Canadian’s actions loom large in TIFF fan favourite

That’s a wrap for TIFF ‘13. Once again the road to the Oscars runs through Toronto. The winner of the People’s Choice Award is 12 Years a Slave (opening Oct. 18), which tells the incredible true story of Solomon Northrup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man in upstate New York who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in the deep South in 1841.

Chiwetel Ejiofor
Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northrup in 12 Years a Slave.

Brad Pitt has a small role as Samuel Bass, an itinerant carpenter from Upper Canada (now Ontario) who risks his own life to help Northrup regain his freedom.

After he was freed, Solomon Northrup wrote in his 1853 memoir, “Only for him, in all probability, I should have ended my days in slavery. He was my deliverer, a man whose true heart overflowed with noble and generous emotions. To the last moment of my existence I shall remember him with feelings of thankfulness. His name was Bass.”

Who was Samuel Bass? How did a wandering Canadian end up building a house alongside Northrup on a slave plantation in antebellum Louisiana? The lives of two lost and despairing souls crossed in a chance meeting and history was changed.

The compelling narrative of Northrup’s book, Twelve Years a Slave (1853), was a powerful tool in the abolitionist efforts to end slavery. A pebble in the water had a ripple effect.

Brad Pitt as Samuel Bass in 12 Years a Slave
Brad Pitt as Samuel Bass in 12 Years a Slave

Northrup wrote that Bass was an “old bachelor … having no kindred living,” but in fact the “eccentric” Canadian grew up in a big farming family of 12 children in Augusta, Ontario, near Brockville. Bass was born in 1807 and by 1838 had a wife and four daughters of his own. Bass confessed to Northrup that he had led a lonely life after leaving his family and country.

Bass may have been running away from his failed marriage. Maybe he grew restless and visited family members who had set out by wagon train for the pioneer backwoods of Illinois. Some had been staunch supporters of the Mackenzie Rebellion of 1837. We may never know why Bass left home.

We know he spent time in Illinois, where his sister Sarah died in 1849. Bass must have felt the urge to roam, and likely took a Mississippi riverboat all the way south to Louisiana, passing the Missouri home of a boy named Samuel Clemons, better known as Mark Twain.

Bass worked as a carpenter in Marksville, Louisiana for about three years. His outspoken abolitionist views were barely tolerated because he was so well-liked “for his many acts of kindness.” After hearing Bass argue passionately about the evils of slavery, Northrup found a sympathetic ear for his tragic story. Bass was surprised that a slave would know Canada, but believed Northrup. They both knew the same places along the St. Lawrence. By coincidence, their fathers had both lived in the tiny town of Hoosick, New York, though not at the same time.

Bass was so moved by Northrup’s plight that he promised to dedicate his life to helping him: “I’m with you life or death … you’re not going to end up here.”

They met secretly and Bass sent letters north to Solomon’s family and employers. Bass was determined that after he finished some jobs in the spring he would go to Saratoga, New York himself. The letters got through and again Bass risked his life to help a northern lawyer find and finally free Solomon Northrup in January, 1853.

Northrup believed that Bass had left the area for his own safety, but the carpenter never made it home. He died of pneumonia in August of that same year and probably never saw the publication of Twelve Years a Slave. Bass could have faced death for helping a slave to freedom. Why didn’t he leave? Was it lack of money? Illness? Love? Was he in hiding?

The lawyer who made out his dying will wrote that he died “in Marksville, at the home of Justine Tounier, f.w.c. (‘free woman of colour’), and that “he had been separated from his wife for 12 or 15 years. His only complaint against her  was that she had such a temper as to preclude any man from living with her.”

Samuel Bass comes from a long line of free thinkers and dissenters dating back to the Huguenots fleeing religious persecution in 16th century France. The Bass/Adams lineage in New England led to two US presidents. Samuel’s own descendants are scattered all over Ontario.

Bass didn’t want to die without ever doing anything of value in the world. Near the end of his life, he had found a purpose to his existence, his redemption. He was an ordinary man who did something heroic. One individual in their own way can make a difference. It’s often said that ‘All it takes for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing’. Imagine our world if men and women of conviction hadn’t spoken up for justice and freedom.

Would you put your life on the line to help a stranger? We can be proud of a Canadian who did the right thing, the same way our diplomats stepped up to save others during the ‘Canadian Caper’ in Iran. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was another “Thank you, Canada,” at this year’s Oscars.

“And what difference is there in the colour of the soul? … There’s a fearful sin resting on this nation that will not go unpunished forever. There will be a reckoning yet,” Northrup quoted Bass as saying in Twelve Years a Slave.

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Nice piece. Answered all my questions re Bass. Did you do the original research on him?
The fact that he died so soon after intervening on Northup’s behalf is particularly interesting because Northup himself recounts being concerned lest Bass would die before effecting the rescue. This speaks to how chancey life was in those days even for whites.
Too bad Pitt didn’t even try a Canadian accent. Maybe along the Ottawa valley you could still find it: people saying “byute” for “boot” etc.

Thank you Steve. Samuel Bass is a fascinating character. He did put his life on the line, including helping the Northern lawyer find Northup. Original research is difficult for that era. I relied on Northup’s memoir and googled a lot of ancestry websites. I found one that traced the Bass family back to England. David Fiske’s new book “Solomon Northup: the Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave” should be available in bookstores any day now. Fiske has researched Northup’s story for 20 years. Mystery still surrounds Northup’s later years and death. Northup visited Streetsville, Ontario in 1857, his last known public appearance. We may never know the last days of either Northup or Bass. Brad Pitt’s accent is definitely not Canadian, but it is hard to say how Bass spoke.

A very interesting article with a lot of good and correct research in it.
Explained wonderfully the character and background of Northup’s saviour.
Thank you very much for the deep insights into Samuel Bass’ life!

Friendly greetings from Berlin (Germany)!


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