Recently, Mary Prince (1788 – after 1833) was mentioned on one of Google’s commemorative days and so I looked up the account she had written about her life as a slave. The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave, written in 1831, is very difficult reading because of the relentless cruelty she had endured at the hands of her various slave owners. Those people must have been sadists, such was the extent of the cruelty. At the beginning she had a kind mistress, whose young daughter referred to her like a much-loved family pet! But, from the age of eleven, Mary’s situation only worsened. Her kind mistress was married to a nasty powerful man.
“How can slaves be happy when they have the halter round their neck and the whip upon their back? and are disgraced and thought no more of than beasts? – and are separated from their mothers, and husbands, and children, and sisters, just as cattle are sold and separated? Is it happiness for a driver in the field to take down his wife or sister or child, strip them, and whip them in such a disgraceful manner? – women that have had children exposed in the open field to shame! There is no modesty or decency shown by the owner to his slaves; men, women, and children are exposed alike. Since I have been here I have often wondered how English people can go out in the West Indies and act in such a beastly manner.” – Mary Prince
After reading each shocking revelation I asked myself, how on earth could another human treat another human this way?! How could enslaving a race of people be normal?! I don’t believe that all the people living back then were as wicked as some of these slave masters – well, obviously not, since there were anti-slavery campaigners and their supporters – but, the point I’m making is; is that there were people back then who turned a ‘blind eye’ to it. “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” – Edmund Burke. Why weren’t they moved enough to do something about abolishing slavery sooner?
“We don’t mind hard work, if we had proper treatment, and proper wages like English servants, and proper time given in the week to keep us from breaking the Sabbath. But they won’t give it: they will have work-work-work, night and day, sick or well, till we are quite done up; and we must not speak up nor look amiss, however much we be abused. And then when we are quite done up, who cares for us, more than for a lame horse?” – Mary Prince
Since this personal account is factual and not fictional I found it very hard reading. But I don’t regret reading it. It opened my eyes – more – to the nature of man. To another dark chapter of our history – Lest we forget… And while I had tears in my eyes I was proud of Mary fighting for her freedom, proud of the campaigners who eventually brought about real change in abolishing slavery.
“I still live in the hope that God will find a way to give me my liberty, and give me back to my husband. I endeavour to keep down my fretting, and to leave all to Him, for he knows what is good for me better than I know myself. Yet, I must confess, I find it a hard and heavy task to do so.” – Mary Prince
It’s not known what happened to Mary in the end, whether she was granted her freedom to return home to Antigua, to her husband – a former slave who’d bought his freedom and earned a living as a carpenter – friends and family. Her body was broken – from the years of continuous abuse, she suffered with rheumatic pains – though her spirit was hopeful and fighting. For a while she worked in normal conditions as a cleaner and later as a housekeeper for nice people, and made other friends who supported her in many ways – warm clothing for the colder English weather, money, nursing her back to health, job recommendations, inviting her to church services etc. But, absurdly, her last slave masters who brought her with them to England, continued to refuse her her freedom. Even despite her attempts at buying it. People from the Anti-Slavery Society went to Mr Wood to persuade him to let her be freed “…but though they offered him, as I have heard, a large sum for my freedom, he was sulky and obstinate, and would not consent to let me go free” – Mary Prince. So while she was living and working elsewhere, leading a better and more normal, and independent life, she remained their slave! Mr and Mrs Wood, her spiteful slave owners, had both driven her out of their home four times and spoke badly – and falsely – about her character to others. Under English law the Anti-Slavery Society, on her behalf, was unable to legally get her her freedom. And, if she was to return to Antigua, life would return as it had been: still living as a slave for the cruel Woods’ family. In 1829 the Woods returned for the West Indies and having exhausted every avenue for Mary’s freedom, Thomas Pringle the editor of her book employed her, in December of that year, as a domestic servant in his own family. Pringle was an Abolitionist writer and Secretary to the Anti-Slavery Society.
Mary Prince “…is known to have remained in England until at least 1833, when she testified in the two libel cases. That year, the Slavery Abolition Act was passed, to be effective August 1834. In 1808, Parliament had passed the Slave Trade Act of 1807, which outlawed the slave trade but not slavery itself. The 1833 law was intended to achieve a two-staged abolition of West Indian slavery by 1840, allowing the colonies time to transition their economies. Because of popular protests in the West Indies among the freedmen, the colonies legally completed abolition two years early in 1838. In Bermuda, which was not dependent on the institution of slavery, emancipation took place immediately on the law going into effect in 1834. If Prince was still alive and in good health, she may then have returned as a free woman to her homeland.” – Wikipedia.
In summary, I would recommend reading Mary Prince’s narrative because the horrific truths about slavery have to be known and continued to be fought against even in these modern times. She played a vital part in the abolition campaign.
Copyright Faith McCord 2018
Story and artwork belongs to Faith McCord who is the author and artist holding the copyright. This is not a public domain work. Worldwide rights.