Essay on 12 Years a Slave: Northrup's Journey of Freedom & Captivity

Published: 2023-09-14
Essay on 12 Years a Slave: Northrup's Journey of Freedom & Captivity
Type of paper:  Book review
Categories:  Literature Slavery Books
Pages: 6
Wordcount: 1629 words
14 min read


In the book 12 Years a Slave, Northrup emphasizes his personal experience in covering five initial periods of his life as a free man, captive, slave, a slave under Edwin Epps, and again as a free man during the pre-Civil war era. Northrup, a black man, living in New York, explains how he was brought up after his birth in 1808 (Northup et al., n.d.). He was privileged to grow by his father's side, where he was able to receive education gaining competency in reading and writing as he continues working on the father's farm. Further, Northup learned how to play the violin, a skill that conjointly caused him fortune and misfortune. After marrying Ann Hampton, a cook at the age of 21, Northrup had to get involved in many activities, including farming, lumberjacking and performing violin to earn money and raise their three children (Northup et al., n.d.). The paper will discuss the pre-Civil war slave trade exercise while referring to Northup’s experience as a slave.

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The themes expressed in the book include slavery and abolitionist, where the author establishes an empathetic connection with the reader to portray the pain endured with different masters in captivity. The book emphasizes the themes of human integrity, where Northrup valued his short friendship with the two white men who later betrays him. The incident was symbolic in that it demonstrated the fraud and moral corruption involved in the slave trade to remain intact. The theme of man's inhumanity to man is expressed where slaves'slaves' dignity is not preserved, and degradation is at its high rate. The slave receives brutal treatment, including beatings and rape. Other themes in the book include the power of music, Christianity, and racism.

The book explains how Northrup was lured into slavery after meeting two white men –Brown and Hamilton and traveled with them to Washington, D.C. He was promised that they would offer him lucrative work with a circus and could not hesitate to travel with them. In the Washington D.C., Northup, in one day go for revelry and drinking, but he gets very ill, and on his way to seek a doctor, he is captured, wakes up chained in a dark room. As a captive, he finds himself in the hands of James H. Burch, a brutal slave trader where on protesting to seek freedom, he is beaten up threatened to be murdered. In the captivity, Northrup is together with other slaves and victims of kidnap who are transported to New Orleans, Louisiana for sale. The slave traders change the names of their captives, and for instance, Northrup was renamed Platt, who was a way of erasing the connection with his past.

Northrup's sale as a slave is delay follows an event where he contracts smallpox, an illness that almost caused his death, but on recovery, he is sold together with another slave girl Eliza. Northrup is sold to William Ford and works in the plantation and in a lumber mill, where he transports lumber via waterway instead of by land saving his boss a lot of money and time. Following this sentiment, Ford likes Platt but later has misunderstanding due to a series of financial missteps, and he is sold to Edwin Epps (Northup et al., n.d.).

The authors explain his experience with Epps for ten years and refer to him as a cruel master who had previous stories of abuse, humiliation, and deprivation of slaves. Platts works together with Patsey, a slave girl, who is frequently assaulted and raped by Epps. Northrup explains how he was rescued from captivity after meeting Bass, a Canadian carpenter, who was completing a project for Epps. Bass and his friends played a crucial role in reuniting Northrup with his family, where they first went to Washington D.C. to pursue legal charges against James H. Burch for indulging in kidnapping and slave trade.

My opinion on the book is that the author reflects how the process of slavery was executed in the pre-Civil war. The author uses black characters as the victims of slavery and the whites as the slave traders and masters, which similarly appears in the historical perspectives. The author in the first chapter uses characters like Brown and Hamilton to lure the victims through enticing them with lucrative jobs. Usually, slaves were acquired from their residence through excessive force, which involved attacks in villages or force kidnaps, but in this case, it is different where no excessive force is used. This is where human integrity is broken, and mistrust and betrayal take the course after Northup is captured. Other whites in the slavery activities include James H. Burch, a renowned human trafficker and slave trader in Washington D.C. William Ford and Edwin Epps are masters who own large plantations have to buy slaves to provide labor. The other black victims of slavery include Patsey, Eliza, Robert, Arthur, Abram, and Wiley.

