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Mary Prince
The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave. Related by Herself. With a Supplement by the Editor. To Which Is Added, the Narrative of Asa-Asa, a Captured African
London: Published by F. Westley and A. H. Davis, 1831.

Summary

According to her narrative, the only known source that relates the events of her life, Mary Prince was born in Brackish Pond, Bermuda, in 1788. Her mother was enslaved in the household of Mr. Charles Myners, and her father was a sawyer belonging to a shipbuilder named Mr. Trimmingham. As an infant, she was sold with her mother to a Captain Darrel Williams, who gave her as a gift to his granddaughter, Betsey Williams. Prince served as a childhood companion to Betsey until age twelve, when she was hired out as a nurse to a neighboring household. After the death of Williams's wife, he sold Prince to a Captain I—, who took her to Spanish Point, Bermuda. Five years later, Captain I— sold her to a Mr. D—, who sent her to work in the salt ponds of Turks Islands for "several years" before she returned to Bermuda to work again for Captain I— (p. 13). In 1815, Prince was sold to Mr. John Wood and taken to Antigua to work in his household. In 1817, she joined the local Moravian Church. There she met her future husband, a free carpenter and cooper named Daniel James, whom she married in December of 1826. Prince accompanied the Woods to England in 1828. Technically freed from slavery upon her arrival on English soil, she worked for the Wood family until November of that year, when she left their household and consulted with the Aldermanbury office of an Anti-Slavery Society. Because Wood refused to sell Prince her freedom, which would allow her to return to Antigua and her husband without being re-enslaved, the Anti-Slavery Society petitioned Parliament in June 1829 to compel Wood to grant her manumission; however, the petition was neutralized by Wood's departure for Antigua before it was brought to public hearing.

In November 1829 Prince entered the household of Mr. Thomas Pringle as a domestic servant. While with the Pringles, she dictated her life story to Susanna Moodie, a writer and member of the London anti-slavery movement. Pringle edited and published Prince's History in 1831. It became so popular that three editions were printed that year. The publication was followed by a series of civil suits. Mr. Thomas Cadell had published pro-slavery attacks on Mary Prince and Thomas Pringle in Blackwood's Magazine, prompting Pringle to sue Cadell in 1833. Prince briefly took the stand, providing the only known record of her words outside of her own narrative. In turn, Wood sued Pringle for libel and won by default, because Pringle couldn't provide witnesses from the West Indies to corroborate Prince's allegations. This court case marks the last time Prince appears in the public record, so the events of her life afterward are unknown, though most scholars assume she remained in England until her death.

In the introduction to The History of Mary Prince, Thomas Pringle asserts that "The idea of writing Mary Prince's history was first suggested by herself" (p. i). Her purpose, writes Pringle, is to ensure that "good people in England might hear from a slave what a slave had felt and suffered" (p. i). Prince's History is one of the earliest narratives intended to reveal the ugly truths about slavery in the West Indies to an English reading public that remained largely unaware of its atrocities. While eighteenth-century slave narratives largely focused on Christian spiritual journeys and religious redemption, Prince's narrative was part of a growing trend of abolitionist-themed narratives that focused on slavery's injustices, including A Narrative of the Adventures and Escape of Moses Roper (1838) and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845). Her narrative is also particularly important, because few early women's slave narratives exist. As scholar William L. Andrews notes, escaped female slaves rarely asked for or received attention that "encouraged them to dictate or write their life stories" (p. xxxii).

Mary Prince begins her History with a brief description of her childhood before turning to her adult experiences under slavery in the West Indies. She describes her early childhood in the household of Captain Williams as "the happiest period of my life; for I was too young to understand rightly my condition as a slave." But after she is sold to a new owner, she depicts her treatment under slavery in stark detail (p. 1). As an adult, Prince reveals the appalling work conditions under which slaves are forced to labor. Whether working as a domestic servant or a field laborer in the Turks Island salt ponds, she is continually pushed past the point of physical exhaustion by owners who abuse her and to whom she "could give no satisfaction" (p. 15).

Prince counterpoints the physical and emotional toll of her daily labor with excruciating details of the beatings she endures at the hands of her masters as well as their wives. Prince is hopeful at each change of ownership that she might receive better treatment, but she soon finds she is simply "going from one butcher to another" (p. 10). She describes not only the physical details of her abuse—the beatings and whippings, the broken skin, the scarring, and the painful recovery—but also the systematic way in which her owners apply it, both as a psychological method of torment and as an emotional release for themselves. In one instance, she ironically describes her beatings by Captain I—'s wife as an education: "she taught me . . . to know the exact difference between the smart of the rope, the cart-whip, and the cow-skin, when applied to my naked body by her own cruel hand" (p. 6).

Prince's narrative is marked by acts of resistance, moments in which she shocks her owners by talking back or rebuking them. In one instance, she offends Mrs. Wood with a reprimand for her verbal abuse and her physical neglect: "I told her that she ought not to use me so" (p. 15). She actively seeks offers from potential new owners to escape current ones, she marries against the wishes of Mr. and Mrs. Wood, she refuses to work when too ill to do so, and she eventually leaves the Wood family in England: "I took courage and resolved that I would not be longer thus treated, but would go and trust to Providence" (p. 20). This spirit of resistance not only enables Prince to survive a lifetime of abuse, but it pushes her to take up the abolitionist cause on behalf of those who remain enslaved.

Although the text published here does not include the Narrative of Asa-Asa appended to the bound copy of the History of Mary Prince, it does contain a large appendix of documents that reveal the arguments provided to Parliament and presented in the libel cases after Prince's History was first published. No longer alive at the time of publication, the names of Captain I— and Mr. D— are withheld to protect "surviving and perhaps innocent relatives" from the public airing of their atrocities. Mr. Wood's transgressions, however, are published in full detail (p. i). The documents not only reveal Wood's embarrassment and outrage as well as his attacks on Prince's morals, but they also show the extent to which it became necessary to defend Prince's character in order to maintain the veracity of her account and the abolitionist message it promotes.

Works Consulted: "Chronology," in The History of Mary Prince, ed. Sara Salih, xxxix-xl (London: Penguin, 2000); Andrews, William L., "Introduction," in Six Women's Slave Narratives, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., xxix-xli (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988); Ferguson, Moira, "Introduction," in The History of Mary Prince: A West Indian Slave, ed. Moira Ferguson, 1-41 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997).

Jenn Williamson

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