In The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave Related by Herself, Prince recounts her life as a slave in Bermuda, and then in Antigua. Throughout the text, Prince details the various work demanded of her, including nursing, cooking, cleaning, and outdoor manual labor on the plantations and in the salt-ponds of "Turk's Island." She also recounts the physical, psychological and sexual abuse she and other enslaved people suffered through daily, and also notes the frequently abusive domestic relationships within white plantation-owning families.
Mary Prince was born into slavery in 1788 in Devonshire Parish, Bermuda. In The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave Related by Herself, Prince recounts her life as a slave in Bermuda, later in Antigua and ends with her life as a domestic servant in London. In The History, Prince records the particularly harsh realities of everyday life of an enslaved woman with great detail. Another of Prince's focuses is on the distinct power dynamics in the different labor environments of Bermuda, Turk’s Island, and Antigua, as well as the oft abusive dynamics within the homes of white plantation owners she was living with.
Prince recounts several acts of resistance, that were often met with increasing cruelty, but was eventually able to escape the severe and inhumane treatment by petitioning for herself to be purchased by John A. Wood Jr., who had been traveling to Antigua. This insured her departure from Bermuda, and she was subsequently brought to London in 1828 (Salih; Ferguson 1998). While in London, she was employed as a domestic servant for Thomas Pringle, the secretary of the Anti-Slavery Society, and while living in Pringle’s household, she dictated the History to Susannah Strickland, a guest of the Pringles. The text was first published in 1831 and ran to three editions soon after. As the editor, Pringle attached footnotes, his own preface, and a supplement to the text. The supplement contains a copy of the note John A. Wood Jr. had given Prince in London, declaring that, as she was then free in England, she should either leave the Woods, or return to Antigua. Pringle’s supplement also includes his own account of Prince’s character and his reading of The History, as well as an additional slave narrative of Louis Asa-Asa, as well as letters of authenticity from Pringle’s wife, Margaret Pringle, and the abolitionist Joseph Philips.
As historians Moira Ferguson and Sara Salih both note in their respective works, the initial publication of Mary Prince’s story drew angry responses from the British pro-slavery press, which led eventually two court cases. James Macqueen, editor of The Glasgow Courier, in particular, questioned the accuracy of the text and Prince’s morality. In an 1831 article for Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, he reads the narrative as anti-colonial propaganda aimed at destroying the characters of the Woods, and at misrepresenting the slave-owning planter class (whom he calls the “colonists”). Macqueen assumes that Pringle’s influence as an editor was the source of the critical view of the planter class within the text, and he calls Prince a “despicable tool,” claiming that his aim is to take “Pringle’s sting and Pringle’s venom out of Mary’s tale”(744). Macqueen’s attack led Pringle to bring a case of libel against Thomas Cadel, the editor of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, in 1833. Pringle’s suit was successful but in the same year, he was sued by John Wood, also for libel, for publishing Prince’s narrative. Ferguson, Salih, and Thomas all have found that very little is known of Mary Prince’s life after 1833, her last known appearance was in court as a witness at both libel trials. It is not known whether she eventually returned to Antigua, or whether she remained in England. (Salih xxviii-xxx, 100-103; Ferguson 1998, 27-28, 136-149) For further information about Prince’s life after 1831 see Sue Thomas’s “New Information on Mary and London.”
Since its initial republication in 1987, The History of Mary Prince has been important to scholars in a range of fields. In particular, The History has been important for literary scholars interested in issues of autonomy, authorship, and representations of self, by both enslaved and free black writers. The History has also been important for scholars examining the representation of imperial and abolitionist conceptions of race and gender.Ferguson, for example, has explored Prince’s construction of a “speaking, thinking, acting subject with an identity separate from Anglo-Africanist constructions of her past and present reality” (1992, 282). Sandra Pouchet Pacquet has read Prince’s History as part of a tradition of Caribbean women’s writing and a “female culture of resistance in the Caribbean.” (13). Scholars have also examined Prince’s narrative alongside other narratives of the Black Atlantic and North American slave narratives; The History of Mary Prince has been studied with other texts exploring spirituality and texts representing labor and colonial workplace practices. For further information, see the selected bibliography.
Ferguson, Moira, ‘Introduction’ to The History of Mary Prince A West Indian Slave Related by Herself. University of Michigan Press, 1998
---. Subject to Others: British Women Writers and Colonial Slavery 1670-1834. Routledge, 1992.
Macqueen, James. ‘The Colonial Empire of Great Britain, Letter to Earl Grey, First Lord of the Treasury.’ Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, vol. 30, no. 187, November 1831.
Pacquet, Sandra Pouchet. Caribbean Autobiography: Cultural Identity and Self-representation. University of Wisconsin Press, 2002.
Salih, Sara. ‘Introduction’ to The History of Mary Prince A West Indian Slave. Penguin Books, 2004.
Thomas, Sue. “New Information on Mary Prince in London.” Notes and Queries, vol. 58, no. 1, 2011, pp. 82-85.
Allen, Jessica, “Pringle’s Pruning of Prince: The History of Mary Prince and the Question of Repetition.” Callaloo, vol. 35, no. 2, 2012, pp. 509-519.
Banner, Rachel. “Surface and Stasis: Re-reading Slave Narrative via The History of Mary Prince.” Callaloo, vol. 36, no. 2, 2013, pp. 289-311.
Baumgartner, Barbara. “The Body as Evidence: Resistance, Collaboration, and Appropriation in The History of Mary Prince” Callaloo, vol 24, no. 1, 2001, pp. 253-275.
Ferguson, Moira. Nine Black Women Writers. An Anthology of Nineteenth-century Women Writers from the United States, Canada, Bermuda and the Caribbean. Routledge, 1998.
Johnson, Claudia Durst. Labor and Workplace Issues in Literature.Greenwood Press, 2006.
Moody, Joycelyn. Sentimental Confessions: Spiritual Narratives of Nineteenth-Century African American Women. University of Georgia Press, 2001.
Pacquet, Sandra Pouchet. “The Heartbeat of a West Indian Slave:The History of Mary Prince.” African American Review, vol. 26 no. 1, 1992, pp. 131-46.
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.
Rintoul, Suzanne. ‘“My Poor Mistress”: Marital Cruelty in The History of Mary Prince.” ESC: English Studies in Canada, vol. 37 no. 3-4, 2011, pp.41-60.
Todorova, Kremena. “‘I Will Say the Truth to the English People’: The History of Mary Prince and the Meaning of English History.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, vol. 43 no. 3, 2001, pp. 285-302.
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