Reclaiming history; inspiring historical figures whose names and deeds may not be as well-known as some of their contemporaries because, well, you know…
Mary Prince (b. 1788 , Bermuda)
“Oh the horrors of slavery!—How the thought of it pains my heart! But the truth ought to be told of it; and what my eyes have seen I think it is my duty to relate; for few people in England know what slavery is. I have been a slave—I have felt what a slave feels, and I know what a slave knows; and I would have all the good people in England to know it too, that they may break our chains, and set us free.” – Mary Prince, 1831
From 1791, anti-slavery activists petitioned the British parliament to bring the slave trade to an end. In 1792 alone, 519 petitions were presented, driven in many cases by the stories coming out of the colonies from the slaves themselves. Political progress was slow however, and when the Abolition Act passed in 1807, banning the slave trade in the UK, the use of slaves in the colonies remained legal. Parliamentary petitions continued and, for the first time ever in 1829, one was presented by a woman, arguing for basic human rights for slaves. That woman was a Bermudan slave named Mary Prince.
Mary (also Molly) Prince, was born into slavery in Bermuda in 1788. She remained with her family for 12 years before being separated from them, sold to a different master. After 5 years of brutal treatment, including regular whippings, she was sent to another master on Turks Island where she worked in the salt ponds there for the next 10 years, resulting in the rheumatism that pained her for the rest of her life. In 1815, she was sold to yet another new master in Antigua. Mr John Wood, together with his wife, subjected her to more beatings and floggings, which had become a repeated feature of her life. During this time, she began attending the Moravian Church, where she learned to read, and she married a free man, Daniel James, in 1826. Her husband offered to buy her freedom, but the Woods refused, seemingly for no other reason than to punish her further.
In 1828, Mary was taken by the Woods to London as a servant, as slavery was illegal in Britain, but their hostile treatment of her continued. She was able to leave their service but she had no means, and returning to the West Indies would have resulted in a return to her status as a slave. She gained the assistance of the Moravian Church in London and obtained paid work with the family of Thomas Pringle, secretary of the Anti-Slavery Society. Several attempts were made by these organisations to buy or negotiate her manumission from John Wood, but he stubbornly and repeatedly refused to do so while questioning her character and honesty.
Mary’s attempts to gain her freedom from the Woods and her petition to parliament did not succeed, but in 1831 she published her story for the world to see. Her vivid, brutal descriptions of the physical and mental horrors of slavery caught the attention of the public and the book was reprinted twice in the first year. She forced the British population to examine their own complicity in slavery, asking;
“Did one of the many by-standers, 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 not all 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—though their light words fell like cayenne on the fresh wounds of our hearts.”
Some thought Mary’s experiences were too brutal to be true, and two libel actions were taken against the book, including one by her master Mr Wood. However, Mary defended herself and her history, testifying twice in court to its veracity.
In 1831, Mary wrote,
“I still live in the hope that God will find a way to give me my liberty, and give me back to my husband. I endeavour to keep down my fretting, and to leave all to Him, for he knows what is good for me better than I know myself. Yet, I must confess, I find it a hard and heavy task to do so.”
Two years later, the British Parliament finally placed a total ban on slavery. Mary’s testimony in the libel cases that year is the last record we have of her and it is not known if she died in the UK or was able to return home to her husband as a free woman. However, it is clear that her contribution to the fight against slavery eventually enabled others to experience the freedom that she was cruelly denied for so many years.
June 2019, Jacqueline MacDonald
“The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave” by Mary Prince, Edited by Sara Salih (1831)
The Abolition Project – Petitioning and Lobbying Parliament http://abolition.e2bn.org/campaign_16.html
The Guardian – “They bought me as a butcher would a calf or a lamb’” https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2007/oct/19/race.historybooks