How Solomon Northup was kidnapped and sold into slavery

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The film 12 Years a Slave, which tells the story of Solomon Northup, has gripped audiences around the globe. To coincide with the release of the movie on Blu-ray and DVD, author and historian David Fiske blogs about the man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery.

“Stolen Freedom: American Slave System Enabled Kidnapping” By David Fiske, Co-author of Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave.

In 1808, the United States passed legislation that banned the legal importation of slaves into the country. This was a very good thing, and was a major step toward ending the international slave trade, but it had a very ugly side effect. The ban pushed up the value of slaves who were already in the U.S.A. Plantations were being developed in the southern states and slave labour was very much in demand. With buyers willing to pay high prices, an underground market developed and thrived, and unprincipled individuals realized that they could earn healthy sums by kidnapping free blacks and selling them to slave traders.

One victim–now widely known due to the award-winning film 12 Years a Slave–was Solomon Northup. Northup had been born free in New York State. As an adult, he earned a living in several ways: doing construction work, felling timber, rafting, farming, and playing the fiddle. In 1841, while living in Saratoga Springs, New York, he was approached by two men who offered him a chance to make some money by performing music for a traveling circus. He went away with the men, expecting to be home before long and with a pocketful of money. Instead, he was sold to a slave trader in the city of Washington, D.C., and shipped to Louisiana and sold again at the very active slave market in New Orleans.

For about the next twelve years, Northup lived the life of a slave. He toiled from dawn to dark, survived with spartan rations and living quarters, and endured the numerous insults and beatings that befell most slaves. He belonged to three different masters: one was relatively decent, but the other two were quite cruel.  Though he knew he had a home and family back in Saratoga, making contact with anyone there was next to impossible, due to the constant control exerted over slaves.

Finally, about eleven years into his period of enslavement, he encountered a carpenter, a man who was originally from Canada, whom he thought might be able and willing to help him. Northup had overheard conversations in which this man, whose name was Samuel Bass, made clear his opposition to slavery. Northup decided to trust Bass, and told him the story of how he had been kidnapped so many years before, and how he longed to return to his family. Bass agreed to assist Northup.

Meeting furtively, the two men decided that Northup would supply Bass with the names of people back in New York State that would still remember him, and that Bass would write letters to them explaining Northup's unfortunate circumstances. The letters were written and posted but months went by without any reply. Bass and Northup began to think about alternative plans, and Bass decided that he would take an even bigger step toward freeing Northup, and planned to make the long trip to Saratoga himself to  personally locate someone there who would help. But his trip became unnecessary, because one day a rescuer suddenly appeared, just after New Years’ Day in 1853.

Attorney Henry B. Northup, who had known Solomon Northup since both were boys, had been given one of the letters Bass wrote, and traveled to Louisiana under the provisions of a law in New York that allowed the Governor to appoint agents to go to other states to locate and bring back enslaved citizens. Henry B. Northup arrived in Louisiana with an armload of documents proving Solomon's status as a free person, and the evidence was so compelling that the man who'd been a slave for twelve years was quickly freed. Solomon Northup, one of numerous victims of kidnapping, thus became one of the relatively few who regained their liberty.

Within a  few months, he completed a book about his ordeal titled Twelve Years a Slave, which is the basis for the film. He also spread the word about how slaves were treated by giving lectures, and even helping to put on plays that related his experiences. Sadly, despite great public awareness of Northup’s story of kidnapping, that evil practice continued. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made it extremely difficult for any free person who was falsely accused of being a  runaway slave to prove otherwise, and kidnappers knew that their victims would have almost no chance to legally make their claim of being free. In the late 1850s, American newspapers reported on numerous people being kidnapped and sold into slavery–just as Northup had been back in 1841.

12 Years a Slave is available on Blu-ray and DVD on May 12. The DVD is available to buy in our shop at Merseyside Maritime Museum.

Lead image:  Author and historian David Fiske