Prince, Nancy Gardner

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PRINCE, Nancy Gardner

Born 15 September 1799, Newburyport, Massachusetts; died after 1856

Daughter of Thomas Gardner and his wife (daughter of Tobias Warton); married Nero Prince, 1824

Nancy Gardner Prince was born of free parents of African and Native American descent. Called "a colored woman of prominence in Boston" by a contemporary, she was a member of the Anti-Slavery Society in Boston, a missionary, a reformer, and, during her marriage that took her to Russia for years, a business-woman and a world traveler.

Narrative of the Life and Travels of Mrs. Prince, her only published work, is the first African American woman's narrative to combine the traditions of the spiritual autobiography, the slave narrative, and the travel narrative. Prince used all three forms to validate her identity as a free black woman and also to extend the conventions of these forms. Her work was first published in 1850 (a portion of it appeared in 1841) and had two more editions. Written primarily "to obtain the means to supply my necessities," as Prince noted in her 1856 preface, the narrative tells of a childhood full of hardship and of overwhelming responsibilities. From the age of thirteen, Prince, along with her brother, George, were the main support of her family. After a series of exploitive domestic service jobs and years of "anxiety and toil," she went in 1822 "to learn a trade" in Boston, but she met and married Nero Prince, a widower of standing in the New England black community and a sailor who had served the Russian czar as a footman for 12 years. They left for St. Petersburg in 1824.

Although the first part of Prince's narrative reads more as a spiritual autobiography, framed in the preface with an invocation to "divine aid," her account of her life in Russia becomes a travel narrative, including vivid observations on the customs and events of czarist Russia and sketches of members of the court of Emperor Alexander and Empress Elizabeth. While in Russia, Prince was able to educate herself and to learn several languages, and she was successful in starting a business, making fashionable children's clothes. She had to return to Boston in 1833 because of ill health.

In the next phase of her life, Prince became active in the abolitionist movement, later meeting the Quaker abolitionist Lucretia Mott in Philadelphia. After an unsuccessful attempt due to lack of funds to start a home for orphans in Boston, Prince, now a widow, was persuaded by the pastor of the Free Will Baptist Church to go to Jamaica as a missionary to teach the newly freed native population. Her account of her missionary life from 1840 to 1843 combines a description of the chaos of postslavery days in Jamaica with a short travelogue on the geography and history of the island. The story of her hazardous final journey home is in the tradition of the slave narrative as she relates her own experiences with racism to the evils of slavery in America. During this one-year journey from Kingston to Boston, the unscrupulous captain detoured his ship to Key West and, after a storm disabled the ship, abandoned Prince in New Orleans without returning her passage money. Afraid to leave the ship in the Southern ports for fear that she might be seized as a slave, she was confronted constantly with images of her own oppressed people. Finally boarding another ship, she arrived in New York penniless. She stayed there for months trying to pay her debts and recover her belongings before she could return to Boston.

Although Prince does not tell much more about her life after her return, an eyewitness account confirms that she remained an activist and in 1847 helped to save a fellow African American from a slaveholder. Like other women in the slave narrative tradition, she tells about her trials obliquely, stating that she shared "in common the disadvantages and stigma that is heaped upon us, in this our professed Christian land." Her closing passages return to the traditional spiritual autobiography, citing her own suffering and the fearful "world's pilgrimage" as purification for the life to come.


Braxton, J. M., Black Women Writing Autobiography (1989). Carby, H. V., Reconstructing Womanhood (1987). Shockley, A., Afro-American Women Writers (1988). Sterling, D., ed., We Are Your Sisters: Black Women in the Nineteenth Century (1984).

Reference works:

FC (1990). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).