Summary and Analysis
The brig Orleans and its slave cargo continue down the James River, finally docking in Norfolk, Virginia. There, more slaves are brought on board, including a large black man named Arthur, who, like Northup, has been kidnapped from freedom. The whole company continues downriver, and Northup gives detailed descriptions of life on the ship during the journey. As he befriends Arthur and Robert, the three of them plot to overthrow their captors and escape. Those plans are thwarted, however, when Robert unexpectedly contracts smallpox and dies. A white sailor named John Manning learns of Northup’s plight and is moved to help him. When the ship reaches port at New Orleans, Manning delivers a letter on Solomon’s behalf to the post office. The letter reaches Northup’s friends in New York, but they are unable to determine where he has been taken. As a result, no one comes to Solomon’s rescue at this time.
In New Orleans, Arthur is rescued by white friends who have come to set him free. Solomon and the rest of Burch’s slaves are delivered to a slave trader named Theophilus Freeman. Freeman forcibly changes Northup’s name to “Platt.” In despair, Platt spends an entire night in prayer: “To the Almighty Father of us all—the freeman and the slave—I poured forth supplications of a broken spirit…”
Names carry both literal and symbolic importance in 12 Years a Slave. First, they serve to reinforce Northup’s constant appeal to make his memoir credible. Anyone who wanted to fact-check his story could easily find record of a slave trader named Theophilus Freeman in New Orleans. A survey of legal records would also reveal the paperwork needed to secure the rescue of Arthur by his white friends at the port. Additionally, it’s incredibly ironic that the final slave trader who handled Northup in New Orleans bore the name “Freeman.” That name was a cruel reminder to Solomon of who he had been and what he no longer was: a free man.
Most important, though, was the renaming that Theophilus Freeman forced on Solomon Northup. By assigning Solomon the random, indistinct name “Platt,” Freeman took from the former free man his last trace of identity, his last connection to the life his father had provided to him and to the family he had once enjoyed in his own house. From this day forward during his slavery, he would be known by an arbitrary name. The day Solomon Northup’s name was changed to “Platt” was the day he finally, seemingly irrevocably, became a slave. By Northup’s account of prayerful despair, it was perhaps the darkest day of his life.