Title: The History of Mary Prince: A West Indian Slave Narrative
Author: Mary Prince
Genre: Nonfiction – Autobiography
Synopsis: Born in Bermuda to a house slave in 1788, Mary Prince suffered the first of many soul-shattering experiences in her life when she was separated from her parents and siblings at the age of twelve. Subjected to bodily and sexual abuse by subsequent masters, she was bought and sold several times before she was ultimately freed. The first black woman to break the bonds of slavery in the British colonies and publish a record of her experiences, Prince vividly recalls her life in the West Indies, her rebellion against physical and psychological degradation, and her eventual escape in 1828 in England. Her straightforward, often poetic account of immense anguish, separation from her husband, and struggle for freedom inflamed public opinion during a period when stormy debates on abolition were common in both the United States and England.
Attempting more non-fiction was a mini-goal and this is my second autobiography this year. If you do not know who Mary Prince was, she was the slave whose account of life as a slave in the West Indies highly contributed to England abolishing slavery in its colonies. Though England passed the Slave Trade Act 1807 the colonies were not included in that act and since they brought in such high revenue via the sugar and salt and other commodities it was a subject of great discussion in the English government. The abolitionist movement in England met Mary Prince when she left her owners during a trip to England since technically being physically in England made her a free woman.
Mary recounts her life from the beginning – childhood is a happy time for her, she had a good master but that changed for her around the age of 12 when she was hired out to another home were her life became increasingly horrible. Her language is crude and lacks poetic elegance but I think that’s what makes it genuine. She is no scholar, what little she knows she knows it because of bits she learned in different homes she was a slave in and her narrative is repetitive and blunt. It’s very blunt and very matter a fact. There’s moments when you wish she would detail more – tell me about those years but instead she states things such as ‘I was there for eight years’ and we sort of skip ahead. Her actual account is about 30 pages and those 30 pages are not for the faint of heart. Like I stated, she is matter of fact about the abuse she and others endured and the things she witnessed. One has to keep in mind that this was published in 1831, political correctness had not even been envisioned. If she’s whipped 100 times, she says I was whipped 100 times until my skin was slick with blood. It’s graphic. Also graphic are the matter of fact descriptions of the death of other slaves that will turn your stomach and infuriate you but I think it’s very important to read because it happened and it’s a historical fact that these sort of events occurred over and over.
Included in this edition is also a narrative by the original editor Mr. Thomas Pringle, an abolitionist writer who paved the way for Mary to publish her story and eventually hired her to work in his home and have a place to live once she was in England. Mr. Pringle is without doubt a gifted writer; he is eloquent in his rebuttal of Mary’s previous owner’s accusation of falsehood. Mr. Pringle’s single-minded intent was to turn the minds of England against slavery and I think he did just that. Overall, I thought it was a great read, short and captivating, you will fly through Mary’s story and I was also very intrigued by the legalities of what happened after her story came to light which is discussed in Mr. Pringle’s account.
I should warn you; this is not a story that leaves you with a satisfactory conclusion. Those who should’ve been brought to justice never are and Mary lives the rest of her life separated from her husband, her people and her island – having very bad rheumatism and nearly blind, never been able to bear children because of the abuses she endured. It’s a hard pill to swallow because Mary is just one case out of millions of accounts who were never able to tell their stories.