March 1, 2021

Mary Prince, the first black slave who wrote her autobiography | Culture

Mary Prince, the first black slave who wrote her autobiography | Culture


The slavery seen from the own slavery. The lack of freedom told with all its harshness by someone who was already born in a slave family. This summarizes the contribution that Mary Prince, surely without knowing its transcendence, made with the publication of his autobiography, a treaty against slavery that gives an accurate knowledge of the brutal treatment experienced by the slaves of Bermuda in the hands of their owners.

The history of Mary Prince, a west indian slave written by herselfes (The story of Mary Prince, a slave of Western Indians, written by herself) is the first historical document that tells in first person the daily life of a slave from the archipelago of Bermuda – British colony -. A file that turned these islands into the main stage of debate on the abolition of slavery that took place during the nineteenth century in Britain. It was also the first account of the life of a black woman that was published in England.

Prince's book is considered a treaty against slavery and a reference of African black literature of the colonies. When it came to light, slavery was no longer legal in Britain, but Parliament had not yet abolished it in the colonies, so their testimony caused a major uproar. Especially for the political and economic repercussions that could arise if Britain imposed the end of slavery throughout the empire. In the end, the autobiography contributed to the debate in a different way by its direct tone and its simple prose, as opposed to the literary style of the time.

The publication of the history of Mary Prince, whose first impression took place in February 1831, together with her express request to the British Parliament to claim her right to freedom, resulted in a successful strategy that helped achieve the emancipation of the slaves that, in the British Empire, occurred on August 1, 1834. Thanks to her testimony, Prince is recognized as a national heroine in Bermuda.

Mary Prince was born on October 1, 1788, in Bermuda, specifically in a place known today as Devonshire Parish. His parents and also his five brothers they were slaves. She said that she had five different owners in her life, all natives of Bermuda, although not all of them lived there; in fact, two of its owners had residences and commercial interests in the British colonies in the Antilles, where one was the owner of a salt industry and the other was a merchant and rentier. The latter rented slaves to other slavers and to people who did not have them.

When Mary was a baby, her mother and her brothers were sold. They were bought by Captain George Darrell, who gave Mary and her mother to the family of her granddaughter, Betsey Williams, who was almost the same age as Mary Prince. Mary's mother worked as a domestic slave in the Williams house and Mary was the playmate of little Betsey. Years later she recounted in her autobiographical book that it was the happiest period of her life, but she explained that this was because "she was too young" to correctly understand her condition as a slave.

Mary Prince turned 12 years old and her situation changed, the Williams family went through financial difficulties and could not support so many slaves. So he went to work at the Prudden house, but months later it was put up for sale with his two younger sisters because Mr. Williams needed money to remarry.

A different slave owner bought each girl. Captain John Ingham bought Mary for 57 pounds of Bermudian currency and went on to become his third owner. Mary Prince always remembered her cruelty, people who beat them like "ordinary punishment", even for a minor offense, Prince acknowledged that despite being a child, she was tortured at this stage of her life.

When Mary could not take it anymore and saw the possibility, she escaped from the Ingham farm to take refuge in the house where her mother was a slave doing the work of a maid. Mary's mother knew she could be punished for harboring a runaway slave, so she hid Mary Prince in a hole in the rocks near the house and brought her food at night. After a few days, Mary's own father, whose only given name was Prince, returned Mary to Ingham's farm.

A short time later, Captain Ingham put Mary on a ship bound for Grand Turk Island as punishment. The slave owners considered that running away was rebellious behavior. Grand Turk was a satellite colony of Bermuda in which there were many salt industries that used the labor of the slaves. The salt that was produced evaporated by the sun was a very valuable good that was used in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to preserve meat and fish.

On Grand Turk Island Mary was again auctioned and Robert Darrell bought it for 100 pounds of Bermuda currency, becoming his fourth slave owner. Like Captain Ingham, he was also very cruel to her. Mary worked as a slave in the island's large salt ponds around ten years, often up to seventeen hours a day. After that horrible time, Robert Darrell himself took her with him to Bermuda, where he had a residence.

