Women's Writing Before Woolf: A Social Reference/Mary Prince (1788–1833)

Mary Prince (1788-1833)Edit

Biography:Edit

Born in Bermuda circa 1 October 1788, Mary Prince was a black women who spent a large portion of her life in slavery (Museum of the African Diaspora). She was born into enslavement and when the house-servant of her mother died, Prince, her mother and her siblings were sold separately as slaves (Prince, 4). Prince was just 12 at the time and was first sold to Captain John Ingham, the first of four enslavers that she was to answer to in her life (Prince 5). She was then sold in 1806 to her next enslaver, Mr D. in the Grand Turk where she worked in the salt ponds (Prince 10). She eventually retuned to Bermuda in 1810 and then was sold again in 1815 to John Adam Wood under whom she worked as a household slave (Prince 10). During this time, she also met her husband, Daniel James, at the Moravian Church, who was a free man (Prince 17).

Prince was treated very poorly and experienced emotional and physical abuse, including beatings, throughout her time as a slave. In her account, The History of Mary Prince she states that “There was scarcely any punishment more dreadful than the blows I received on my face and head from her hard heavy fist” (Prince 6). She also witnessed the confronting and graphic abuse of others. She states that “My master flew into a terrible passion, and ordered the poor creature (Hetty) to be stripped quite naked, notwithstanding her pregnancy, and to be tied to a tree in the yard” (Prince 7).

In 1828, Prince travelled to England with her fourth enslaver, Wood, upon her request (Prince 18). As it was illegal to transport slaves out of England, after expressing her desires to be free Mary was given a letter to leave but it suggested that she should not be hired for work (Prince 20). Wood refused to emancipate her which meant that she could not return to Antigua to her husband without being enslaved there (Prince 20). She began to work for Thomas Pringle, the secretary to the Anti-slave society (Prince 22). He attempted to assist her to be free of Wood so she could return back home to Antigua (Prince 22). In December of 1829 Pringle encouraged Prince to have her life narrative transcribed which she was happy to do (Sharpe 129). Susanna Strickland, a friend of Pringle, then transcribed her story and a book was published in 1832, The History of Mary Prince (Sharpe 129). It is unclear whether she ever went made it back to Antigua and her family (Sharpe 129).

Works:Edit

Prince’s only book The History of Mary Prince gives a raw and honest account of her experiences as a black female slave during this time. Pringle suggested and enabled her to have her work published, which is important to note when thinking about her text (Sharpe 128). Abolitionists like Pringle hope to address the issue of freedom of slaves in England despite the continued ownership by masters in the West Indies (Sharpe 128). Prince’s work is an autobiographical account that tales her life as a slave up until she is living in the Pringle household. It includes Christian themes and viewings on life as well as a clear representation of the need for freedom and justice. Prince’s inequality as a black women is clearly evidenced through her honest recount of her life. Some concepts are also omitted from the tale, whether through Prince’s wishes or the process of transcribing and publishing her story, including the nature of sexual misconduct by Mr D. (Sharpe 134).

Her work also demonstrates her speaking out against her enslavers. After running away to her Mother, she states to Captain I that she “could not stand the floggings no longer; that I was weary of my life” and it is noted that he did not flog her that day (Prince 9). This is an important example of these oppressed slave women speaking out against their masters. Prince’s work is the first autobiographical account of a black slave women, and is an essential text in demonstrating the nature of slavery and the possibility of freedom.

Reputation/ Legacy:Edit

Upon publication of Prince’s autobiography, the work was immediately publicly recognised and met with both support from anti-slavers but also a significant amount of criticism. Three editions of the text were printed within the first year of publication. James MacQueen presents a particularly long and harsh critiquing response to the book. MacQueen wrote his piece as a letter to Earl Grey, First Lord of the Treasury, and expresses his disagreement with the ways in which Prince left her enslaver in England and criticises her character as a person (Centre for the Study of Women in Society). He writes that “It is clear that her master and mistress have been most previously imposed upon, and most cruelly deceived by this women” (Centre for the Study of Women in Society). In his letter he raises the further point of his issue with the emancipation of slaves in British colonies (Centre for the Study of Women in Society). Thomas Cadell, the editor, was as such sued by Pringle for publishing these articles against Prince (Thomas 114). Wood, one of her enslavers, also sued Pringle for libel on the grounds that he was misrepresented in Prince’s work (Thomas 114). He won this court case but was only given 35 pounds in damages (Thomas 114).

