Solomon, a black American, is married and has three children. In March 1841, he is wandering in Saratoga Springs village, looking for a job. Two strangers propose to engage him as violinist temporarily in a Washington-based circus. Expenses will be paid. Bowled over, Solomon leaves in a carriage without informing his family. A moment comes when he is intoxicated in a room. On waking up, he discovers he is chained and handcuffed. One end of a chain is fastened to a large ring in the floor. His money and papers have disappeared. He is perplexed: how can a free man who has wronged no one and has violated no law be treated so inhumanly?
Two men arrive. Solomon is told that henceforth he is a slave. He protests loudly. One of the men calls him “a black liar”; this is followed by “every other profane and vulgar epithet” (p 18). He has no right to call himself free. He has already been bought, therefore he is under bondage. Solomon refuses to accept this. He is beaten with a paddle and a cat-o’-ninetails (a rope with knots at the extremities). The man “plied the lash without stint upon my poor body” (p 19), Solomon recalls. He has not forgotten how “the lacerated flesh was stripped from my bones at every stroke” (p 19). He thinks even a dog is not beaten this way. His body is blistered. The floor is damp, hard; there is no pillow, no covering. However, he has learnt something: how low certain men can stoop in their wickedness in order to make money.
We are enlightened about the slave trade. Slaves are thoroughly bathed, shaved, and tidily dressed. Arranged height-wise, customers feel their hands, arms and bodies and check their teeth “precisely as a jockey examines a horse” (p 42). For minute inspection, the slave is taken to a small house. Any scar is deemed as an evidence of rebellion. And this may hurt the sale.
Eliza has two children, Randall and Emily, seven years old. A buyer wants the boy. The mother pleads that she cannot live without him. She begs that the whole family be sold together. She screams and beseeches the buyer but the latter departs with the boy. The separation from the daughter will equally be nerve-shattering. One buyer is willing to buy the mother and the girl but the owner refuses. “There are heaps and piles of money to be made of her when she is a few years older,” he says (p 46). The mother holds on to the child but the owner tears the latter from her forcefully. Later, Solomon will meet Eliza who has “sunk beneath the weight of an excessive grief” (p 59). She will die broken-hearted.
The destructive nature of slavery
The treatment of men and women was practically the same. We see women slaves chopping wood, piling logs, ploughing, driving teams, clearing wild lands, working on the highway or in cotton or cane plantations. In Ford’s plantation, Eliza, aggrieved by her children’s loss, is in coarse garments. Sorrow and despair have gnawed at her heart. She has been bartered. He last owner used to lash her mercilessly. She lives in a dilapidated cabin and depends on friends for food and water. The master has left her unprovided for and unprotected to linger through a life of pain and wretchedness.
Solomon works hard for his master Tibeats. “I was not allowed to be a moment idle,” he confesses (p 59). He goes to bed “loaded with abuse and stinging epithets” (p 59). The master exerts total control. Solomon reveals, “He was my master, entitled by law to my flesh and blood, and to exercise over me such tyrannical control as his mean nature prompted.” (p 60) Tibeats is cruel beyond words. Had he stabbed Solomon before a hundred slaves, not one of them, by the laws of Louisiana, would have dared to give evidence against him.
The slave is deprived of his identity. Solomon becomes Platt when he is put up for sale. He is Tibeats’ “boy”, a term applied indiscriminately to slaves “even though they may have passed the number of three score years and ten (p 88). Shrewd means are often used to diminish the slave in his own eyes. What is a man without an identity? Depriving a man of his identity is a psychological game to put across the message that the slave is just a nobody. He belongs to nowhere. He belongs to none – except his master. The slave caught off his master’s plantation without a pass can be seized and whipped by any white man. A loafer can stop him and question him, for “catching runaways is sometimes a money-making business” (p 91). The matter can be advertised; if no owner appears, the slave can be sold to the highest bidder. The loafer can thus get some money. The slave does all kinds of jobs: sowing oats, planting corn or cane or cotton, farming, building houses. The one who failed to pick enough cotton is “stripped, made to lie upon the ground, face downwards” and punished.
Patrollers seize and whip any slave found loitering from the plantation. They ride on horseback, accompanied by dogs. They can shoot a slave not detaining a pass. They would fasten a rope around the slave’s neck and lead him back to the owner. One pitiless owner is Edwin Epps. On his farm, throughout the cotton-picking season, “the shrieking of the slaves can be heard from dark till bedtime” (p 104). Serious offences could go up to 100 lashes; quarrelling with cabin mates could entail 150-200 lashes; running away meant 500 lashes. A runaway could be bitten and torn apart by angry dogs.
A dark period
Solomon works under Judge Tanner in a cane plantation. Here, “I had no regular periods of rest and could never snatch but a few moments of sleep at a time” (p 122). Cotton will not bloom if the branches of the stalks are broken off. Careless workers are inflicted “the severest chastisement” (p 97). Slaves slept on planks, the pillow being a stick of wood. Oversleeping meant not less than 20 lashes. Edwin Epps is a master “utterly destitute of any natural sense of justice” (p 174). Patsey, a woman slave, is stripped, laid upon her face, wrists and feet firmly tied to a stake. Solomon is ordered to beat her. He does so thirty times. “Strike harder!” says the master. Solomon obeys but is guilt-ridden to notice that “her back was covered with long welts intersecting each other like net work” (p 163). Her mistake is to have gone to a certain Shaw to ask for a piece of soap. Solomon refuses to go on. Epps flogs her himself till the lash is wet with blood. The experience will leave her mournful and uncommunicative for a long time. He even stabs old Abram over a trifling blunder.
48-year-old Wiley goes to the neighbouring cabin without a pass and, caught by the patrollers, he is whipped, left to the dogs and brought back. The master flogs him even more severely. His sufferings are intolerable. He runs away and imprisoned. An uncle of his Mistress gives him a pass and sends him back to the farm, requesting Epps not to punish him. But Wiley will “endure one of those inhuman floggings” (p 152). Augustus, the driver, escapes but the teeth of the dogs will “penetrate to the bone in an hundred places” (p 155). He will not survive. Celeste, a girl, is “scourged” (whipped) (p 157) for attempting an escape: her neck is fastened in the stocks.
The miseries the slaves have been through constitute a dark period in the history of mankind. They are, the author says, “no fiction, no exaggeration” (p 205).