Back in the Bermuda Islands Mary continued to suffer all kinds of abuse and humiliation, but she started working in a home in 1810, where she earned money for her master by washing clothes. Then he learned that a young rentier and slave trader was going to Antigua. Mary's entire family was there, so she asked Robert Darrell to let him go "to Mr. Wood's service."

The slaves who depended on the rentiers always had the worst jobs, like digging holes in which sugar cane was planted, so perhaps Mary Prince worked on that when she arrived in Antigua, although for a short time, because when the wife of the Lord Wood realized that she could do housework and bought it for 100 pounds of Bermuda currency. In this way, Robert Darrell regained his initial 'investment' and benefited from all the work Mary had done for him and from the money he had earned by washing clothes.

Mary worked for Wood, her fifth and last owner, for 13 years in Antigua. She began to suffer from rheumatism, an illness that made her unable to work. When the Woods traveled, Mary earned her own money by washing or selling coffee and other supplies to the boats.

A few years later, Mary joined the congregation of Moravia, which provided education to the slaves. Three Moravian missionaries taught her to read and write and, shortly after, at Christmas of 1826, she married a black man who had bought her freedom, Daniel James. The Wood were angry when they learned that Mary had married Daniel without her permission because they did not want to have anyone else at home and they continued to mistreat her physically.

A year and a half after Mary married Daniel, the Woods went to London and took Mary with them. It was 1828 and slavery was not supported by the British legal system, although it was still allowed in the British colonies, so Mary felt herself a free woman when she went out into the street. Wood told her that he either obeyed her or left home, but Mary had no means to support herself. However, many people helped her. They gave him clothes, money and paid work. Near the end of November 1828, he arrived at the abolitionist office, where he met Thomas Pringle.

Mary wanted to return to Antigua to join her husband Daniel as a free woman, so with the help of Pringle she tried to negotiate with Mary Wood for Mary's freedom, but she did not agree. It was decided to take Mary's case to Parliament, and a petition was made. It was presented on June 24, 1829 and in it he expressed his desire to return to the West Indies, but not as a slave. The petition was not accepted and shortly after the Wood family returned to Antigua without Mary, who became unemployed.

Thomas Pringle and his wife Margaret hired Mary Prince as a paid maid, and she moved home in December 1829. Then the idea of ​​publishing her life story came up, but the project did not start until Thomas Pringle, along with other abolitionist friends, he negotiated the freedom of Mary Prince regarding the Wood family.

Encouraged by Pringle, Prince accepted that his life was transcribed by Susanna Strickland, who later emigrated with her husband to Canada and became the best-known writer of the nineteenth century under the pseudonym Susanna Moodie. Pringle was the editor and his book was published in 1831 as The story of Mary Prince, a slave of the West Indies written by herself.

The publication of the book meant the denunciation to Pringle by two cases of defamation and Mary Prince He was called to testify in both: one was won by Pringle and in the other the judge ruled Prince's story as exaggerated.

Prince's life after the publication of his book is not well known and nowhere is it shown if he returned to Antigua with his husband as was his wish. It is known that he remained in England until at least 1833, when he testified in the two cases of defamation and approved the Law of Abolition of Slavery, which came into force in August 1834. This law was intended to achieve a two-stage abolition of the slavery of the western Indians and postponed to 1840 to give time to the colonies to make the transition of their economies. Due to the protests in the western Indians the colonies completed the abolition two years before, in 1838.

In Bermuda, which did not depend on the institution of slavery, emancipation took place immediately after the law came into force. This affected the situation of Mary Prince, that from August of 1834 could return to Antigua and be free.

Prince's book concludes: "This is slavery. I tell him to let the English know the truth; and I hope they never stop praying to God and call out loud to the great King of England, until all the poor blacks are freed, and slavery eliminated forever. "

The life of Mary Prince, who also does not know the date of his death, says a lot about the difficulties that the slaves had to endure and their acts of courage, overcoming the circumstances and inspiring the struggle for freedom and equality of men and women almost 300 years later.

Mary Prince

Curiously, however, Prince's book did not arrive in Bermuda until more than 150 years after its publication, when a US researcher presented a copy of the book to the Bermuda Archives.

On October 26, 2007, in the year of the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade, a plaque was inaugurated in the house in which he lived in London. 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."

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