Slavery, as displayed in the book, involved loss culture, and identity, especially when slaves were captured. Firstly, the slave trade involved acquiring slaves from one region and selling them to another where they are required; for instance, Northup is acquired in New York and sold in Washington, D.C. As a slave, one had to abandon his cultural practices forcefully. One had to leave his family behind; for example, Northup, after being lured with a lucrative job in Washington D.C, leaves his wife, Ann, and the three kids behind. The case of Northup demonstrates how cultural institutions like family were abandoned. Further, after being captured, the captives' names were changed and given new ones as a way of abandoning the history of a person. The naming of persons lies in the cultural practices where each group of people has their way of naming. Additionally, naming is a way of identifying oneself, and after abandoning your name, you lose your identity. The slaves were only issued with single names, unlike their original names, two showings that there was a systematic manner of naming but not emphasized in the slave-trading activities.

Slavery was marked with unfair treatment and brutality, as expressed in the book. From the beginning to the end of the book, the authors showcase how the slaves were treated, and mostly, humanity and dignity were not respected. When Northup is at James H. Burch's slave den, together with other slaves and victims of kidnap, he protests and demands freedom. Freedom is generally a fundamental right for all people from the ancient times, but instead of being set free, he is brutally beaten and threatened when he requests for freedom again, he will be killed. Other black slaves received similar treatment or even worse, for instance, Patsey, who was a slave girl at Epps’ residence. She is subjected to physical torture and was even raped by Epps severally, not to mention when Platt is forced to strip her and whip her.

The slaves are denied even the necessities, including food, and bathing soap by their masters. In the book, all the persons who indulged in the slave trade were naturally brutal and always carried with them canes and whips. For instance, Burch is described as a brutal trader and was well known in Washington, D.C., for that trait. Tibeats is described as the cruel carpenter who buys Northup from Ford, and he is seen trying to whip him, but Northup is stronger than him. In this case, Northup displays his antagonist character and beats up his master. In return, he attempts to murder Platt twice and develops hatred towards him. Tibeats sells Platt to Epps, referred to as 'nigger breaker' and cruel master who never leaves a whip. The characters demonstrated how slavery activities lacked humanity and possessed negative virtues. In exemption, Ford was the only kind and generous master to his slaves and was grounded in Christian faith.

My Point of View

In my view, the author displays the concepts of slavery activities progressively, linking how the philosophy of history describes them. Although the author base his discussion of slavery activities primarily in American states, New York and Washington D.C., slavery can be perceived as an international activity that was executed at the global level. The books fail to display the reality instilled from history that slaves were primarily acquired in Africa and transported to America. However, arguably, the two states used New York and Washington D.C. are symbolic and represent the two continents. From personal understanding, the author uses his experience to seek empathy from readers, which will make them understand the cruelty associated with slavery and reject it in their society. The author displays this concept from the beginning, and at the end, he demonstrates how slavery can be illegalized and be stopped by taking legal actions.

The book consistently encapsulates a sense of emotions and feelings like empathy, which helps to pour knowledge about slavery comprehensively. Further, I would recommend the book to any reader who wants to comprehend the slavery concept and also teachers, lecturers and tutors can use it in history and literature classes. The book can be used by persons of all levels of education following its standard use of language, eliminating any sense of ambiguity.


In conclusion, Northup, in the book which is a subject of slavery for 12 years as the title of the book dictates, expresses his experience from the time he was captured, sold, stayed with various masters, and his escape from captivity to become a free man. The author shows how the masters were brutal and how they treated their slaves. Additionally, the book shows how slavery was unlawful, and the slave traders could be convicted in courtrooms.


Northup, S., Gates, H., & Burke, K. Twelve Years a Slave, by Solomon Northup—A Project Gutenberg eBook. Retrieved 25 June 2020, from

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