Mary Prince

One of the first black writers to publish a book in England 1831

Mary Prince, the daughter of slaves, was born at Brackish Pond, Bermuda, in about 1788. Her father worked in the yard as a woodcutter and her mother a house-servant. Mary and her parents were the property of Charles Myners.

When Myners died Mary and her mother were sold to Captain Williams. Mary now became the personal slave of his daughter, Betsey Williams. When she was twelve years old Mary was hired out to another plantation five miles away. Soon afterwards Williams sold her to another family.

Mary Prince worked as a domestic slave in the fields and during this period she was constantly flogged by her mistress. She later wrote: “To strip me naked – to hang me up by the wrists and lay my flesh open with the cow-skin, was an ordinary punishment for even a slight offence.”

Her master later sold her to another man and in 1806 Mary Prince was sent to work on the salt pans of Turk Island. “I was immediately sent to work in the salt water with the rest of the slaves. This work was perfectly new to me. I was given a half barrel and a shovel, and had to stand up to my knees in the water, from four o’clock in the morning till nine, when we were given some Indian corn boiled in water, which we were obliged to swallow as fast as we could for fear the rain should come on and melt the salt.”

In 1818 Mary Prince was then sold for $300 to John Wood, a plantation owner who lived in Antigua. She later wrote: “My work there was to attend the chambers and nurse the child, and to go down to the pond and wash clothes. But I soon fell ill of the rheumatism, and grew so very lame that I was forced to walk with a stick.”

Mary Prince began attending meetings held at the Moravian Church. She later wrote: “The Moravian ladies (Mrs. Richter, Mrs. Olufsen, and Mrs. Sauter) taught me to read in the class; and I got on very fast. In this class there were all sorts of people, old and young, grey headed folks and children; but most of them were free people. After we had done spelling, we tried to read in the Bible. After the reading was over, the missionary gave out a hymn for us to sing.”

While in Antigua she met the widower, Daniel Jones, a former black slave who had managed to purchase his freedom. Jones now worked as a carpenter and cooper and asked Mary to marry him. This she agreed to do and got married in the Moravian Chapel in December 1826. John Wood was furious when he found out and once again she had to endure a severe beating with a horsewhip.

John Wood and his wife took her as their servant to London. Soon after arriving in England in 1828 she ran away and went to live at the Moravian Mission House in Hatton Gardens. A few weeks later she went to work for Thomas Pringle, a member of the Anti-Slavery Society. In 1831 Pringle arranged for her to publish her book, The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave. The History of Mary Prince (1831) was the first life of a black woman to be published in Britain. This extraordinary testament of ill-treatment and survival was a protest and a rallying-cry for emancipation that provoked two libel actions and ran into three editions in the year of its publication.

After the publication of the book John Wood sued the publishers of The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave claiming that Mary Prince’s work had “endeavored to injure the character of my family by the most vile and infamous falsehoods”. Wood lost his case.

Two prominent supporters of slavery in Britain, James Mac Queen and James Curtin, took up Wood’s case and in an article in Blackwood’s Magazine, claimed that Prince’s book contained a large number of lies. Prince and her publisher sued Mac Queen and Curtin for libel and won their case.

It is thought that Prince remained in England after 1833, perhaps continuing to work as a servant. Her history is an important contribution to early black writing, and it offers a glimpse into the lives of enslaved men and women whose life stories cannot be traced.