Mary Prince

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First edition cover The History of A West Indian Slave, Mary Prince Front Cover.jpg
First edition cover

Mary Prince (c. 1 October 1788 – after 1833) [1] was a British abolitionist and autobiographer, born in Bermuda to a slave family of African descent. After being sold a number of times, and being moved around the Caribbean, she was brought to England as a servant in 1828, and later left her master.


Prince was illiterate, [2] but while she was living in London she dictated her life story to Susanna Strickland, [3] a young lady living in the home of Thomas Pringle, secretary of the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery Throughout the British Dominions (aka Anti-Slavery Society, 1823–1838). Strickland wrote down her slave narrative which was published as The History of Mary Prince in 1831, the first account of the life of a black slave woman to be published in the United Kingdom. This first-hand description of the brutalities of enslavement, published at a time when slavery was still legal in Bermuda and British Caribbean colonies, had a galvanising effect on the British anti-slavery movement. It was reprinted twice in its first year.

Early life and education

Mary Prince was born a slave at Devonshire Parish, Bermuda. [4] Her father (whose only given name was Prince) was a sawyer owned by David Trimmingham, and her mother a house-servant held by Charles Myners. She had three younger brothers and two sisters, Hannah and Dinah. [5] When Myners died in 1788, Mary Prince, her mother and siblings were sold as household servants to Captain Darrell. He gave Mary and her mother to his daughter, with Mary becoming the companion servant of his young granddaughter, Betsey Williams. [6]

At the age of 12, Mary was sold for £38 sterling [7] (2021: ~£3,300; ~US$4,500) to Captain John Ingham, of Spanish Point. Her two sisters were also sold that same day, all to different slave traders. Mary's new master and his wife were cruel and often lost their tempers, Mary and others were often severely flogged for minor offences.

Ingham sold Mary in 1806 to a salt raker on Grand Turk in the Turks and Caicos Islands, who owned salt ponds. The Bermudians had used these seasonally for a century for the extraction of salt from sea water. The production of salt for export was a pillar of the Bermudian economy, but the production was labour-intensive. Originally, raking had been performed by whites due to the fear of slaves being seized by Spanish and French raiders (the slaves were considered property, and could be seized as such during hostilities). Blacks crewed the Bermuda sloops that delivered the rakers to and from the Turks Islands and delivered salt to markets in North America, engaging in maritime activities while the whites raked. When the threats posed by the Spanish and French in the region decreased, however, the slaves were put to work in the salt pans.

As a child Mary worked in poor conditions in the salt ponds up to her knees in water. Due to the nature of salt mining, Mary and others were often forced to work up to 17 hours straight as owners of the ponds were concerned that if the workers were gone for too long rain would come and soil the salt. Generally, men were the salt rakers, forced to work in the salt ponds, where they were exposed to the sun and heat, as well as the salt in the pans, which ate away at their uncovered legs. Women did the easier packaging of salt.

Mary Prince was returned to Bermuda in 1810, where her master at the time had moved with his daughter. While here, she said in her account that she was physically abused by her master, and forced to bathe him under threat of further beatings. Mary resisted her master's abuse on two occasions: once, in defence of his daughter, whom he also beat; the second time, defending herself from her master when he beat her for dropping kitchen utensils. After this, she left his direct service and was hired out to Cedar Hill for a time, where she earned money for her master by washing clothes. [8]

In 1815, Mary was sold a fourth time, to John Adams Wood of Antigua for $300 [6] (2021: ~£3,900; ~$5,300). [9] She worked in his household as a domestic slave, attending the bedchambers, nursing a young child, and washing clothes. There she began to suffer from rheumatism, which left her unable to work. When Adams Wood was travelling, Mary earned money for herself by taking in washing and by selling coffee, yams and other provisions to ships. [10]

In Antigua, she joined the Moravian Church, where she also attended classes and learned to read. She was baptised in the English church in 1817 and accepted for communion, but she was afraid to ask Adams Wood for permission to attend. [11] In December 1826, Prince married Daniel James, a former slave who had bought his freedom by saving money from his work. He worked as a carpenter and cooper. According to Mary, her floggings increased after her marriage because Adams Wood and his wife did not want a free black man living on their property. [12]

Travel to England

In 1828 Adams Wood and his family travelled to London, visiting and arranging their son's education, and to bring their daughters home to the islands. [13] At her request, they took Mary Prince with them as a servant. After the case of Somerset v Stewart in 1772, it was ruled that it was illegal to transport slaves out of England. That, however, did not make slavery certainly illegal in England, even though public opinion believed it did. [14] Even if she could leave the Adam Wood's household, however, she had no means to support herself alone in England. Additionally, unless Wood formally emancipated her, she could not return to her husband in Antigua without being re-enslaved there. [15]

