Born a slave in Brackish Pond, Bermuda, Mary Prince wrote the first full-length narrative by a female slave, The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave, Related by Herself, which was published in England in 1831. In this often harrowing narrative, Prince documents her experiences under slavery, offering a glimpse of the diversity of slave experience within the "Black Atlantic." Detailing the physical and often psychological abuse she was forced to suffer at the hands of a series of cruel slave owners, Prince describes the trauma of being sold at a slave market, flogged while naked, raking salt for ten years in the harsh marshes of the Turks Islands, and being forced to bathe her slave master.
In 1828 Prince's owners, the Woods, agreed to take her with them to England. This was a potentially risky enterprise, as slavery had been considered abolished in England since 1772 when Lord Mansfield passed judgment in the habeas corpus trial of James Somerset the Black vs. Charles Stewart. Mansfield found not only that slaves who came to England on their own or with their masters could not be forced to return to slavery but also that since slavery did not exist as a legal institution within the borders of Great Britain, "slaves" there were to be considered free people. While in London, the Woods' continued and increased abuse of Mary culminated in her decision to walk away from the enslaved life. Because her husband was still in Antigua, Prince desired to return to him there but wanted to do so as a freewoman. With the aid of the AntiSlavery Society, she sued the Woods, claiming that since they had violated the Amelioration Act of 1823, which legally prohibited excessive cruelty by slave owners, she should be completely manumitted. As a means to document evidence of their cruelty, Prince dictated the details of her life, which were transcribed by Susanna Strickland, an aspiring poet, and edited by Thomas Pringle, a writer and the secretary of the Anti-Slavery Society. Because the narrative provided a female slave's perspective, it became immensely popular and went through three editions in quick succession. Hoping to hinder public acceptance of the narrative, writer James MacQueen, in an article for Blackwood's Magazine, accused Pringle and Prince of fabricating the narrative to spread lies and abolitionist propaganda. Pringle sued MacQueen for libel, and although judgment was found in his and Prince's favor, the damages MacQueen paid were a paltry three pounds sterling. This ideological triumph would be short-lived, however, because the court decided against Prince in her suit for freedom, claiming she had exaggerated her abuse by the Woods.
Other than the trial summaries in The Times and attendance at Susanna Strickland's wedding to Captain Moody, further written documentation of Prince is limited to a brief mention in Strickland's 1851 short story, "Rachel Wilde, or, Trifles from the Burthen of Life," in which the main character, loosely based on Strickland, admits that she knows that "Mary P.'s" narrative is not false because she took it down herself.
Prince's narrative is different from the traditional model of U.S. slave narratives in a number of ways. In addition to providing crucial evidence for understanding the diversity of global slavery, as well as the specifics of slavery in the British West Indies, the narrative documents the victimization of slave women by male and female slave owners, slave participation in the British West Indian judicial system and in the local economy as entrepreneurs, and the influence of the nonconformist religions in providing a venue to assert slave subjectivity. Her narrative and life offer testimony to her courage and determination to be seen and treated as a human being.
See also Women Writers of the Caribbean
Haynes, Roberta R. "Voice, Body and Collaboration: Constructions of Authority in The History of Mary Prince. " The Literary Griot 11, no. 1 (1999): 18–32.
Paquet, Sandra Pouchet. "The Heartbeat of a West Indian Slave: The History of Mary Prince." African American Review 26, no. 1 (1992): 131–146.
Rauwerda, A. M. "Naming Agency and 'A Tissue of Falsehoods' in The History of Mary Prince. " Victorian Literature and Culture 29, no. 2 (2001): 397–411.
Salih, Sarah. "Introduction." In The History of Mary Prince. London: Penguin Books, 2000.
Sharpe, Jenny. "'Something Akin to Freedom': The Case of Mary Prince." Differences 8 no. 1 (1996): 31–55.
Whitlock, Gillian. "The Silent Scribe: Susanna and 'Black Mary.'" International Journal of Canadian Studies 11 (1995): 249–260.
nicole n. aljoe (2005)