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Guest Post by Calvin Schermerhorn

It’s useful to view the ordeals of Solomon Northup in light of modern human trafficking. At first blush, the nineteenth-century odyssey of an African American New Yorker kidnapped and sold into chattel slavery under an assumed name is an artifact of a history that has long passed. Twenty-fifteen is the 150th anniversary of the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery save for conviction of a crime. But Northup’s ordeal bears striking resemblance to current practices. The 2013 film 12 Years A Slave, based on Northup’s autobiography, Twelve Years a Slave (1853) begins with Northup’s ordeal as he traveled from his home in Saratoga Springs, New York, to the Piney Woods of Louisiana’s Red River region in 1841.

In 1841, Northup was the thirty-three year old husband of Anne Hampton Northup and father of three children, Margaret, Elizabeth, and Alonzo. Northup was born free in New York, and his family was part of the state’s braided history of people of European and African descent. His skin color was described as "yellow," and he stood five feet seven inches.


Despite some rough edges, Solomon Northup had a talent for the violin and an eye for opportunity. Two strangers calling themselves Merrill Brown and Abram Hamilton met him in Saratoga Springs. They were aliases for Alexander Merrill and Joseph Russell. They told him they were forming a traveling circus and wanted a violin player. Merrill and Russell said they wanted to take their show as far as New York City and pay his return. But the pair was perpetrating an elaborate con. They were hunting for a victim they could sell to traffickers in the upper South—in Washington, D.C.

Locals warned Northup not to leave town with them. But the pay was good. It was low season. Work was scarce. Northup wanted to see New York City and eventually traveled with Merrill and Russell to Washington, D.C. They treated him well, and in the Nation’s Capital, gave him $43, a sum much larger than promised. Washington D.C. was the national headquarters but also the headwaters of the domestic slave trade.

During the festivities surrounding the funeral of President William Henry Harrison, Merrill and Russell took Northup out for drinks. Someone slipped a draught into his glass. After returning to his lodgings he suffered severe aches and thirst, slipping in and out of consciousness. Merrill and Russell dragged him across the National Mall and into the bowels of a slave trader’s compound. James H. Birch paid them $650.

In a private Washington City jail, Northup awoke from a drug-induced delirium to a nightmare. He was in a "dungeon." Birch and one of his agents, Ebenezer Radburn, greeted him as their slave. After Northup protested that he was a free man from New York, Birch and Radburn humiliated and tortured their captive, stripping his clothes off, shackling him to a floor, flogging him with whip and beating his naked body with a wooden paddle until the hated instrument broke. Violence, incarceration, and geographic isolation turned him from a free citizen into incarnate capital. In a Southwest Washington, D.C. jail, the captors lashed and humiliated Northup until he stopped insisting that he was free.

Those who captured Northup used the classic procedures of human trafficking. They enforced dependence with violence, gave the subject no alternative, and manipulated him into acting the role they crafted for him. They enforced complicity. Northup of course resisted, refused, and would not permit himself to be a slave. But even for those who were born into legal slavery, the slave trade was the moral equivalent of kidnapping.

In about two weeks, Northup joined a small assemblage of men, women, and children, bound away from Washington, D.C. under cover of darkness, put on a riverboat, then packed aboard railroad cars, and delivered to Richmond. The capital city was becoming Virginia’s largest slave market.

Kidnapping had long been part of North American slavery, but agents of Freeman’s firm did not hesitate to traffic in freeborn African-descended Americans they could pound into chattels. It was a way to cut purchasing costs. And Northup and the other captives set about "learning the history of each other’s wretchedness." He was handcuffed to a kidnapping victim from Ohio named Robert, a "large yellow man, quite stout and fleshy, with a countenance expressive of the utmost melancholy." In a ship’s slave manifest, he was identified as Robert Jones, perhaps an alias.

The man had been kidnapped and trafficked in a strikingly similar way to Northup. Jones left two children and a wife in Cincinnati with the promise of employment in Virginia. Jones’s family back in Ohio was left with the dread of not knowing to where he had disappeared. Northup recalled that he was "placed in confinement," in Fredericksburg, "and beaten until he had learned, as I had, the necessity and the policy of silence." Identifying the process as company policy was astute. Jones has been confined three weeks already. The two "became much attached." "We could sympathize with, and understand each other," Northup recalled.

