Mary Prince was the Bermuda-born author of The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave (1831), a slave narrative that was a bestseller and influential to British abolitionism. Most of the biographical and historical information known about Mary Prince comes from this account. Published by the Anti-Slavery Society in London and Edinburgh, it ran to three editions that year alone and was crucial in rousing public support for the abolitionist cause. In 1829 Prince had presented a petition to Parliament appealing for manumission from her owner James Wood of Antigua. Lord Stowell’s judgment in 1828 on the case of Grace Jones meant that slave owners were not obliged to manumit slaves brought to Britain. Accompanied by a proposed bill for the emancipation of all British slaves, Prince’s petition was unsuccessful but was part of a multipronged and powerful campaign that was to culminate in the passing of the Emancipation Act in 1833.
Mary Prince’s History remains unique, being the only account published in Britain by a female slave relating in first-person narrative the experience of West Indian slavery. Her history was written while Prince was a servant to Thomas Pringle, secretary of the Anti-Slavery Society. Susanna Strickland, later Susanna Moodie, transcribed the narrative and Pringle, who was also a poet, edited the transcription. The History is therefore a collaborative and literary enterprise, crafted as a sentimental yet highly effective piece of writing. Prince details the emotional suffering of slavery, physical and sexual abuse, as well as her many resistances, thus exploiting the roles of both the “good slave” and the “noble rebel.” Written in the mode of Romantic abolitionist discourse, the History achieves the effect of sounding like the unmediated voice of Prince directly appealing to the British public. She is represented as a truthful eyewitness and spokesperson for all slaves, whose task is to inform the public of slave suffering and of the moral turpitude of the plantocracy.
Prince was born in Bermuda in the Devonshire parish in 1788 into the ownership of a farmer, Charles Myners. Her mother was a household slave, her father was a sawyer, and she had siblings. When Myners died Prince passed into the possession of Captain Williams. Until the age of twelve Mary was a companion to Williams’s daughter. When the estate was sold off, the Prince family was dispersed. She was bought by Captain Ingham of Spanish Point. After five years of severe abuse, Prince was sold at her own request to a Mr. D—. He owned land on the remote Turk’s Island where the salt industry supplied Bermuda with its main income. For about ten years Prince labored in the grueling salt ponds until D—returned to Bermuda. At around the age of thirty, Prince asked to be sold to the Woods family, who took her to Antigua, a relatively liberal environment for British slaves. The Woods’s household was another violent regime, yet Prince took steps toward freedom. She saved money through huckstering and hints at a relationship she had with a white man, Captain Abbot, who tried to buy her freedom. Prince never mentions having any children. She later joined the Moravian Church, where she met her future husband, a free black named Daniel James.
In her mid-forties Prince came to England with the Woods family hoping they would free her. However, the Woodses were intransigent. Prince was forced to leave them and came under the direction of the Moravians and Anti-Slavery Society. Having sustained many injuries incurred by her masters’ violence, by her middle age Prince had arthritis, was lame and going blind. She is described in a court transcript of 1833, in which the Woods family won a case of libel against Thomas Pringle over the History’s content. After this date there are no further records of Mary Prince. It is uncertain whether she was able to rejoin her husband as a free woman in Antigua. Still, she remains a key figure of slave resistance.
Britain: People of African Origin and Descent; Slave Narratives; Slave Revolts/Maronnage
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