Solomon Northup raises the whip and his stoic mask dissolves. The slave woman, Patsey shakes, body tied to the whipping post. Epps, the plantation owner, gives the order.
The whip cracks, the girl shudders. The slave owner, his wife and their slaves watch. It cracks again, and again, and again.
‘He pantomimes,’ says his wife. ‘There’s hardly a welt on her.’
Epps holds a gun to Solomon’s head.
‘You will strike her until the flesh is rent,’ he says, ‘and meat and blood flow in equal measure, or I will kill every nigger in my sight.’
Now when the whip cracks its snap is muffled by tearing flesh, and screams rip the air. Later, when the slave women wash her, Patsey’s back is hardly recognisable – flesh is flayed into ragged strips.
Of the many brutalities depicted in the film 12 Years a Slave, the scenes of flogging testify perhaps most of all to the horrors of corporeal punishment.
In his 2011 book In Defense of Flogging, American criminologist Peter Moskos proposes offering a choice to those about to be incarcerated: serve your sentence, or receive a flogging. He argues that given both the deeply ingrained human desire to punish and the terrible suffering that occurs in prisons, almost any punishment is preferable to incarceration.
Unlike Jonathan Swift in A Modest Proposal, Moskos is not engaged in satire. As this article inThe Washington Monthly makes clear, he is serious: he believes flogging to be preferable to the present system of imprisonment. With the highest incarceration rate in the world, Moskos’s native United States is the explicit target for his proposal but last November he presented his thesis at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas at the Opera House in Sydney. A show of hands at the end of his talk said that many had been converted.