39 lashes was a normal punishment
Last weekend, 12 Years a Slave won three Oscars, including one for Best Film. But are the film’s facts correct? Mare accompanied Damian Pargas, an expert on slavery, to the cinema. “Nowadays, people throw crockery in a marital spat but back then, they took it out on the slaves.”
Esha Metiary
Wednesday 5 March 2014

“I’ve been waiting for months for this”, exclaims historian Damian Pargas. He settles down, Fanta in hand, in the sagging plush of a Trianon seat. “I was in France recently and it was already showing there – so strange we had to wait so long in the Netherlands.”

The lecturer of economic and social history is talking about 12 Years a Slave, a film based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man living in New York who was kidnapped one night and sold as a slave. “His tale is very well known among slavery historians”, explains Pargas. “Everybody has been waiting for this film: it’s an important stimulus for the debate, provoking us to discuss history’s black pages.”

Until the eighties, the slaves’ perspective was relegated to the background, he claims. Historians concentrated on the commercial aspects and plantation documents: white men’s sources. Wanting to know the slaves’ side of the matter, Pargas studied their testimonies. “They were valuable property – their value could be compared to the price you might pay for a fairly decent car these days – and people took good care of that property.”

Nevertheless, in the film, slaves are frequently flogged to within inches of their lives. If the film had been in 3D, our glasses would be splattered with blood. Too much? Pargas shakes his head. “Human failings. Nowadays, people throw crockery in a marital spat but back then, they took it out on the slaves.” Watching the scene of a beating, he says “A fairly normal punishment: 39 lashes across the back. Not life-threatening, but extremely painful.” And when it is obvious that director Steve McQueen is not afraid to show bleeding, open wounds, he adds: “Once they were cleaned up, a slave would be back at work within a week, you know.”

However, the inspection of the goods at an auction house is unrealistic. The slaves, men and women, are stood naked in a hall to be inspected by potential buyers. “That didn’t happen like that. A personal inspection might take place in a back room, at the buyer’s request.”

In the film, Northup ends up on Edwin Epps’s plantation and, as a newcomer, experiences difficulties meeting his cotton quota – with no help at all from the other slaves. “They competed to see who could pick the most,” says the historian, “You were rewarded for picking a lot.”

Epps’ best picker is Patsy, a slave who is also subjected to his sadistic, carnal lust. On average, the men pick two hundred pounds of cotton while Patsy picks five hundred. “Damned Queen. Born and bred to the field. A nigger among niggers”, as Epps proudly describes her. Of course, that doesn’t go down too well with his wife, who thinks nothing of flinging a crystal whisky decanter in her face.

“There was no question of crying all day and begging to die”, explains Pargas when a black plantation mistress appears in the next scene. In reality, marriages between white people and black people were prohibited, but that didn’t stop the men from taking black women as lovers. This could present a solution, a means to social climbing. “It was simply a means of survival; it didn’t happen much, but it did certainly happen.” And although the book hardly mentions the black mistress, he thinks she is well portrayed.

As the plantation is continually plagued by caterpillars, Northup is hired out to a sugar plantation. On the screen, it seems like a welcome holiday away from the hardships of the cotton plantation, but cutting sugar cane was much tougher than picking cotton. “Sugar plantations usually required a large work force and the planters couldn’t afford to buy every labourer. Town slaves who were transferred to the country would be very pissed off; they looked down on field labour and were used to more freedom of movement.”

Northup eventually escapes from his life of slavery with the aid of Brad Pitt as the gallant abolitionist Canadian, Samuel Bass, who arrives on the plantation to work as a joiner. The superstar does not get much screen time: his moment of glory is over in ten minutes. He is not the first white man to work for Epps; another white labourer on the plantation can be seen earlier in the film. But isn’t it strange that a plantation, manned by slaves, still needs additional labourers from elsewhere? “Bass travelled around, always looking for work. White people sometimes worked on plantations. The slave owners preferred to hire labourers rather than wear out their property doing hard labour.”

“Such a pity!” Pargas sighs at the end. He is referring to the scene in which Northup is transported from the gaol to the harbour by wagon. In his narration, the kidnapped New Yorker recalls how he was forced to march past the Capitol, chained to a group of others, to be sold as a slave in New Orleans. “Among historians, it is a much used quote to mark the irony of slavery in the capital: America has declared to the whole world that it is committed to liberty and equality and he walks past the symbol of freedom and democracy in shackles.”

By now, the credits are rolling across the screen, relating in capital letters how Northup fared after his release. “His kidnappers were eventually arrested in Florida but tried in Washington because that was where Northup was kidnapped”, explains Pargas amid the racket caused by people leaving the cinema. “But Washington was still a slave district where black men were not entitled to speak. Without witnesses, he could not – was not allowed to – defend himself and the suspects got off scot-free.”

So, Hollywood much? Pargas laughs and shakes his head: “The characters and events follow the book closely; in fact, some parts are lifted from the book word for word. I was expecting a bit of Hollywood exaggeration, but I was pleasantly surprised.”

The worst thing that could happen to a human

Director Steve McQueen thinks that the Holocaust is comparable to slavery. When the director, who lives in Amsterdam, first read the story of Solomon Northup, he immediately saw similarities to Anne Franks’

Diary – only 97 years earlier. He wants to embrace the history of slavery with his film 12 Years a Slave, he said

ecently in a dutch interview in NRC Handelsblad. “I can’t see why it is still even questioned: more than eleven million people were taken from Africa and ended up in slavery. It’s the worst that can happen to a human, to be a slave. I can’t think of anything worse.”