Born into slavery in Bermuda, Mary Prince was the first woman to publish an account of her life as slave. The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave, Written by Herself, was published by the Anti-Slavery Society in 1831 in London and Edinburgh.
It was a best seller, with three editions sold that year, and was so controversial it led to two libel cases. Modern-day scholars consider it a classic because it provides a rare glimpse into the life of a female slave and is an example of early black Atlantic literature.
It’s a landmark document for Bermuda because The History of Mary Prince is the only first-hand account that exists of the day-to- day life of a Bermudian slave. It moved Bermuda to the centre stage of the heated debate about abolition during the 19th century because of its earth-shattering contents.
Published as an anti-slavery treatise, The History of Mary Prince describes in exacting detail the brutal treatment Prince experienced as a slave in Bermuda, Turks Island and Antigua. It lent weight to the abolitionist movement, which was at its height in England, when she arrived there in 1828.
Prince was born around 1788 at Brackish Pond in Devonshire, on a farm belonging to Charles Myners. Her mother was a household slave and her father, whose first name was Prince, was a carpenter, who was ‘owned’ by Frances and David Trimingham, a shipbuilder at Crow Lane.
Charles Myners died when Prince was an infant and the property and slaves were sold. She and her mother ended up in the household of Captain Williams and became the playmate of his daughter Betsey.
In her narrative, Prince describes this period as the happiest of her life. Captain John Williams mistreated his wife Sarah and his slaves, but he was away at sea most of the time and her tasks were light.
Her mother gave birth to three boys and two girls during her time in the Williams household. Prince experienced the first separation from her family when she was hired out to a Mrs. Pruden when she was around 12. Things got worse after Mrs. Williams died.
Prince, her mother and sisters Hannah and Dinah were sold to separate owners at a slave market in Hamilton by Capt. Williams. Prince was sold for £57 to Captain John Ingham and his wife Mary Spencer Ingham, who lived in Spanish Point.
During her first night in the Ingham household, stricken with grief at the separation from her family, she heard the cries of a slave, a French black woman named Hetty who was being beaten by Ingham.
The beatings got worse and Prince witnessed many of them. Hetty, “led a most miserable life”, Prince said. Ingham even whipped Hetty when she was when pregnant. She gave birth to a stillborn baby, and later died herself.
Hetty’s mind-numbing tasks, which included caring for cattle and children, were passed on to Prince, who received her share of beatings as well. Things got so bad, she ran away to her mother, who was living in the household of Richard Darrell, a future mayor of Hamilton.
Her mother hid her for a time in a cave and then her father got involved. Still living at Crow Lane, he took her back to the Inghams and apologised on her behalf for running away, but appealed to Capt. Ingham to “be a kind master to her in future.”
The cruel treatment continued, almost daily. She remained in the Ingham household for about five years, but around 1805, she was sold to a Mr. Dand almost immediately was put on a sloop that was sailing 1,000 miles south to Turks Island, and was not given the opportunity to say goodbye to her family.
The journey to Turks Island (now Turks and Caicos) took nearly four weeks. It was “unusually long” because of light winds and Prince nearly starved as food supplies dwindled. Turks Island was a virtual colony of Bermuda.
Bermudians, white slave owners and black slaves, raked tons of salt in the salt ponds, which they sold on the east coast of the U.S. and Canada, for use to preserve food, including codfish.
Prince met Mr. D in Turks Island, where he owned salt ponds. He had her appraised at £100, and then put her to work. Mr. D, she wrote, received a “certain sum” for each slave who worked for him.
The regimen in the salt ponds was backbreaking. Prince and her fellow slaves worked long hours, standing barefoot in salt ponds in the hot sun. Mr. D was sadistic. He often stripped her naked, hung her up by her wrists and beat her.
She said the treatment she received was not unusual. While living in Turks Island, she was temporarily reunited with her mother, who arrived on a sloop with a four-year-old daughter, Rebecca, whom Prince had never met.
Prince remained in Turks Island for about 10 years. She returned to Bermuda with Mr. D and remained in his household, farming vegetables and doing household work.
Life was less harsh, but she was sexually abused by Mr. D. He proved to be a tyrant to his own daughter. Prince had to intervene when he beat her during a drunken stupor.
Despite her powerlessness, Prince demonstrated courage in standing up for herself. She achieved a measure of independence when she was hired out to work in a home at “Cedar Hills” and was paid for her services.
