Summary and Analysis
Eliza spends her first night in Burch’s slave pen mourning her situation and the deception that delivered her children into this place. The next midnight, in the cover of darkness, Burch and Radburn move Solomon, Eliza, and the other slaves to a steamboat moored on the Potomac River. In the morning, they sail downriver, eventually transferring to stagecoaches and then to railcars until they reach Richmond, Virginia. Here the slaves are transferred to the pen of Mr. Goodin. When Solomon lets slip that he is from New York, Burch again threatens to kill him.
In Goodin’s slave pen, Northup meets other black captives, including a free man named Robert, who, like Solomon, has been kidnapped and sold into slavery. In the morning, all the slaves—except Clemens Ray—are marched through Richmond and forced to board the brig Orleans and continue sailing farther downriver. Burch takes Clemens Ray and returns with him to Washington, D.C. Northup comments with satisfaction that he later discovers that Ray escaped slavery and found freedom in Canada.
Eliza holds a significant place in Northup’s narrative, often symbolizing the plight of the female slave in the antebellum (pre-Civil War) South. Her story also serves as a negative commentary on the role and status of women in that society. Northup’s pre-feminist sympathies can be seen throughout his book, and Eliza’s tragic life is Northup’s first example in that regard.
As a female slave in Elisha Berry’s house, Eliza had little recourse when her master forced her to be his lover. She eventually bore her master a daughter, Emily, whose destiny would be to grow to womanhood vulnerable to the same kinds of feminine exploitation her mother faced at the hands of her master. Fortunately, though, Mr. Berry treated Eliza with kindness and elevated her status among the slaves.
However, instead of sympathizing with the black woman’s plight, Berry’s white daughter, Mrs. Brooks, despised Eliza and Emily because of her father’s affection for them. Yet, like Eliza, Mrs. Brooks was helpless to oppose her father’s will and actions. To exact revenge against Eliza, she needed the help and consent of a man. Thus, when Mr. Berry passed away, Mrs. Brooks conspired with her husband to thwart her dead father’s promise of freedom for Eliza. Jacob Brooks, in turn, promised Eliza a trip to get her free papers and instead handed her over to the cruel machinations of James H. Burch. Helpless to do anything but submit again to a man’s evil desires, Eliza was left only to mourn the loss of her freedom, her family, and her children’s future.
Through Eliza’s eyes, Northup demonstrates that while it was awful for him to be held captive, it was even worse for a black woman to be a white man’s slave.