Witness against Slavery – The Story of Mary Prince

Witness against Slavery – The Story of Mary Prince

“Oh the horrors of slavery!” … the truth ought to be told of it; and what my eyes have seen I think it is my duty to relate …. I have been a slave – I have felt what a slave feels, and I know what a slave knows; and I would have all the good people in England to know it too, that they may break our chains, and set us free” Mary Prince

Mary Prince was born a slave in 1788 in Brackish Pond, Devonshire Parish, Bermuda. Her mother was a house servant and her father a sawyer. Prince’s earliest years were spent in a succession of households in Bermuda, mainly as a domestic servant. She came to England in 1828 with her owners (The Woods) where she worked as their house servant. After pleas to the Woods to grant her manumission (freedom) were unsuccessful, Prince left the Woods household in November 1828. She eventually found employment with Thomas Pringle in 1829. Pringle was the then editor of the Anti-Slavery Reporter.

One of the Reporters’ aims was to expose atrocities in the British colonies, and therefore Pringle decided to sponsor Prince to write a narrative of her experiences of slavery, and in addition to start the process of obtaining her freedom from slavery, by petitioning Parliament. This was a long process which ran from 1828-33.

The autobiographical narrative A History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave, Related by Herself, was eventually published in London in 1831 it was so successful it went into three editions. Prince actually dictated her narrative to an abolitionist, Susana Strickland, who was staying at the home of Pringle, but the Narrative was Prince’s idea, as she actually said that she wanted people in England to ‘hear from a slave what a slave had felt and suffered’. The Narrative is multi-layered; firstly it contains biographical information about her young life; secondly graphic descriptions of the brutal treatment Prince received at the hands of most of her owners; and thirdly it reads as a late eighteenth-century anti-slavery text. The Woods returned to Antigua before the petition to Parliament was resolved but 1833 saw the emancipation of all slaves in the British Empire.

Why is Mary Prince an important figure to remember in Black History Month?

Ziggi Alexander in the Introduction to the reprinted edition of the Narrative aptly writes: ‘Her story is of interest because she stressed not only the suffering and indignities of enslavement, but also the triumphs of the human spirit. She demonstrated how a woman can be enslaved and yet not be a slave’. What Alexander means by this is that Prince did not accept her enslaved state, and continually fought against this condition. There are examples in the Narrative which showed her strong spirit and resistance to slavery. She displayed open resistance towards her tormentors. For example, after ‘Captain I beat [her] till she was unable to stand’, she found the strength to run away to her mother where she stayed a long while; on another occasion when she returned from the Turks Islands where she had been working in the salt ponds for about five years, Prince defended the daughter of her owner Mr D who he had beaten: she wrote ‘I strove with all my strength to get her away from him. He had beat her with his fist, and almost killed her’.

Astoundingly, Prince not only seemed to emerge stronger from each round of ill-treatment from her masters, but was instrumental in engineering her trip to England with the Woods. It was at Prince’s suggestion to her owner Mr D that she was sold to the Woods. Many slaves believed that they would be free in England because news of abolitionists’ work reached the colonies. Prince was no exception and siad that ‘My husband was willing for me to come away [to England] heard that my master would free me’. Her persistence took a lot of courage and importantly, her removal to England was instrumental in her story being told.

Indeed, Prince was not reticent about sharing her horrendous experience of slavery. The narrative contains graphic descriptions of the degradation that Prince experienced. The humiliation she suffered was so great that she often wished she could ‘escape from this cruel bondage and be at rest in the grave’. Prince’s story is also an invaluable historical source. As well as retelling her own story of brutality, Prince retold other slaves’ experiences too: “While I was in the country, I saw how the field negroes are worked in Antigua. They are worked very hard and fed but scantily. They are called out to work before daybreak, and come home after dark’. These facts also make her story an important part of black history.

Her narrative is not only a personal account of a black female slave, but part of the history of the fight for emancipation from slavery in England. It was the first anti-slavery petition by a black woman to the British Parliament.

Prince’s story was criticised at the time by the Woods and James Macqueen, a prominent anti-slavery campaigner, for being simply a tool for the Anti-slavery society. These criticisms were played out in the press surrounding two law-suits brought in 1833, ironically the year of Emancipation, and both reported in The Times. In the first case, Pringle sued the editor of the Blackwoods magazine, Thomas Cadell, and Pringle won. Cadell had published a diatribe by James Macqueen’s against Prince which portrayed her as a scandalous and abusive woman.The second was brought by Wood for slander against Pringle which Wood won by default because Pringle could not bring witnesses from the West Indies to prove his allegations against Prince. In the second case, Prince gave a testimony on many of the atrocities against her and it was easy for Wood’s team to claim that the abolitionists had censored many of these facts to push forward their own cause. However, it must be noted that even if her experiences were retold to help the abolitionists cause, this did not diminish her Narrative’s message.

Today her narrative can be read as an important part of the parliamentary history of the abolition of slavery in England.  Prince had the unique role, however brief, of representing the mass of enslaved people in the British West Indies.    In 2007 Prince’s contribution to the ending of slavery was recognised, by the locating of a plaque  in her honour at the University of London’s Senate House, the site of the house where she lived in 1829.

Further Reading:

L. Bracks, Writings on Black Women of the Diaspora (1998)

M. Ferguson (ed.), The History of Mary Prince: A West Indian Slave Related by Herself (1987)

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