Prince, Mary (c. 1788–after 1833)

views updated

Prince, Mary (c. 1788–after 1833)

Caribbean writer who was the first African-English woman to escape from slavery and publish an account of her experiences. Born at Brackish-Pond in Bermuda, around 1788: died after 1833.

In 1831, after purchasing her freedom from slavery, Mary Prince published her autobiography The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave, Related by Herself, a powerful document that inflamed public opinion and created political upheaval between pro- and anti-slavery factions. The book, first published in London and Edinburgh, went into a third printing that same year. A modern edition, edited by Moira Ferguson , was published in 1987.

Born in Bermuda around 1788, Prince was the daughter of a household slave who worked on a farm, and a sawyer who was owned by a shipbuilder. Her mother's owner died when Prince was just an infant, and she was sold with her mother to a Captain Darrel and given to his young granddaughter Miss Betsey Williams , although she remained under her mother's care. "I was made quite a pet of by Miss Betsey, and loved her very much," she recalled in her autobiography. "She used to lead me about by the hand, and call me her little nigger. This was the happiest period of my life, for I was too young to understand rightly my condition as a slave, and too thoughtless and full of spirits to look forward to the days of toil and sorrow."

At 12, Prince was hired out of the Williams household and was forced to leave her mother and Miss Betsey, a separation that caused her great pain. In her new position, she cared for her mistress' young son, of whom she grew quite fond. After three months, however, Prince was returned to the Williams home to be sold away, along with her mother and siblings, by Betsey's father. Prince described in detail being dressed by her mother in her very best clothes and marched off to the marketplace where she was placed in a line with her brothers and sisters against the wall of a house. "I, as the eldest, stood first, Hannah next to me, then Dinah; and our mother stood beside, crying over us," she remembered. "My heart throbbed with grief and terror so violently, that I pressed my hands quite tightly across my breast, but I could not keep it still, and it continued to leap as though it would burst out of my body. But who cared for that? Did one of the many bystanders, who were looking at us so carelessly, think of the pain that wrung the hearts of the negro woman and her young ones? No, no! They were all not bad, I dare say, but slavery hardens white people's hearts towards the blacks; and many of them were not slow to make their remarks upon us aloud, without regard to our grief."

There was yet to come the further humiliation of being led out into the middle of the street so she could be examined more closely. "I was soon surrounded by strange men, who examined and handled me in the same manner that a butcher would a calf or a lamb he was about to purchase, and who talked about my shape and size in like words—as if I could no more understand their meaning than the dumb beast." Fetching a good price for one so young, Prince was wrenched away from her family for a final time. "It was a sad parting; one went one way, one another, and our poor mammy went home with nothing."

Prince would be sold several times again, and would suffer further physical and psychological abuse at the hands of her various owners. Around 1814, after working in the salt ponds of the Turks Islands, then returning with a new owner to Bermuda in 1810, she was sold again, and went to Antigua. She remained there until 1827, when her owners took her with them to England. In England, she petitioned for her freedom, remaining there when her owners returned to Antigua. Prince lived the rest of her life as a free woman. Described as "confident and spirited," she worked for the editor of the Anti-Slavery Reporter and was an outspoken campaigner against slavery. She died sometime after 1833.

sources:

Buck, Claire, ed. The Bloomsbury Guide to Women's Literature. NY: Prentice Hall, 1992.

Busby, Margaret, ed. Daughters of Africa. NY: Pantheon Books, 1992.

Prince, Mary. The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave, Related by Herself in Six Women's Slave Narratives. Schomburg Library of 19th Century Black Women Writers.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

About this article

Prince, Mary (c. 1788–after 1833)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article