Like traffickers of today, the firm composed of James Birch and his New Orleans partner Theophilus Freeman—along with allied traders—were accustomed to using violence to manage business risk. Birch beat Northup into submission at the commencement of his odyssey, and Freeman would threaten the same at the point of sale. In between, captives seized opportunities to plot and plan, talk and offer mutual support.

Three weeks after being kidnapped Northup and some forty others were embarked on a sea passage to Louisiana. The brigantine Orleans was loading for New Orleans. "She was a vessel of respectable size," Northup recalled, "full rigged, and freighted principally with tobacco." The Orleans had two masts and was a medium-sized vessel, having about as much cargo space as two semi-permanent trailers in a later age of American commercial trucking. The Baltimore-built ship had been sailing for nearly three years and was a regular slaver.

There was a hard commercial logic to the shipping company that owned the Orleans. Human trafficking was lucrative. Selling passage to slave traders was good business. Hauling captives was woven into the fabric of coastal maritime commerce from Chesapeake ports. Freeman paid over $2,300 in shipping expenses on an 1839 passage in which the Orleans carried 135 involuntary passengers. If typical the Orleans‘s owners Richard O. Haskins and Luther Libby charged Freeman twenty dollars per captive for adults and ten dollars for children. In New Orleans, Freeman gave a gratuity to the shipmaster for their safe arrival. He also paid the bill for barrels of drinking water and meal to feed the captives. The Orleans was nearly indistinguishable from the other oceangoing vessels that frequented the port.

And like today’s traffickers, who buy airline tickets or rent space in shipping containers, Birch and Freeman bought space aboard merchant vessels and railroad cars. Doing so integrated the slave trade into a range of businesses. The culture of human trafficking was one in which non-slave-traders acted in concert with traffickers. Northup’s captors, customs officials, and members of the shipping company were authors of a commercial transcript in which captives were simply slaves.

Trafficked victims were squeezed into regular categories of commerce. Their names often changed or erased. Northup was listed as "Plat Hamilton" on the Orleans‘s slave manifest. He would not hear the name Plat until reaching New Orleans. The other kidnapping victim, Robert, was not listed on the manifest in Richmond.

To the captives locked below deck as the Orleans sailed down the James River, the ship was a place of confinement rather than a node on a commercial network or a floating firm. The temperate behavior of the captain and crew disarmed Northup. Shipmaster William Wickham used guile to enforce discipline, even though the prerogative to flog insubordinates supported his shipboard authority. The ship had a crew of six, besides a cook, a mate, and Wickham. Without tight security, nearly fifty captives could overwhelm that force. Instead of segregation and physical abuse, the master and mate elevated some captives above others, putting them to work while granting small privileges. If done right they could get captives to guard or police other captives.

Yet Captain Wickham was willing to participate in slaving and kidnapping in the regular course of business. The commonality between the transatlantic slave trade and modern human trafficking is that captives were forced migrants. They were initially shackled. And they were locked down at night in the holds of ships.

After sailing down the James River, Wickham anchored the Orleans in Hampton Roads off Norfolk. And several more captives were put aboard, including at least one more beaten and confused kidnap victim, Arthur Curtis. At every stop Northup’s coffle picked up another trafficked American robbed of legal freedom, a reflection of the terror that ramified through nearly all African-descended neighborhoods and families.

At sea, monotony was punctuated by terror and violence. Food and eating were regimented, meals commencing at ten in the morning and five in the evening. During the day, they were permitted on deck and at night "we were driven into the hold, and securely fastened down." Most had never been to sea and reacted accordingly. During a "violent storm," the ship "rolled and plunged," Northup recalled. Some became ill, and "others [were] on their knees praying, while some were fast holding to each other, paralyzed with fear." Vomit made the hold "loathsome and disgusting," and viewing the circumstances that would befall him and his fellow captives, Northup mused that it might have "saved the agony of many hundred lashes, and miserable deaths at last" had the vessel simply sank. Wickham’s management strategy began to unravel when calm weather slowed the passage.

Off the Bahamas, the Orleans stalled and a plot developed. Kidnap victims Northup, Robert Jones, and Arthur Curtis talked of overthrowing the ship and sailing north. None knew how to sail, but they planned to head to New York City, a thousand miles to the north, rather than the Bahamas, which were practically in sight. But the planners lost their nerve when Jones fell ill with smallpox and died four days later. All were "panic-stricken by the appearance of the small-pox." A crew member sewed Jones’s lifeless body into his blanket along with a ballast stone. After a perfunctory prayer it disappeared into the blue Caribbean, far from loved ones in Cincinnati.