Although she had served the Woods for more than ten years, they had increasing conflict in England. Four times Wood told her to obey or leave. They gave her a letter that nominally gave her the right to leave but suggested that no one should hire her. [16]

After leaving the household, Prince took shelter with the Moravian church in Hatton Garden. Within a few weeks, she started working occasionally for Thomas Pringle, an abolitionist writer, and Secretary to the Anti-Slavery Society, which offered assistance to black people in need. Prince found work with the Forsyth household, but the couple moved away from England in 1829. The Woods also left England in 1829 and returned with their daughter to Antigua. Pringle tried to arrange to have Wood manumit Prince, so she would have legal freedom.

In 1829 Adams Wood refused either to manumit Mary Prince or allow her to be purchased out of his control. [17] His refusal to sell or free her meant that as long as slavery remained legal in Antigua, Prince could not return to her husband and friends without being re-enslaved and submitting to Wood's power. After trying to arrange a compromise, the Anti-Slavery Committee proposed to petition Parliament to grant Prince's manumission, but did not succeed. [18] At the same time, a bill was introduced to free all slaves from the West Indies in England whose owners had freely brought them there; it did not pass but was an indication of growing anti-slavery sentiment. [18]

In December 1829, Pringle hired Prince to work in his own household. [18] Encouraged by Pringle, Prince arranged for her life narrative to be transcribed by Susanna Strickland. Pringle served as editor, and her book was published in 1831 as The History of Mary Prince. The book caused a commotion as it was the first account published in Great Britain of a black slave woman's life; at a time when anti-slavery agitation was growing, her first person account touched many people. In the first year, it sold out three printings.

Two libel cases arose out of it, and Prince was called to testify at each.

Prince's life after her book was published is not much known. It is not clear whether she ever returned to Antigua and her husband as she had wished.

She is known to have remained in England until at least 1833, when she testified in the two Washington cases. That year, the Slavery Abolition Act was passed, to be effective August 1834. [19] In 1808, Parliament had passed the Slave Trade Act of 1807, which outlawed the slave trade but not slavery itself. The 1833 law was intended to achieve a two-staged abolition of West Indian slavery by 1840, allowing the colonies time to transition their economies. Because of popular protests in the West Indies among the freedmen, the colonies legally completed abolition two years early in 1838. In Bermuda, which was not dependent on the institution of slavery, emancipation took place immediately on the law going into effect in 1834. If Prince was still alive and in good health, she may then died.

The History of Mary Prince

When Prince's book was published, slavery was arguably still legal in England, and had not been clearly abolished by the 1772 Somerset v Stewart ruling, as previously believed by historians and contemporaries. [20] Parliament had also not yet abolished it in the colonies. There was considerable uncertainty about the political and economic repercussions that might arise if Britain imposed an end to slavery throughout the empire, as the sugar colonies depended on it for labour to raise their lucrative commodity crop. As a personal account, the book contributed to the debate in a manner different from reasoned analysis or statistical arguments. Its tone was direct and authentic, and its simple but vivid prose contrasted with the more laboured literary style of the day. [21]

An example is Prince's description of being sold away from her mother at a young age:

It was night when I reached my new home. The house was large, and built at the bottom of a very high hill; but I could not see much of it that night. I saw too much of it afterwards. The stones and the timber were the best things in it; they were not so hard as the hearts of the owners. [22]

Prince wrote of slavery with the authority of personal experience, something her political opponents could never match. She wrote:

I have been a slave myself—I know what slaves feel—I can tell by myself what other slaves feel, and by what they have told me. The man that says slaves be quite happy in slavery—that they don't want to be free—that man is either ignorant or a lying person. I never heard a slave say so. I never heard a Buckra (white) man say so, till I heard tell of it in England. [22]

Her book had an immediate effect on public opinion and was published in three impressions the first year. [23] It generated controversy, and James MacQueen, the editor of The Glasgow Courier, challenged its accuracy by a lengthy letter in Blackwood's Magazine . [24] MacQueen was a defender of white West Indian interests and vigorous critic of the anti-slavery movement. He depicted Prince as a woman of low morals who had been the "despicable tool" of the anti-slavery clique, who had incited her to malign her "generous and indulgent owners." He attacked the character of the Pringle family, suggesting they were at fault for accepting the slave in their household. [25]

In 1833 Pringle sued MacQueen for libel, receiving damages of £5. [26] Not long afterwards, John Wood, Prince's master, sued Pringle for libel, holding him responsible as the editor of Prince's The History, and saying the book generally misrepresented his character. [27] Wood won his case and was awarded £25 in damages. [27] Prince was called to testify in both these trials, but little is known of her life after this.


