12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave Chapter 5 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The ship stops on the way to New Orleans, picking up four more slaves. Among them is a slave named Arthur. Like Solomon and Robert, Arthur is a free man with a family and was kidnapped and sold into slavery. When the ship departs again for New Orleans, the captain appoints Robert as his waiter and Solomon as the overseer of the cooking department. Solomon is also made to distribute food and water twice a day. At night, the slaves are “driven into the hold and securely fastened down.”
Arthur’s story of being kidnapped echoes that of Robert and Solomon, pushing the reader to recognize the widespread distortion of justice that permeates the nation. The slaves are once again compared to livestock, as they are “driven into the hold and securely fastened down” like horses or cattle being kept in the barn for the night.
Themes
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Truth and Justice Theme Icon
A violent storm descends upon the ship, and many of the slaves wish that the “compassionate sea” would drown them, saving them from “the clutches of remorseless men.”  Solomon tells his reader not to judge him for any of his actions that follow in the narrative, writing: “Let not those who have never been placed in like circumstances, judge me harshly.”
Solomon describes the potentially deadly sea as “compassionate” and the slave dealers and owners as “remorseless men,” showing how the slaves wish to drown in the storm, believing that death is preferable to slavery.
Themes
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One day, Arthur and Solomon talk at length about their families and their preference for death over slavery. They decide to formulate a plan for escape and let Robert in on their plans, not trusting anyone else. The plan is to conceal themselves under a small boat on the deck while all the other slaves are being sent down to the hold for the night. That night, Solomon tests out the plan on his own, and it works perfectly.
The men’s plan is somewhat hazy. Although they plan to hide under a small boat on deck, it’s unclear as it if they plan to use that boat to escape or if they plan to then launch an attack on the crew and gain control of the large ship. The men’s plan shows their desperation for freedom and their willingness to put themselves in grave danger to escape slavery.
Themes
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Truth and Justice Theme Icon
Solomon, Arthur, and Robert are never able to put their plan into action, as Robert catches smallpox and quickly dies. One day, when Solomon is looking particularly downcast, filled with grief over Robert’s death, a kindly sailor named John Manning asks him what is wrong. Solomon senses from the man’s tone that he is genuinely kind and trustworthy, so Solomon confides in him that he was free and kidnapped into slavery. Solomon requests that Manning steal a pen, ink, and paper so that Solomon can write to his friends or family.
Smallpox is a severely contagious disease that often appeared in large outbreaks (the disease was eradicated in the United States in 1972). Since slaves were given little access to doctors and medicine, the disease was often fatal. During his twelve-year enslavement, Solomon nearly dies from smallpox on two separate occasions.
Themes
Racism and Slavery Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
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The following night, Solomon hides under the small boat on the deck until the Manning’s shift ends. Once the coast is clear, Solomon follows Manning into one of the rooms and quickly writes a letter to Henry B. Northup, explaining his situation. When the ship docks in New Orleans, Manning immediately sends the letter. Solomon notes that the letter did reach Henry B. Northup, but because Solomon was unable to provide details as to where he would end up after New Orleans, Northup couldn’t yet do anything to help Solomon.
Although Solomon’s escape plan with Robert and Arthur didn’t pan out, Solomon now knows that he can hide under the small boat for other purposes. This passage also shows Solomon’s first attempt at sending a letter to tell his family and friends of his circumstances—something he tries several times throughout the narrative.
Themes
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Truth and Justice Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
As Solomon watches Manning depart into town to send the letter, he sees two men approaching the ship and yelling for Arthur. When Arthur sees them, he is overcome with joy, recognizing them as friends from home. The two men tell Arthur that his kidnappers have been arrested. After speaking with the captain, the men depart, taking the joyful Arthur with them. Without Arthur or Robert, Solomon feels painfully lonely and hopeless.
Even though Solomon and Arthur only knew each other for a short time, it is clear that they became close. Although Solomon is happy that his new friend has been restored to freedom, he now feels completely alone, stripped of the comfort and strength in community that he had with Arthur.
Themes
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Later, other slave traders, including one named Theophilus Freeman, board the ship. Freeman takes over Burch’s slaves, including Solomon, Eliza, a slave named Harry, and several others. He coarsely informs Solomon that he is now called Platt, a name chosen for him by Burch. Solomon, Eliza, and the other slaves are promptly taken to Freeman’s slave pen, where they are met by at least fifty other slaves.
Solomon is given a new name, likely as an extra precaution to ensure that his true identity as a kidnapped free man is never exposed, and that his friends and family from home can’t locate him by name. Solomon’s new name is imposed upon him just as a master names an animal.
Themes
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That night, Solomon replays the recent events in his mind, unable to come to terms with the fact that he been sold into slavery. Overcome by sadness, he prays ceaselessly to God, “the Almighty Father of us all—the freeman and the slave.” He asks God to give him strength to face his suffering.
Solomon turns to God for strength in the midst of his suffering, showing the steadfastness of his Christian faith. Solomon draws upon his father’s earlier teachings that God cares for all humans, regardless of race or status.
Themes
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Family Theme Icon
Christianity Theme Icon
Related Quotes
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