The film, Twelve Years a Slave, directed by the artist and Turner prize winner Steve McQueen and starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, is a powerful portrayal of the kidnap and enslavement of the educated and successful black musician Solomon Northup in 1841. Abducted, and and torn from his family and comfortable life in New York State, he was stripped of his freedom, dignity and identity and found himself in appalling conditions as the property of his new slave owners on the Southern plantations. The privations, humiliation and brutal treatment inflicted upon the slaves, often accompanied by exhortations from the Bible which the owners used to justify their actions, are unflinchingly portrayed in this film. What makes it so remarkable is that it is based on Solomon’s own account of his captivity and treatment, published after he was able to obtain his freedom through the intervention of a sympathetic white worker on one of the estates who contacted friends of Solomon’s in the north.The book was published in 1853, just eight years before the Civil War broke out, and it must have played an important part in raising public awareness of the brutal regime that existed in the Southern States.The fact that the book was a memoir by an educated black man meant that the truth of his account carried even more weight. No white man would have experienced all that Solomon was subjected to, or shared the suffering of his fellow slaves in the same way.
It is poignant to note that after the success of the book Solomon disappears from history and the date and circumstances of his death are unknown. He did become an active anti- slavery campaigner and is known to have assisted runaway slaves who attempted to gain freedom by crossing to Canada. They made their way across the U.S. assisted by ‘The Underground Railroad’, a network of sympathisers who provided food, safe houses and transport to help the fugitives. This was often at great risk to themselves and their families, as it was against the law to assist the slaves who were still seen as the owners’ property and relentlessly pursued.
A different perspective on this subject is taken by Tracy Chevalier in her book ‘The Last Runaway’ [published by Harper Collins in 2013].The protagonist is a young Quaker girl called Honor who travels from Dorset to America with her sister, who is engaged to a member of the Quaker community in Ohio. When her sister dies of fever, Honor is determined to stay and make a new life for herself. The area where she settles plays a key role in the ‘Underground railroad’, being so close to the lakes and the Canadian border. Opposed to slavery, Honor assists the runaways and finds herself in conflict with other members of the community. The conflict of principles on the question of slavery divided the nation and ultimately led to the Civil War.
Life was harsh for the newcomers, such as Honor. Living conditions were often primitive, while the landscape and climate presented great difficulties for the farming pioneers. Chevalier creates a convincing setting in which her main character comes of age and tackles the emotional and moral challenges that she has to confront.