In the introduction to The History of Mary Prince, editor Thomas Pringle asserts that "The idea of writing Mary Prince's history was first suggested by herself." Her purpose, writes Pringle, is to ensure that "good people in England might hear from a slave what a slave had felt and suffered" (p. i). Prince's History is one of the earliest narratives intended to reveal the ugly truths about slavery in the West Indies to an English reading public, who were largely unaware of its atrocities. While eighteenth-century slave narratives often focused on Christian spiritual journeys and religious redemption, Prince's narrative was part of a growing trend of abolitionist-themed narratives that focused on slavery's injustices, in the same vein as A Narrative of the Adventures and Escape of Moses Roper (1838) and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845). Her narrative is also particularly important, because few early women's slave narratives exist. As scholar William L. Andrews notes, escaped enslaved women rarely asked for or received attention that "encouraged them to dictate or write their life stories" (p. xxxii).
Mary Prince was born in Brackish Pond, Bermuda, in 1788. Her mother was enslaved in the household of Charles Myners, and her father was a shipbuilder's sawyer. As an infant, she was sold with her mother to Darrel Williams, who gave her as a gift to his granddaughter. Prince served as a childhood companion to the granddaughter until age twelve, when she was hired out as a nurse to a neighboring household. After the death of Williams' wife, he sold Prince to another slaveowner in Spanish Point, Bermuda. After a period working in the salt ponds of Turks Island, she returned to Bermuda and was sold once more, this time to John Wood of Antigua. In 1817, Prince joined the local Moravian Church. There she met her future husband, a free carpenter and cooper named Daniel James, whom she married in December of 1826. Prince accompanied the Woods to England in 1828. Technically freed from slavery upon her arrival on English soil, she worked for the Wood family until November of that year, when she left their household and consulted with a local anti-slavery society. When Wood refused to sell Prince her freedom—which would allow her to return to her family in Antigua without being re-enslaved—the Anti-Slavery Society petitioned Parliament in June 1829 to compel Wood to grant her manumission. The petition was neutralized, however, by Wood's departure for Antigua before it was brought to public hearing.
In November 1829, Prince remained in London and entered the household of Thomas Pringle as a free domestic servant. While with the Pringles, she dictated her life story to Susanna Moodie, a writer and member of the London anti-slavery movement. Pringle edited and published Prince's History in 1831; it became so popular that three editions were printed that year. The publication was followed by a series of civil suits: Thomas Cadell published pro-slavery attacks on Mary Prince and Thomas Pringle in Blackwood's Magazine, prompting Pringle to sue Cadell in 1833. Prince briefly took the stand, providing the only known record of her words outside of her own narrative. In turn, Wood sued Pringle for libel and won by default, because Pringle could not provide witnesses from the West Indies to corroborate Prince's allegations. This court case marks the last time Prince appears in the public record. The events of her life afterward are unknown, and most scholars assume she remained in England until her death.
Mary Prince begins her History with a brief description of her childhood, before turning to her adult experiences under slavery in the West Indies. She describes her early childhood in the household of Captain Williams as "the happiest period of my life; for I was too young to understand rightly my condition as a slave." But after she is sold to a new owner, she depicts her treatment under slavery in stark detail (p. 1). As an adult, Prince reveals the appalling work conditions under which slaves are forced to labor. Whether working as a domestic or a field laborer in the Turks Island salt ponds, she is continually pushed past the point of physical exhaustion by owners who abuse her and to whom she "could give no satisfaction" (p. 15).
Prince counterpoints the physical and emotional toll of her daily labor with excruciating details of the beatings she endures at the hands of her masters as well as their wives. She is hopeful at each change of ownership that she might receive better treatment, but she soon finds she is simply "going from one butcher to another" (p. 10). She describes not only the physical details of her abuse—the beatings and whippings, the broken skin, the scarring, and the painful recovery—but also the systematic way in which her owners apply it, both as a psychological method of torment and as an emotional release for themselves. In one instance, she ironically describes her beatings as an education: "she taught me . . . to know the exact difference between the smart of the rope, the cart-whip, and the cow-skin, when applied to my naked body by her own cruel hand" (p. 6).
Prince's narrative is marked by acts of resistance, moments in which she shocks her owners by talking back or rebuking them. She actively seeks offers from potential new owners to escape current ones, she marries against the wishes of the Woods, she refuses to work when too ill to do so, and she eventually leaves the Wood family in England: "I took courage and resolved that I would not be longer thus treated, but would go and trust to Providence" (p. 20). This spirit of resistance not only enables Prince to survive a lifetime of abuse, but it pushes her to take up the abolitionist cause on behalf of those who remain enslaved.
Although the text published here does not include the Narrative of Asa-Asa appended to the bound copy of the History of Mary Prince, it does contain a large appendix of documents that reveal the arguments provided to Parliament and presented in the libel cases after Prince's History was first published. The names of two of her former owners who were no longer alive at the time of publication were withheld to protect "surviving and perhaps innocent relatives" from the public airing of their atrocities. Wood's transgressions, however, are published in full detail (p. i). The documents reveal Wood's embarrassment and outrage as he attacks Prince's morals, and they also show the extent to which it became necessary to defend Prince's character in order to maintain the veracity of her account and the abolitionist message it promotes.
Works Consulted: "Chronology," in The History of Mary Prince, ed. Sara Salih, xxxix-xl (London: Penguin, 2000); Andrews, William L., "Introduction," in Six Women's Slave Narratives, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., xxix-xli (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988); Ferguson, Moira, "Introduction," in The History of Mary Prince: A West Indian Slave, ed. Moira Ferguson, 1-41 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997).