that I was entitled to my freedom, that I had been kidnapped, or any thing whatever of the kind, the castigation I had just received was nothing in comparison with what might follow. He swore that he would either conquer or kill me.


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