The plot died along with Robert Jones, but Northup befriended an English sailor who wrote a letter home informing family what became of him. The letter led to an abortive attempt to rescue Northup. Again, traffickers’ tactics undermined an attempted rescue. Since Northup’s captors had smuggled him under an alias there was little hope of locating him. The ship sailed upriver to New Orleans, and after arriving authorities freed Arthur Curtis. Word had reached the city that he was kidnapped.

Northup’s troubles were just beginning. Slave trader Theophilus Freeman appeared on the Orleans and seized Birch’s "gang," including Northup—designated Plat Hamilton. Freeman disembarked him at the levee. Northup would be sold, beaten, tortured, and humiliated over the next twelve years. Miraculously, Northup returned home to a family who scarcely recognized him.

Twelve Years a Slave recounts an anguished story that fits inside our understanding of nineteenth-century African American history and the long bitter legacy of race-based chattel slavery. But consider another story from another time.


Two sixteen-year-old boys arrived in Bangkok from their native Buriram Province to the northeast of Thailand’s largest city. Alexis A. Aronowitz tells their story. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, Bangkok was a vast metropolis and hub of learning, commerce, and the capital city. Thailand is a democratic nation, governed by a constitutional monarchy. Yet before a day passed enslavers sized the boys up as likely captives and drugged them. Like Northup, captors took the unconscious bodies of the two and put them on a fishing boat. When the boys awoke to the nightmare ordeal, they—like Northup—met two other kidnapped subjects. The master of the vessel was complicit in the kidnappings. If he didn’t know the circumstances, he knew the process. And he forced the children to work day and night doing the numerous dangerous tasks that were part of commercial fishing.

The sea voyage into slavery was arduous. The captives were worked until they could not stand up, only then allowed to sleep. They ate two meals a day. Drinking water was often boiled seawater. Discipline was enforced with stories of other captives being discarded, their bodies dumped overboard — a fate not unlike Northup’s fellow kidnap victim Robert. Shipmasters bound captives’ feet with rope. They were not paid for the fish and shrimp they hauled in. Instead of going ashore, fishing vessels kept security tight by transshipping catches to allied boats, delivering fresh fish to processors while relentlessly trolling fisheries.

After eight months in slavery plying the fisheries the Gulf of Thailand, Andaman Sea, and beyond, the shipmaster freed the two captives. He gave them 3,000 baht (or less than $100) and freed them at a railroad station in Nakornsritamrat, far to the south of where they had been embarked on his ship. Along the way the shipmaster told the boys that their captors had already been paid, indicating that they had been working off his debt owed to slave traders.

Just as those who mixed the sugar Solomon Northup made into their coffee or bought the cloth woven from cotton he made, those who consumed slave-produced Thai seafood were not aware their shrimp or tuna was hauled aboard the ship and processed initially by bound laborers. And just as Solomon Northup was bound away in a Red River region undergoing tremendous ecological change, the fisheries trolled by enslaved laborers are environmental disaster areas. Labor conditions and ecology complement each other: shipmasters drive slave fishing crews to hunt for fish that are declining in numbers and size, casting their nets farther and farther from the depleted zones collapsing from overfishing. Harder work catching fewer fish brings diminishing returns and consequent reliance on bound laborers gotten cheaply through kidnapping and not collecting wages. Both human and sea life become cheapened in the pursuit of returns in a country that is the world’s third largest seafood exporter.

What became of the boys is unclear, but Northup turned his enslavement into an anti-trafficking campaign, publishing his autobiography and speaking against slavery thereafter. Northup’s son Alonzo was just five when his father was abducted. Alonzo would eventually wear a United States uniform during the Civil War and participate in the 1864 Battle of Bloody Bridge in South Carolina. His legacy lives today in the Solomon Northup Foundation, founded by descendants, and in his powerful witness to slavery and injustice. Like appeals to forego sugar or cotton grown by slave labor, today’s abolitionists ask citizens as consumers to consider the conditions under which their food, clothing, or electronics were produced. It is possible that the first human hand to touch the shrimp at your party or tuna in your lunch belonged to a slave.

Calvin Schermerhorn is Assistant Professor of History at Arizona State University and the author, most recently, of The Business of Slavery and the Rise of American Capitalism, 1815-1860, published by Yale University Press in 2015.

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