The legacy of Prince’s work is continuing and is presented through a variety of contemporary viewpoints. Modern scholars have critiqued the authenticity and veracity of the text as it was transcribed by a white women and influenced by Pringle who was a white male. It is argued that this influence may have tainted the lens through which Prince’s story was told. Banner (298) argues that Prince’s life in the story is ‘framed’ through the influence of Pringle and suggests that racial inequality caused a suppression of the actual voice of Prince. Rauwerda (399-400) further asserts that the various modern editions and reprinting with accompanying introductions, appendixes, edits and footnotes further remove Prince’s voice from the narrative and make it much more of a reflection of the editors. She suggests that the text is very much constructed by the views of others including Pringle (Rauwerda 400). Martin (310) argues contrastingly that despite these critical perspectives, it should be acknowledged that Prince was able to fight against her enslavers and gradually make her way to external and internal freedom. This is an essential ideology especially for such early writing. He raises the idea that Prince, in remembrance of her conversation with Mrs Wood, expresses her gradual understanding of her need for inner freedom despite the reality of her circumstances (Martin 314). These perspectives illustrate the idea that Prince’s text, despite it being possibly flawed, is still continually studied and referred to as an important reference for black female slave history.

Further reading:Edit

Museum of the African Diaspora. “Mary Prince.” Museum of the African Diaspora Smithsonian Affiliate, accessed April 25 2021, https://www.moadsf.org/slavery-narratives/2855-2/.

Sharpe, Jenny. Ghosts of Slavery: A Literary Archaeology of Black Women’s Lives. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2003. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy.newcastle.edu.au/lib/newcastle/reader.action?docID=310607 .

Works Cited:Edit

Banner, Rachel. "Surface and Stasis: Re-reading Slave Narrative via The History of Mary Prince." Callaloo, vol. 36, no. 2, 2013, pp. 298-311. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/cal.2013.0112.

Centre for the Study of Women in Society. “Women and Slavery in the British Caribbean: The History of Mary Prince (1831).” Feminist Humanities Project, Centre for the Study of Women in Society University of Oregon, ttp://server.fhp.uoregon.edu/dtu/sites/prince/texts/empire.html. Accessed April 25 2021.

Martin, Dyanne. "Island Squalls of Indignation: The Rhetoric of Freedom in the History of Mary Prince." CEA Critic, vol. 79, no. 3, 2017, pp. 309-315. ProQuest Ebook Central, doi:10.1353/cea.2017.0029.

Museum of the African Diaspora. “Mary Prince.” Museum of the African Diaspora Smithsonian Affiliate, accessed April 25 2021, https://www.moadsf.org/slavery-narratives/2855-2/.

Prince, Mary. The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave. Edited by Shell, Suzanne Shell, Sanker Viswanathan and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team, F. Westley and A.H.Davis and Waugh & Innes, Edinburgh, 1831. Project Gutenberg, https://gutenberg.org/files/17851/17851-h/17851-h.htm .

Rauwerda, A. M. "Naming, Agency, and “a Tissue of Falsehoods” in the History of Mary Prince." Victorian Literature and Culture, vol. 29, no. 2, 2001, pp. 397-411. JSTOR, doi:10.1017/S106015030100208X.

Sharpe, Jenny. Ghosts of Slavery: A Literary Archaeology of Black Women’s Lives. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2003. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy.newcastle.edu.au/lib/newcastle/reader.action?docID=310607 .

Thomas, Sue. "Pringle v. Cadell and Wood v. Pringle: The Libel Cases Over the History of Mary Prince." Journal of Commonwealth Literature, vol. 40, no. 1, 2005, pp. 113-135. Sage Journals, doi:10.1177/0021989405050668. ==