Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010
Prince, Mary (1788-ca. 1833) Bermudian autobiographer
Mary Prince, a slave from Brackish Pond in the British crown colony of Bermuda, composed England's first AUTOBIOGRAPHY of a black female. Until her liberation in England, she was the property of five different owners. The daughter of a domestic and a sawyer, she passed in infancy into servitude to Betsey Williams and, 12 years later, to Captain John Ingham and Mary Spencer Ingham at Spanish Point. To ridicule her lowly station, they called her “Mary, Princess of Wales.” Of the sadism of her master and jealous mistress, Prince declared, “The stones and timbers were the best things in [the house]; they were not so hard as the hearts of their owners” (Prince 1831, 54). In despair, Prince wished to die rather than suffer “the whip, the rope, and the cow-skin” (59). The testimonial impressed on readers the daily threat and execution of punishments on top of wounds still fresh from previous lashings.
At age 18, Prince suffered more terrifying displacement. Under new ownership, she joined the rakers at the saltworks on Grand Turk in the Caicos Islands, from which the English extracted up to 75 shiploads of salt annually. General maltreatment and the labor of breaking up coral and tufa and diving for stones elicited her sympathy for other drudges: “In telling my own sorrows, I cannot pass by those of my fellow slaves” (62). Of her misery, she explained that boils on her feet impeded her wheeling of a barrow through sand, which so incensed the overseer that he tormented her with whippings. Out of duty to the slave, she insisted on compiling the narrative, which exonerates the British for their ignorance of slave torments. Her autobiography also describes old Daniel, an elderly cripple whom the master strips, beats with a briar, then soaks in saltwater until the victim writhes like a worm. With naive faith in human benevolence, she desires “all the good people in England to know that they may break our chains, and set us free” (11).
By 1818, under the slave name Molly Wood, Prince moved south to Antigua in the Leeward Islands to work as a nanny and laundress for the planter John Wood, who rescued her from Robert Darrell, a sexual predator. At Spring Gardens, she learned to read at the Moravian Church, and in 1826, she married Daniel Jones, a widowed freedman, woodworker, and cooper. In 1828, bent with arthritis at age 40, she served a master in Leigh Street in London, until she escaped to a Moravian church a few weeks later. In 1831, with the aid of Thomas Pringle, secretary of the Anti-Slavery Society, she compiled The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave, transcribed by stenographer Susanna Strickland. Rather than exploit the pose of the female victim, the narrative displays dignity and pride in accomplishment and asserts, “Oh the Buckra people who keep slaves think that black people are like cattle” (71). Leading to three unsuccessful lawsuits against the publisher and author, Prince's autobiography created a sensation and proved critical in the dispute between proslavery factions and the emancipation movement. The Slavery Abolition Act was passed in 1833, the year in which Mary Prince disappears from history.
Ferguson, Moira. Subject to Others: British Women
Writers and Colonial Slavery, 1670-1834. New York: Routledge, 1992.
Prince, Mary. The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian
Slave. London: F. Westley and A. H. Davis, 1831.