While working in “Cedar Hills”, she saw her chance to escape her life with the “indecent” Mr. D, when she heard that merchant John Wood and his wife were moving to Antigua. Mr. D agreed to hire her to the Woods, who later purchased her for £100.
Around 1816, she sailed to Antigua with the Woods, but the relationship was stormy. She became ill, and Mrs. Wood complained about her work performance and beat her. The Woods threatened to sell her, which Prince wanted, but they reneged.
She was baptised in the Church of England in August 1817, but she later left to join a Moravian church, whose members taught her how to read, without insisting that she get the Woods’ permission.
She had the opportunity to earn money, doing laundry and selling yams and other provisions when the Woods were away in the countryside, leaving her in charge of the household.
In December 1826 she married a free black man Daniel James, a widowed carpenter, in the Moravian Church, which angered the Woods because they were not told in advance.
Prince lived in Antigua for 13 years. By then, her ties to her own family had been permanently severed. Her father died when she and her mother were in Turks Island and her mother died while she was in Antigua.
She knew nothing of the whereabouts of her seven brothers and three sisters, other than that of her eldest sister who had taken up residence in Trinidad as her slave master’s mistress, and the youngest, Rebecca, who was in Bermuda.
In 1828, she sailed with the Woods to England, where their son had been enrolled in school. She saw it as her chance to obtain the freedom that had been denied her in Antigua.
The Woods had refused to free her even though she had the means to purchase her freedom. Her slave status made marriage to a free man difficult.
The Woods were no kinder to her in London. Overworked and suffering from rheumatism and realising she was a free person in England, she made her way to the Moravian Church and eventually to the offices of the Anti-Slavery Society. There she sought legal advice about how to win her freedom in Antigua.
In the spring of 1829, she found work as a domestic, but by the end of the year, she was hired to work in the household of Thomas Pringle, secretary of the Anti-Slavery Society. It was a time when slaves were encouraged to share their stories to aid the cause of abolition.
The two libel cases that followed the publication of Prince’s History were settled in 1833, the same year the Emancipation Bill, which freed slaves throughout the British Empire, including Bermuda, was passed by the House of Commons in London.
Prince, aged 45, by then half blind and in poor health, gave evidence at both trials, and then disappeared into the history books. Pringle won the first case, but lost the libel case brought against him by the Woods, who said Prince’s report of their treatment of her was untrue.
The Bermuda Royal Gazette on November 22, 1831, published a spirited defence of the Woods, implying that Prince was a prostitute and wondered why the Anti-Slavery Society would believe her story.
Incredibly, a copy of Prince’s narrative never apparently reached the shores of Bermuda until 1985, when an American scholar doing research on Mary Prince presented the Bermuda Archives with a copy.
It only gained wider attention in 1988 following its inclusion in The Classic Slave Narratives, edited by Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates.
Bermudian historian Cyril Packwood hailed it as an exciting discovery. He had come across a reference to Prince’s story while doing research for Chained to the Rock, his history of slavery in Bermuda, but he was unable to put his hands on the actual narrative until Gates’ book appeared in local bookstores.
Other than the Woods, slave owners were not identified in the narrative, but Dr. Moira Ferguson, a professor of English and Women’s Literature at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, did extensive research at the Bermuda Archives to uncover their identity.
The narrative is considered both propaganda for the anti-slavery movement and an example of early black writing. As one of an estimated 6,000 slave narratives published, it helped lay the foundation for the black literary tradition in the West.
Even though scholars concede Prince’s tale was skewed to serve the interests of the abolitionist movement, they don’t doubt its accuracy. It’s on reading lists of women’s and black studies courses in universities in US and the UK.
Prince actually dictated her story to Susanna Strickland, who was a frequent houseguest of Thomas Pringle. Strickland later emigrated with her husband to Canada, where she became Canada’s best-known 19th-century author, writing under her married name Susanna Moodie.
Prince, who attended Moodie’s wedding in England, concluded her narrative: “This is slavery. I tell it to let English people know the truth; and I hope they will never leave off to pray God, and call loud to the great King of England, till all the poor blacks be given free, and slavery done up for evermore.”
Mary Prince’s life speaks volumes about the hardships slaves had to endure and their individual acts of courage. Her story of triumph over tragedy continues to inspire nearly 300 years later.
On October 26, 2007, the year of the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade, a plaque was unveiled at the University of London’s Senate House in London, England to commemorate the accomplishments of Mary Prince. Mary Prince lived in a house on the site in 1829. The plaque reads: “Mary Prince, 1788-1833, the first African woman to publish her memoirs of slavery lived in a house on this site in 1829.”