Mary Prince (c. 1788–after 1833) was born in Devonshire Parish, Bermuda, to an enslaved family of African descent. While she was later living in London, her autobiography, The History of Mary Prince (1831), was the first account of the life of a black woman to be published in the United Kingdom.
Belonging to the genre of slave narratives, this first-hand description of the brutalities of enslavement, released at a time when slavery was still legal in Bermuda and British Caribbean colonies, had a galvanising effect on the anti-slavery movement. It went through three printings in the first year. Prince had her account transcribed while living and working in England at the home of Thomas Pringle. a founder of the Anti-Slavery Society. She had gone to London with her master and his family in 1828 from Antigua.
Early life and education
Mary Prince was born into slavery in Brackish Pond, now known as Devonshire Marsh, Devonshire Parish, Bermuda. 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. 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 the slave girl becoming the companion servant of his young granddaughter, Betsey Williams.
At the age of 12, Mary was sold for £38 sterling (2009: £2,290) to Captain John Ingham, of Spanish Point. Her two sisters were sold the same day, each to different masters. Her new master and his wife were cruel, and often lost their temper with the slaves. Mary and other slaves were often severely flogged for minor offences.
Ingham sold Mary in 1806 to a master on Grand Turk, who owned salt ponds. The Bermudians had used these seasonally for a century for the extraction of salt from the ocean. The production of salt for export was a pillar of the Bermudian economy, but could not easily be produced. Originally, raking had been performed by whites due to the fear of black slaves being seized by Spanish and French raiders (slaves were considered property, and could be seized as such during hostilities). Black slaves 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 reduced, however, slaves were put to work in the salt pans.
As a young child Mary had to work for seventeen straight hours while standing in water up to her knees. These conditions were very poor for an adult, let alone a child. Workers in the salt pond were fed occasionally as they received some Indian corn, but could not enjoy it for the owners of the pond feared 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 packaging of salt. Mary Prince was returned to Bermuda in 1810, where her master had moved. She was assigned to his daughter, and then for a time hired out to work at Cedar Hill.
In 1815, Mary was sold a fourth time to John Adams Wood of Antigua for $300. She worked for his household as a domestic slave, attending the bed chambers, nursing a young child, and washing clothes. She began to suffer from rheumatism and was unable to work. When her master was travelling, Prince began to earn her own money, by taking in washing, selling coffee, yams and other provisions to ships, and similar ways.
In Antigua she joined the Moravian Church, where she also attended classes and learned to read. She had been baptised in the English church in 1817 and accepted for communion, but she had feared asking her master for permission to go. 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 her, the master and mistress disapproved of the marriage, claiming they did not want a free black man living at their place. They used her action as one more excuse to beat her.
Travel to England
In 1828 Wood and his family travelled to London to visit and arrange to take their son to school, and to bring their daughters home to the islands. They took Mary Prince with them as a servant (at her request, they later said). Although slavery was not legally recognised in Britain by this date, and Prince was technically free to leave Wood's household, she had no means to support herself alone in England. Also, unless Wood formally emancipated her, she could not return to her husband in Antigua without being re-enslaved there.
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.
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 blacks 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 Wood refused either to manumit Mary Prince or allow her to be purchased out of his control. 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. 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.
Publication of The History of Mary Prince
In December 1829, Pringle hired Prince to work in his own household. 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 stir as the first account published in Great Britain of a black 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 libel cases. That year, the Slavery Abolition Act was passed, to be effective August 1834. The 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 have returned as a free woman to her homeland.
The book and its influence
When Prince's book was published, slavery was no longer recognised as legal in Britain, but Parliament had 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.
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."
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."
Her book had an immediate effect on public opinion and was published in three editions the first year. It generated controversy, and James MacQueen, the editor of The Glasgow Courier, challenged its accuracy by a lengthy letter in Blackwood's Magazine. 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.
In 1833 Pringle sued MacQueen for libel, receiving damages of £5. Not long after, John Wood, Prince's master, sued Pringle for libel, holding him responsible as the editor of Prince's The History, and claiming the book generally misrepresented his character. Wood won his case and was awarded £25 in damages. Prince was called to testify in both these trials, but little is known of her life afterward.
- In October 2007, a commemorative plaque was unveiled in Bloomsbury, where Mary Prince once lived.
- That year, the new "London, Sugar & Slavery" gallery opened at the Museum in Docklands; it credits Prince as an author who "played a crucial role in the abolition campaign".
Representations in other media
- Prince is featured as the fictional love interest in the jazz opera Bridgetower – A Fable of 1807 (2007), by Julian Joseph with libretto by Mike Phillips, about the 18th-century black violinist George Bridgetower.
- The History of Mary Prince: A West Indian Slave, F. Westley and A. H. Davis (eds). 1831. Online HTML edition, New York Public Library
- Sara Wajid, "'They bought me as a butcher would a calf or a lamb'", The Guardian, 19 October 2007.
- The History of Mary Prince, p. 5.
- The History of Mary Prince, pp. 15–16.
- The History of Mary Prince, p. 17.
- Pringle (1831), "Supplement", p. 30.
- Pringle, "Supplement to The History of Mary Prince", The History of Mary Prince, 1831, pp. 24–25, e-text, New York Public Library, accessed 5 April 2013.
- 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."
- Pringle (1831), "Supplement", p. 26.
- 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 ten or twelve shillings per week, as she had been out of work since the previous June. The Times, 1 March 1833, p. 6.
- 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."
- The History of Mary Prince, 1831.
- Moira Ferguson, "Prince , Mary (b. c.1788)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004.
- James Macqueen (sic), "The Colonial Empire of Great Britain", Blackwood's Magazine, vol. 30, November 1831, p. 744.
- 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."
- 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.
- The Times, 1 March 1833, p. 6: Wood v. Pringle, Court of King's Bench, 27 February 1833.
- Bridgetower – A Fable of 1807, Cast list.
- The History of Mary Prince: A West Indian Slave at Project Gutenberg
- The History of Mary Prince: A West Indian Slave, F. Westley and A. H. Davis (eds). 1831. Online HTML edition, New York Public Library.
- The History of Mary Prince; many printed editions are available, both in and out of print.
- Works by Mary Prince at Project Gutenberg
- Works by or about Mary Prince at Internet Archive
- The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave. Related by Herself. With a Supplement by the Editor. London: Published by F. Westley and A. H. Davis, 1831, at University of North Carolina.
- Spartacus Educational: Mary Prince.
- "Mary Prince", 100 Great Black Britons
- The History of Mary Prince, University of California, Santa Barbara
- Mary Prince Course, Coker College, Hartsville, South Carolina
- A Slave Account by Mary Prince, Turks & Caicos Museum
- Major Problems in American Women's History. Fifth Edition Stamford, Connecticut: Edited by Sharon Block at University of California, Irvine and Ruth M. Alexander at Colorado State University and Mary Beth Norton at Cornell University, p. 62.