In 1788, Mary Prince (1788-1833) was born into slavery in Brackish Pond, Bermuda. Her mother was owned by one Charles Myer, and her father was a shipbuilder’s sawyer. She and her mother were sold when she was scarcely more than a newborn to Captain Darrel Williams. Williams gifted Prince to his granddaughter, Betsey Williams. Her mother was gifted as a domestic slave to Sarah, Betsey’s mother. Think about that for a moment. Two enslaved women of African descent, a mother and daughter, “gifted” to two free white women, also a mother and daughter.
Prince served as Betsey’s companion until she turned twelve. From there, she was leased to a neighboring household to serve as a nurse. After Williams’ wife died, she was sold to a “Mr. D—.” His full name is lost to history. Mr. D— put Prince to work in the Turks Islands, where she mined salt. Her time in the Turks Islands led to severe health problems, including rheumatism and St. Anthony’s fire. She received a lighter workload when Mr. D— gifted Prince to his daughter—only to rape and sexually abuse her during this time.
In 1815, she was sold again to a Mr. John Wood, who worked as a jobber. A jobber was someone who rented out slaves to other slave owners. These rented slaves usually were forced to do the most dangerous and backbreaking work, such as digging holes for sugarcane to be planted in. This might have been Prince’s fate. However, John’s wife, Margaret Wood, learned that Prince could do domestic work. She convinced her husband to purchase Prince as a domestic slave.
Prince went to Antigua as a slave to the Wood family. When John Wood was away from the household traveling, Prince found a way to earn money for herself in secret by selling yams and coffee and taking in washing.
While in Antigua, Prince joined the Moravian Church. The Moravian Church’s mission was to educate enslaved people, which is where Prince learned how to read. She was accepted to receive communion, but she feared asking John for his permission to attend the religious ceremony.
Through the church, she also met her future husband, a free carpenter named Daniel James. They married in December 1826. The Woods family were furious when they learned of the marriage, because they had not given their permission.
Nearly two years after marrying, the Woods family moved to London, England. They took Prince with them. During this time in British history, slavery was unsupported in England but legal in British colonies. Upon arriving on English soil, Mary Prince was technically a free woman, but the Woods family refused to let her go.
She worked for the Woods family until November 1828, only a short time after arriving in England. She escaped the Woods’ household and consulted with Moravian Missionaries and the Anti-Slavery Society in London. She sought to buy her freedom from John Wood, which would allow her to return to her family in Antigua without the threat of being enslaved again. However, John Wood refused her offer.
The Anti-Slavery Society petitioned the British Parliament multiple times to pressure John to provide Prince with her emancipation. However, the petition was unsuccessful when the Woods family returned to Antigua before the public hearing. Prince remained in London to keep her freedom and began working for Thomas Pringle (178 -1834) as a free domestic servant.
While serving in Pringle’s household, Prince told her story to Susanna Moodie (1803-1885), a writer and abolitionist. Pringle edited the manuscript himself and published it in 1831 as The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave, Related by Herself, the first account of an enslaved black woman published in England. Her autobiography was so successful it appeared in three editions that year, but with its triumph came multiple lawsuits.
Thomas Cadell attacked Prince and Pringle in Blackwood’s Magazine with pro-slavery attacks. In 1833, Pringle sued Cadell, and Prince took the stand during the trial. Outside of her autobiography, this is the only other known record of her direct word. Cadell then fought back and sued Pringle for libel, winning by default because Pringle could not secure any witnesses from the West Indies to corroborate the events in Prince’s History.
After these lawsuits, Prince is lost to history. It’s not known what happened to her, but scholars assume that she remained in England until her death since returning to her family in Antigua risked enslavement again.
There are few written accounts from women of African descent in the time of slavery in the British colonies. The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave, Related by Herself is an important historical document for this very reason, because it highlights the abject horrors of enslavement under British rule. Prince says it the best herself with the passage that closes out her autobiography:
“All slaves want to be free – to be free is very sweet. I will say the truth to English people who may read this history… I have been a slave myself – I know what slaves feel – I can tell by myself what other slaves feel, and by what they have told me. The man that says slaves be quite happy in slavery – that they don’t want to be free – that man is either ignorant or a lying person.”
If you’d like to read The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave, Related by Herself, its available on Project Gutenberg.
Ex-slave Mary Prince was a ‘savvy narrator’ who used religion to convince the British public that black people were human beings from St. John’s College, University of Cambridge
The First Slave Narrative by a Woman: The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave on The Women’s Print History Project
Five Black British figures history forgets by Habiba Katsha
The History of Mary Prince, the British Library
Mary Prince on Slavery and Remembrance
Mary Prince: The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave. Related by Herself. With a Supplement by the Editor. To Which Is Added, the Narrative of Asa-Asa, a Captured African on Documenting the American South
Who was Mary Prince? on Royal Museums Greenwich