12 Years a Slave

by

Solomon Northrup

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12 Years a Slave: Chapter 8 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Ford runs into financial troubles, partially due to having to pay Tibeats for all of his construction work, so in the winter of 1842, Ford sells Solomon to Tibeats. Tibeats pays more for Solomon than Ford’s debt to Tibeats amounts to, which means that “Ford took a chattel mortgage of four hundred dollars.” Solomon says this mortgage saved his life, as the following section of his narrative will explain.
A chattel mortgage is a mortgage on a moveable item of property—emphasizing that Solomon is legally considered to be property, regardless of the fact that Ford treats him like family. However, in this instance, being considered as property grants him some legal (and physical) protection.
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Solomon accompanies his new master, Tibeats, to Ford’s plantation on Bayou Boeuf, which is nearly thirty miles from Ford’s home in the Great Pine Forest. Bayou Boeuf is a swampy stream riddled with alligators, “rendering it unsafe for swine, or unthinking slave children” to walk along its banks. Solomon runs into Eliza, who has withered away and “sunk beneath the weight of an excessive grief.” Solomon can tell that Eliza has almost “reached the end of her weary road.”
Solomon makes a casual reference to the swamp being too dangerous for “swine, or unthinking slave children,” once again illustrating the dehumanizing attitude toward slaves in the South, which considers slaves to be more like livestock than humans. To counteract this attitude, Solomon humanizes Eliza by describing her heartbreak at losing her children—a moment that seeks to gain empathy from white readers in the North who would likely also buckle under the “weight of an excessive grief” after being torn from their family.
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The Bayou Boeuf plantation is overseen by a kind white man named Chapin who dislikes Tibeats. Under Tibeats’ ownership, Solomon is forced to work extremely hard. Even though he is never idle and performs his tasks dutifully, Tibeats is never satisfied and pelts Solomon with “abuse and stinging epithets.”
An epithet is usually meant as a nickname that describes someone’s characteristics, but it can also mean a kind of insult or abuse, as Tibeats clearly uses here.
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One late night, Tibeats orders Solomon to wake up at the crack of dawn the next morning, retrieve nails from Chapin, and resume his carpentry work. Solomon wearily retires for the night and rises, as instructed, early the following morning. Solomon asks Chapin for nails, which Chapin procures, saying that if Tibeats prefers a different size of nail, Chapin will happily oblige, but that Solomon should use these particular nails in the meantime.
Even though Solomon is exhausted and despises his callous master, he still dutifully follows Tibeats’ instructions, emphasizing that Solomon is deeply undeserving of the event that is about to unfold.
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As Solomon works, he realizes that Tibeats is in an even more sour mood than normal. Solomon repeats to him what Chapin said about being able to find different nails if necessary. Tibeats lashes out at Solomon with a “flood of curses” and reaches for the whip. Feeling that he had dutifully done the work that Tibeats asked of him, Solomon angrily decides that he will not allow Tibeats to whip him. When Tibeats commands Solomon to take off his clothes to be beaten, Solomon replies, “I will not.”
Solomon hasn’t been whipped since he left Burch’s possession, so he’s startled at the sudden reintroduction of the whip. Tibeats is clearly erratic and impossible to please. It seems that he’s actively looking for mistakes so that he can pin the blame on Solomon and punish him. Like many of the slave dealers and slave owners that Solomon comes in contact with throughout the narrative, Tibeats uses slavery as a means to indulge his own worst impulses.
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Tibeats violently hurdles toward Solomon, but Solomon tackles him to the ground. With his foot on Tibeats’ neck, Solomon begins to whip his master, despite Tibeats’ screams for mercy. Solomon pauses, and notices Chapin’s wife and a slave named Rachel watching him from out the window. He hears Chapin riding in from the fields, likely startled by Tibeats’ cries. When Chapin appears, Solomon tells him that Tibeats wants to whip him for using the nails Chapin gave him. Tibeats sputters that the nails are too large, and Chapin firmly reprimands Tibeats. Angrily, Tibeats rides off on his horse. Chapin tells Solomon that Tibeats’ mysterious errand likely means trouble, but that Solomon should not attempt to run away. Weeping, Solomon is overwhelmed with fear and remorse over his actions.
It seems that all of the cruelty that Solomon has endured thus far in his enslavement wells up in this moment, as Solomon gives Tibeats a taste of his own bitter medicine. This is likely Tibeats’ first experience being whipped, so his screams are a reminder of the unfathomable pain and brutality of the whip, which is casually used on slaves throughout the entire narrative. This passage also contains a brief but sweet moment of justice when Chapin criticizes Tibeats for attempting to whip Solomon for no reason, ignoring (and secretly praising) the fact that Solomon has just brutally whipped Tibeats instead.
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An hour later, Tibeats appears, riding up the bayou with two men carrying whips and rope. As Tibeats binds Solomon’s wrists and ankles, one of the men threaten to break Solomon’s skull and tear apart his limbs if he resists. Tibeats uses the rest of the rope to make a noose and slips it around Solomon’s neck. Solomon grieves, knowing he is about to die and will never see his family again, “the sweet anticipation I had cherished with such fondness.”
The moment of justice is short-lived and quickly reversed. Even though slave owners whip their slaves brutally without so much as a second thought, when Solomon turns this punishment around on Tibeats, Solomon is doomed to be hanged. With the noose around his neck, Solomon’s thoughts are only on his family, showing how his family has been an enduring source of hope and comfort throughout his enslavement.
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When Tibeats and his companions drag Solomon to their tree of choice, Chapin comes running, brandishing a pistol in each hand. He declares that Solomon has done nothing wrong, and that Tibeats “richly deserve[d] the flogging” that he received. Asserting his authority as overseer of the plantation, Chapin reminds Tibeats that Ford holds a mortgage on Solomon. Tibeats’ companions quickly ride off, and are followed a few minutes later by a fearful, shaken Tibeats.
The importance of the chattel mortgage is made clear here—Tibeats can’t legally kill Solomon because he is still considered to be Ford’s property until the mortgage is paid off. This is the second time Chapin has risked his safety by standing up for Solomon, showing that he is a moral man who believes in justice. Like Ford, Chapin presumably doesn’t realize the inherent injustice of slavery because he’s been surrounded by it his whole life.
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Chapin orders Rachel to run to the field and fetch one of the other slaves and the brown mule. When the slave arrives, Chapin tells him to ride as quickly as he can to Ford’s home and tell him that Tibeats is trying to murder Platt (Solomon). 11000
By having one of the slaves ride several miles to fetch Ford, Chapin seems to anticipate that Tibeats will come back for revenge, possibly with more of his cold-blooded companions. However, Chapin still seems more concerned about Solomon’s safety than his own.
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