Prince, Nancy Gardner

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Prince, Nancy Gardner

Prince, Nancy Gardner (1799-ca. 1856) American ethnographer and evangelist

Nancy Gardner Prince, an ethnographer and American Baptist preacher, wrote an AUTOBIOGRAPHY and a TRAVELOGUE of her adventures in Russia and the West Indies. A freeborn native of Newburyport, Massachusetts, she was the granddaughter of a female Indian captive and of Tobias “Backus” Wornton of Gloucester, a slave kidnapped from Africa who served in the Continental Army in 1775 at the battle of Bunker Hill. After her marriage in 1824 to Nero Prince, a black cook, the pair sailed to Copenhagen, Denmark, and traveled overland to St. Petersburg, Russia, where her husband became a footman or guard at the royal palace. According to Nancy's travelogue, A Narrative of the Life and Travels of Mrs. Nancy Prince (1850), Russians adored the imperial family, Czar Alexander I and Czarina Elizabeth Alexeyevna. When a member of royalty died, “the criminals that have rebelled against the imperial family are placed in cells, thus combining the prison and the tomb; and in sailing by, these miserable creatures are exposed to the careless gaze of unfeeling observers” (Prince 1850, 26). Among the prisoners suffering flogging and exile to Siberia were the fomenters of the Decembrist Revolt on December 14, 1825. Nancy Prince's attempts to establish an orphanage and school in St. Petersburg proved unworkable. A similar project in Boston for black foundlings also failed.

In 1833, Prince returned to the United States, but her husband died before he could join her. Widowed at age 41, Prince, like the nurse-herbalist MARY JANE SEACOLE in the Crimea, became an anomaly—a free black female agent. Backed by white philanthropists, she targeted the West Indies as fertile ground for missionary work. A self-reliant traveler and social dissident, she was outraged by imperial neglect of islanders. She visited Jamaica to encourage ethnic pride among former slaves. In a candid view of the Kingston market, she found black women dependent on weaving straw bags and hats and entering disastrous competitions to keep from starving. Of the bargaining with the destitute of her own race, she complained about the adversarial relationship forced by black women's penury in the Western Hemisphere: “We are not particularly women anymore; we are parties to a transaction designed to set us against each other” (40-41).

Prince reported an American prejudice that “emancipation has been of no benefit to you; I wish to inform myself of the truth respecting you, and give a true account on my return” (50). She found American immigrants discontented in the Caribbean and ex-slaves illiterate and underpaid. Concerning disgruntled maroons, slaves from Sierra Leone, Prince cited the plan of Queen Victoria to resettle them in Jamaica. While laboring as a volunteer settlement worker, Prince formed a negative opinion of maroons as “full of deceit and lies, this is the fruits of slavery, it makes master and slaves knaves” (62). On a disastrous return trip to New York, diverted by storm to Key West and New Orleans, she commiserated with gangs of southern slaves as “We poor blacks” (62). Prince's writing is a firsthand account of the problems that ensued from slavery even after its laudable abolition by the British.


McLeod, Jacqueline. Crossing Boundaries: Comparative

History of Black People in Diaspora. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.

Prince, Nancy. A Narrative of the Life and Travels of Mrs. Nancy Prince. Boston: Wm. A. Hall, 1850.

Scott, Jamie S., and Paul Simpson-Housley, eds. Mapping the Sacred: Religion, Geography and Postcolonial Literature. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2001.