This month’s long-awaited premiere of Steve McQueen’s film 12 Years a Slave, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbinder and Benedict Cumberbatch, has spurred us on to look for sources for this topic in the library. Not surprisingly, we found a vast selection.
First and foremost we actually have the book the film is based on, the full title of which is Twelve Years a Slave – Narrative of a Citizen of New York, Solomon Northup, kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, rescued in 1853 from a Cotton Plantation near the Red river in Louisiana. A nice little Penguin Classic, it is a fascinating account of slave life first published in 1853 ‘by someone with the dual perspective of having been both a free man and a slave’.
Browsing the neighbouring shelves there are several other examples of printed accounts of slavery. Three stood out right away by their titles:
Rambles of a Runaway from Southern Slavery by Henry Goings;
From Slavery to Salvation by Rev. Thomas W. Henry; and
Dear Master: Letters of a Slave Family by the Skipwith family
The first one, found and published by University of Virginia Library Special Collections, is similar to Northup’s account: a slave narrative of a man born in the same decade as him and written just 2 years later in 1855. But Henry Goings was born into slavery in Virginia and was not rescued but fled. Part of his narrative relates his journey and escape to Canada in 1840s.
Henry W. Henry’s autobiography, first published five years before his death in 1872, is the life story of a Minister of the African Methodist Church in Maryland. Also born into slavery, he was freed when he was 22 years old. The memoirs portray his dramatic life as a free African American and a Minister of an African church in a slave state, including a description of his difficulties in buying his wife and children from their owner.
The third offers a different angle, as some the events described take place in Africa, and in addition we are dealing with a group of people rather than an individual. It is a selection of letters written between 1834 and 1865 by the Skipwiths, a black American slave family. The majority of the correspondence consists of writings from Liberia where part of the family settled after being freed by their owner John H. Cocke, a Virginia planter. The letters are addressed to him and other members of the Cocke family so depicting the relationship between a master and his former slaves.
This is just a small selection from our US collection, and there is definitely material here for several other film scripts. Enjoy the film, which premieres on January 10.
You can consult the books here at the IHR, and view all the titles on our catalogue.
Also, watch this space, as my colleague Michael is currently researching a post on ‘The Slave Trade and its Abolition’.
Our trainee last year found original documents about slavery in the British West Indies in our Colonial collections British West Indies slavery problem:
Research is also taking place upstairs in Senate House library on the same topic: