I first came across Mary Prince as a university undergraduate. Whilst studying the minutes of The Birmingham Ladies Friends Society, an all-female group dedicated to the abolition of slavery, her name cropped up several times. A letter written from Lucy Townsend, one of the founding members on the group, showed excitement at the prospect of meeting Mary Prince whose autobiography The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave became a key part of the Anti-Slavery Campaign. I was surprised, that before reaching undergraduate study, I had not come across her in any reading I had done on British Abolitionism. The history of abolition has been viewed through a Eurocentric lens and whilst many historians have worked to shift the emphasis on European Abolitionism, many activists of colour still slip under the radar. Mary Prince’s story is crucial to the history of British Anti-Slavery and I have provided an introduction to her below.
Mary was born into an enslaved family in Bermuda in 1788. As a child she was sold along with her maternal mother to Darrel Williams. Prince spent her childhood years as a companion to William’s granddaughter but was sold again on the death of William’s wife. She was put to work in the salt ponds of Turks Island, an experience she recounts in great detail in her autobiography. The long hours would result in both blisters from standing unprotected in the sun and boils from standing in the salt water for prolonged periods of time, some even going down to the bone. After returning to Bermuda in 1817, she was sold again to John Wood of Antigua. Whilst with the Wood family she met a freed slave by the name of Daniel James, they were married in 1826. This was seen as an act of rebellion by the Woods who severely beat her for doing so. She was taken from her husband in 1828 when the family travelled to England. Whilst slave ownership was illegal in Britain, the same could not be said for the rest of the British Empire. The Abolition Act of 1807 prohibited Britain’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade, but the institution of slavery still continued within Britain’s colonies. This meant that whilst Prince was supposedly free the moment she set foot in England, she was not free to return to her husband in Antigua without the risk of being re-enslaved. When John Wood refused to sell Prince her freedom she took her cause to the Anti-Slavery Society, petitioning parliament against Wood’s decision. However, before the petition could be brought into the public domain, John Wood fled back to Antigua. Shortly after, Mary took up employment, as a freed domestic servant, in the house of abolitionist John Pringle. It was here that she recounted her experiences as a slave to writer Susanna Moodie. The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave was subsequently published in 1831. Her autobiography was hugely popular, being used by anti-slavery groups around the world.
Mary Prince’s actions are hugely significant within history, she was the first women to present an Anti-Slavery Petition to parliament. Her petitioning led the way for all female anti-slavery groups to do the same. Secondly, whilst many slave narratives had been published during the 18th century by writer’s such as Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano, Mary Prince was the first woman of colour to publish an autobiography of her experiences. Her narrative documented the brutality she suffered at the hands of both slave owners and their wives. It gave a renewed fervour to the abolition movement which had lost some of its motivation after the Abolition Act of 1807. As mentioned above, whilst this act had been passed, the practice of slavery was still allowed to continue in the British Colonies. The widespread publication of her autobiography, it being reprinted three times alone in the first year of its publication, was effective in showing the public that even though the slave trade had been made illegal many horrors of plantation life still continued. Furthermore, Britain’s consumer economy was reliant on slave grown sugar meaning that much of the debate around abolishing slavery focused on the economic repercussions of such an act. The focus on slaves as an economic commodity rather than as fellow men did much to dehumanise them. Through using her own personal experiences, Prince showed captive slaves as more than just a statistic. Her focus on the female experience rallied women to join the cause, many of the female led anti-slavery societies distributing her autobiography both nationally and internationally. After the publication of her book she continued to campaign for the abolition of slavery.
Despite her contribution to the anti-slavery cause, her work has often been diminished and overlooked. Her role in reviving the anti-slavery movement was pivotal in bringing about the Abolition Act of 1833 and her story must be remembered. Below I have put a link to a free copy of her autobiography.