Summary and Analysis
On Epps’ plantation, Platt is made a “driver” in the fields. Drivers are black slaves who assist the white overseer and “are compelled to do the whipping of their several gangs.” Platt performs this duty reluctantly but “dared not show any lenity” to his fellow slaves when Epps is present. If Epps is absent, though, or at a distance, Platt tries to soften the blows of the whip to spare the slaves as best he can. Platt also tries to help Patsey avoid torment by Epps or his wife. On one occasion, this angers an intoxicated Epps to the point that he tries to kill Platt with a knife. Platt is too fast and is able to avoid the knife thrusts of the drunken man. It becomes almost a deadly game—Epps chasing, Platt dodging—until Mistress Epps finally intervenes to rescue Platt from her husband.
Epps hires a poor white man named Armsby to work in the fields with the slaves. Platt risks asking Armsby to mail a letter for him, and Armsby agrees to in return for payment. Armsby then betrays Platt’s plan to Epps. Epps is suspicious of Platt, but in the end the slave is able to convince his master that Armsby is a liar. After that, Platt is fearful he will be caught and punished by his master for any attempts to escape, or wors, that he will never be rescued at all.
Here in Chapter XVI, Northup finally addresses in honest detail his moral complicity in the whipping of slaves. He begins by describing the white “overseer” in contrast to the black “driver” on Epps’ plantation. The qualifications to be an overseer are “utter heartlessness, brutality and cruelty.” Drivers are assigned to assist the overseer in keeping slaves working at peak performance. To do this, drivers “are compelled to do the whipping of their several gangs.” For eight years of his enslavement to Edwin Epps, Platt was the driver who did this. Northup describes his obvious reluctance at being the hand behind this cruelty and finally admits it as a moral weakness that slavery has exposed in him: “I dared not show any lenity, not having the Christian fortitude of a certain well-known Uncle Tom sufficiently to brave his wrath, by refusing to perform the office.” However, he is adamant about telling the ways in which he tried to secretly limit the suffering he must inflict.
His moral failing is contrasted and magnified in the persons of Epps and Armsby. Epps has grown so corrupt by the brutality of slavery that even the thought of murdering Platt becomes simply a game for him. He chases Platt around and around, trying to kill him simply for the sport of it. Armsby has felt the lowness and poverty of having to work alongside the black slave just to keep himself fed, but despite that sympathetic experience, he thinks nothing of taking Platt’s money and then betraying Platt to his master. In this chapter, Northup acknowledges his own corruption in the slave economy, and yet it’s the entire institution of slavery that is tried and found morally wanting.