Book Reviews Roving Reader

Only 12 Years a Slave?

Image of a pair of glasses on a book

The Roving Reader Files


Have you seen Steve McQueen’s Oscar and BAFTA-winning film 12 Years a Slave? If yes, you’ll know two things: one, it’s based on the true story of abducted free Black American Solomon Northup in the 1840s, and two, it’s not a barrel of laughs.

So to cheer you up, as an addendum to my last post, I’d like to highlight a couple of people featured in The Skull Measurer’s Mistake who made a stand against the kind of abuse Northup was subjected to – Granville Sharp and George Cable.

In thImage of Granville Sharpe 1760s civil servant Granville Sharp discovered to his horror that Black people were being hounded, rounded up and sold into slavery right under his nose on the streets of London. Shocked, he didn’t just wring his hands. He made it his duty to learn the intricacies of the laws of liberty, in order to implement them in the English courts.

By sheer persistence (and opposed every step of the way by powerful slaveholding interests), Granville forced the Lord Chief Justice of England to finally decide that, by coming to England, a slave became free – meaning no Black person in England could legally be sold into slavery.

Granville Sharp didn’t let the fact that he was initially only one man put him off. As the years passed more people joined him, coordinating together and contributing immeasurably to the eventual abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1833.

It took three more decades and a civil war to abolish slavery in the United States, in 1865. But even that didn’t stop White racists, in the defeated southern states, from working hard after abolition to reinforce racist customs and introduce ‘Jim Crow’ laws, which re-established (at the state level) race-based legal, educational and social injustices.

Some saddoes in the White community also continued to string up Black men they believed to be ‘uppity’, often in public lynchings – a fate that Solomon Northup only narrowly escaped.

But don’t think this went unopposed.Image of George Cable

Let’s meet writer George Cable who, during the 1880s, became more and more vocal in his stand against this renewed upsurge of institutionalised discrimination. Son and grandson of slaveholders, George used his talents and reputation to give speeches and publish articles, imploring his fellow-Whites not to allow racists to take power throughout the region. Many secretly supported him, but through fear of intimidation didn’t dare reveal their sympathies.

With racism and imperialism on the rise, George Cable and his family were in danger. They were forced to flee for their own safety, to the historically anti-slavery states in the North.

Steve McQueen’s film should make anyone think. Solomon Northup had been a free man, and was fortunate to suffer only twelve years as a slave. Millions of others before and since never tasted freedom, living and dying in the hellhole he left behind.

From what we know, the rest of Solomon’s life was spent seeking justice and working for slavery’s eradication. Wouldn’t it have horrified him to know that it would take over 100 years for Black people to achieve full civil rights in America? And that even now, 160 years after he published his own life story, the scourge of slavery is still unvanquished around the world?

Step up the Granville Sharps and George Cables of today. We know you’re out there…

If 12 Years a Slave  has whetted your appetite to find out more about the history of slavery in America, the Centre has an excellent collection of books on the subject for you to look at, including volumes of slave narratives that complement the story of Solomon Northup’s unfortunate experiences.


By aiucentre

An open access library specialising in the study of race, ethnicity and migration. Part of the University of Manchester and based at Manchester Central Library.

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