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The chapter opens with Solomon having been locked in the cell for several hours. Two men enter the cell; Solomon later learns that they are slave dealer James Burch and his lackey, Ebenezer Radburn. When Solomon asks why he is imprisoned, Burch tells Solomon that he is now a slave. Solomon refutes this claim, stating that he is free and has a family in Saratoga. Every time Burch says that Solomon is a slave, Solomon argues that he is not, until Burch begins brutally whipping him with a paddle and a cat-o’-ninetails. He stops to ask if Solomon will now say that he’s a slave, but Solomon refuses to yield, so Burch continues to beat him. Eventually Burch ceases his attack but tells Solomon that if he ever again claims to be free, or speaks of his kidnapping, Burch will kill him. Over the next few days, Solomon discovers that he is being held in a place called William’s Slave Pen, and he meets some of the others who have been kidnapped. Among them are a man named Clemens Ray and a child named Randall. A few day later, a woman and her daughter are brought in. It turns out that they are Randall’s mother, Eliza, and his half-sister, Emily, and the small family shares a tearful reunion.
Solomon and his fellow captives are led aboard a steamboat on the Potomac, with no idea of their destination. Eliza and Clemens are utterly heartbroken at the idea of becoming slaves in the South. Eventually the group arrives in Richmond, Virginia, where they are brought to a slave pen owned by Mr. Goodin. There, Solomon meets a man named Robert, who had also been kidnapped and sold into slavery. Later, the group—minus Clemens Ray—is put on a brig called the Orleans; Solomon later finds out that Clemens escaped to Canada.
Solomon’s treatment by the slave dealer James Burch is severe and brutal, and it is the narrative’s first foray into the horrors of slavery in the United States, the most important theme of the book. In Chapter 3, Northup’s approach to capturing the raw inhumanity of the scene is to describe it in brutal detail. This clear, detailed description seems to match the brutality of the act itself. The vivid description of Burch’s torture weapons and their effects provides a visceral experience for Northup’s audience. Northup juxtaposes this overwhelming brutality with the little bit of solace he finds among similarly imprisoned characters. His fellow prisoners are confused and afraid, but Northup introduces a small measure of humanity by retelling the touching scene of a family reunion in the pen where he is kept. Eliza’s reunion with her son Randall is an occasion of both merciful happiness and great, tragic despair. The family is together but still cruelly enslaved and kept in a pen like animals.
Northup shows diligence in reporting on the points of view of his fellow victims, reinforcing his reliability as narrator and expanding the narrative beyond his own experiences. He keeps careful track of the ultimate destinations of each kidnapped person, as if to hold onto their humanity. Although Northup will mostly be reporting on his own experiences, he makes sure the tumultuous and tragic narratives of others in his position are honored and tracked. This aligns neatly with Northup’s goal to be exhaustive in his reportage, but also to let the barbarism of enslavement speak for itself. Northup is not writing this narrative to prove the barbarism of slavery, but to simply describe it from his firsthand experiences. But these experiences, along with the trials and tortures of his fellows, is more than sufficient proof of the inherent wrongness of slavery.