Representations in other media

See also

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  1. David Hughes, "Mary Prince marked with Google Doodle today: who was the abolitionist?", i News, 1 October 2018.
  2. "Mary Prince, The Woman Who Struck Back at Empire". New Politic. 19 November 2021. Retrieved 20 February 2022.
  3. "Mary Prince | Slave Narrative". mary-prince. Retrieved 11 July 2022.
  4. originally named Cavendish, after William Cavendish, 1st Earl of Devonshire (1552–1626), the name was subsequently changed to Devonshire, but it was also sometimes referred to as Brackish Pond. The area of Devonshire in which she grew up (and the various houses in which she had lived) was to be mostly acquired by the War Office later in the 19th Century to enable the growth of Prospect Camp.
  5. The History of Mary Prince: A West Indian Slave, F. Westley and A. H. Davis (eds). 1831. Online HTML edition, New York Public Library.
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 Sara Wajid, "'They bought me as a butcher would a calf or a lamb'", The Guardian, 19 October 2007.
  7. The History of Mary Prince, p. 5.
  8. Prince, Mary (2004). The History of Mary Prince: A West Indian Slave Narrative. Mineola, NY: Dover. p. 20. ISBN   0-486-43863-5.
  9. "$300 in 1815 → 2021 | Inflation Calculator". Retrieved 6 January 2021.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  10. The History of Mary Prince, pp. 15–16.
  11. The History of Mary Prince, p. 17.
  12. "Mary Prince, The Woman Who Struck Back at Empire". New Politic. 19 November 2021. Retrieved 20 February 2022.
  13. Pringle (1831), "Supplement", p. 30.
  14. Simon Schama, Rough Crossings (London: BBC Books, 2005), pp. 51–61.
  15. "Mary Prince, The Woman Who Struck Back at Empire". New Politic. 19 November 2021. Retrieved 20 February 2022.
  16. Pringle, "Supplement to The History of Mary Prince", The History of Mary Prince, 1831, pp. 24–25, e-text, New York Public Library. Retrieved 5 April 2013.
  17. The Times, 1 March 1833, p. 6: "Mr H. W. Ravenscroft, an attorney, stated that in 1829 he made an application to the plaintiff" (i.e. John Wood) "to manumit Mary Prince, which he refused. Money was offered, but the plaintiff refused on any terms; and said he would not move a finger for her."
  18. 1 2 3 Pringle (1831), "Supplement", p. 26.
  19. According to The Times, reporting the libel case Wood v. Pringle, Prince testified that in late February 1833, she was living in the Old Bailey. Pringle was supporting her at a charge of 10 or 12 shillings per week, as she had been out of work since the previous June. The Times, 1 March 1833, p. 6.
  20. Schama, Rough Crossings, p. 61.
  21. Pringle, as her editor, was sufficiently aware of this effect to draw attention to it in his footnotes: "These strong expressions, and all of a similar character in this little narrative, are given verbatim as uttered by Mary Prince.--Ed."
  22. 1 2 The History of Mary Prince, 1831.
  23. Moira Ferguson, "Prince , Mary (b. c.1788)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004.
  24. James Macqueen (sic), "The Colonial Empire of Great Britain", Blackwood's Magazine, vol. 30, November 1831, p. 744.
  25. MacQueen (1831), "Colonial Empire", p. 751: "Pringle's labours afford a criterion to determine that the delicacy and modesty 'of the females of his family' cannot be of the most exalted character."
  26. Pringle v. Cadell, Court of Common Pleas, 21 February 1833: reported in The Times, 22 February 1833, p. 4. As Cadell was the London publisher of Blackwood's Magazine, he was cited in the lawsuit.
  27. 1 2 The Times, 1 March 1833, p. 6: Wood v. Pringle, Court of King's Bench, 27 February 1833.
  28. "Plaque: Mary Prince", Memorial, London Remembers.
  29. "Premier Unveils Plaque Honouring Mary Prince". Bernews. 23 June 2011. Retrieved 14 March 2021.
  30. "Interview: Bermudian Slave Owner Descendant". Bernews. 24 June 2011. Retrieved 14 March 2021.
  31. Sara Wajid, "London, Sugar & Slavery Opens At Museum In Docklands", Culture24, 9 November 2007.
  32. Bridgetower – A Fable of 1807, Julian Joseph website. Archived 3 March 2016 at the Wayback Machine , Cast list.
  33. "Mary Prince's 230th Birthday". Google Doodles. 1 October 2018.
  34. Joe Sommerlad (28 February 2017). "Mary Prince: Who was the abolitionist and author of the first slavery memoir published in Britain by a woman?". The Independent. Retrieved 1 October 2018.