12 years a slave by Solomon Northup is an account by the author on his personal story on how he, a free black man from the North, was abducted and sold as a slave in the pre-Civil War South. In the book we see that violence and the risk of violence gave the institution of slavery the power it possessed. It would make sense that a majority of the slaves chose to remain enslaved because they were scared of the violent acts that they would be faced with if they were apprehended in their act of escaping. Significantly, there were frequent controls that the slaves were exposed to, even the ones that did not attempt escaping. This is a discussion of how violence, both as threats and acts was the core of the institution of slavery and how it defined relationships between people.
It is baffling to why slavery, despite its inhuman forms, propagated for such a long time. From the beginning of their journey as slaves, the relationship between slave and owner was filled with fear on both sides. The fact that the slaves were often met with cruelty, is well-documented. Because in most cases a few slave owners supervised a large number of slaves they more often than note became paranoid. They starting becoming more aware of their position of vulnerability, as they would typically be reasonably removed on the plantation with the closest assistance being quite some distance away. This vulnerability often manifested itself not just in
paranoia but also in excessive acts of violence towards any perceived invasions on their authority and power. These overt acts of violence thus became acts of self-preservation and an excuse for the slave owners to issue brutal punishments and executions even for the basest of offences – unjustified rash violence. This mind set went on to be instilled in members of society as Northup notes “it is not the fault of the slaveholder that he is cruel, so much as it is the fault of the system under which he lives. He cannot withstand the influence of habit and associations that surround him”In the absence of the complicity of the slaves, which can be attributed to the great amount of violence doled out against them, it is very probable that the slavery system would not have been existing, or at least it would not have been present in such a long amount of time. Violence was largely applied by slave owners as a means of stamping and keeping their own position. It is ironical that those appearing to hold the most authority completely relied on those who they were tasked with overseeing. The self-preservation that the slave owners that the slave owners sought by doling out extreme violence to their slave was also done for their profit. The slave owners were at the mercy of their slaves as by working the plantations, the slaves afforded their masters their livelihood as they toiled without receiving any financial gain in return except for their basic needs– offering labor at its bare cheapest. If the slave owner did not practice sheer cruelty on them, it is likely they would have been motivated to resist and therefore in so doing cost their owners their livelihood and jeopardize the initial investment that was placed on them during their purchase. Among the methods that could be applied in the resistance by the slaves may comprise treading the line between lethargy and apparent insubordination. Others may have included faked incomprehension, go-slows, feigned incomprehension and foot-dragging which could be applied in cutting the earnings of the masters. The application of violence by the slave masters in the context of slavery thus became a way through which they could physically and mentally subdue the slaves and make it clear to them that they were objects that the masters could use and do with them as they pleased.
The violence was executed through the use of chains and metal collars which were used to physically restrain slaves who proved to be violent. Additionally, some of the slaves had to endure the pain of having their owner’s initials burnt on their skin in an effort to show that they will belong to their owners for the course if their lifetime. Apart from the physical exertions of these brutal undertakings, these acts also took a mental toll on the slave. This was in addition to the public beating, whipping and murder of the slaves of the slaves attempted to escape, misbehave or didn’t happen to do as they were told.
On their part, the slaves also demonstrated violence through their acts of resistance. Their expressions of resistance were perceived to be rebellion against the whole system of slavery. The resistance, especially the violent resistance illustrated that the slaves did not simply accept their situation and instead they were strong and determined as they sought their freedom. Rebellion or uprising was the most bloody and dramatic way the slaves could resist their enslavement. Other acts involved robbing of the masters, destruction of machinery so that it was expensive to replace or that the machinery was completely put out of service.