The History of Mary Prince: A West Indian Slave by Mary Prince

The History of Mary Prince: A West Indian Slave by Mary PrinceRating:

Oh the horrors of slavery!—How the thought of it pains my heart! But the truth ought to be told of it; and what my eyes have seen I think it is my duty to relate; for few people in England know what slavery is. I have been a slave—I have felt what a slave feels, and I know what a slave knows; and I would have all the good people in England to know it too, that they may break our chains, and set us free.

In 1831 Thomas Pringle, secretary of the Anti-Slavery Society, took down Mary Prince‘s story in her own words and published it along with his commentary and corroborating statements, and Asa-Asa’s story of how he was taken from his home in Africa and sold to white men as a slave. Two years after publication, in 1833, slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire.

Although Mary had a blissfully ignorant and happy childhood as a companion slave to a white child, at age 12 everything changed. From then on she spent the bulk of her slave years with a succession of cruel masters. Travelling from her home in Bermuda to working the horrific salt ponds of Turks Island for four years, the onto Antigua, and finally to England where she was legally free.

Some of the horrors:

I was licked, and flogged, and pinched by her pitiless fingers in the neck and arms, exactly as they were. 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.

My master flew into a terrible passion, and ordered the poor creature to be stripped quite naked, notwithstanding her pregnancy, and to be tied up to a tree in the yard. He then flogged her as hard as he could lick, both with the whip and cow-skin, till she was all over streaming with blood. He rested, and then beat her again and again. Her shrieks were terrible. The consequence was that poor Hetty was brought to bed before her time, and was delivered after severe labour of a dead child.

Our feet and legs, from standing in the salt water for so many hours, soon became full of dreadful boils, which eat down in some cases to the very bone, afflicting the sufferers with great torment.

This poor man’s wounds were never healed, and I have often seen them full of maggots, which increased his torments to an intolerable degree.

…flung her among the prickly-pear bushes, which are all covered over with sharp venomous prickles. By this her naked flesh was so grievously wounded, that her body swelled and festered all over, and she died a few days after.

He had an ugly fashion of stripping himself quite naked, and ordering me then to wash him in a tub of water. This was worse to me than all the licks. Sometimes when he called me to wash him I would not come, my eyes were so full of shame.

…if the Lord had not put it into the hearts of the neighbours to be kind to me, I must, I really think, have lain and died.

…he prayed that God would forgive him. He said it was a horrid thing for a ranger to have sometimes to beat his own wife or sister; but he must do so if ordered by his master.

I was really quite appalled that a mixed race woman like myself would be so cruel to those less fortunate:

…hired a mulatto woman to nurse the child; but she was such a fine lady she wanted to be mistress over me. I thought it very hard for a coloured woman to have rule over me because I was a slave and she was free… The mulatto woman was rejoiced to have power to keep me down. She was constantly making mischief; there was no living for the slaves—no peace after she came.

Mary’s spirit was never truly broken as she made money where she could to purchase her freedom. Several times she asked to buy her freedom and each time was turned down despite having the means to pay for it.

I never knew rightly that I had much sin till I went there. When I found out that I was a great sinner, I was very sorely grieved, and very much frightened.

While religion empowered Mary by educating her, it also added to her woes. Who wants to bet the majority of her ‘sins’ surround her lack of freedom? She shouldn’t be made to feel bad for those feelings, her masters should.

He was very industrious after he bought his freedom; and he had hired a comfortable house, and had convenient things about him. We were joined in marriage, about Christmas 1826… We could not be married in the English Church. English marriage is not allowed to slaves; and no free man can marry a slave woman… I had not much happiness in my marriage, owing to my being a slave. It made my husband sad to see me so ill-treated.

When Mary came to England she was legally free and no longer a slave. Having no friends and no means of procuring a living, she was forced to remain with her master, still working as a slave, though he repeatedly tried to kick her out on the street. Until she found a branch of the Moravian church which educated and married her in Antigua where she found kind people who took her in and cared for her when she was bed bound from rheumatism. They then introduced her to the Anti-Slavery Society who not only championed her cause for freedom from her master so she could return to her husband in Antigua, but also sometimes supported her financially when she couldn’t find work.

I would rather work for my living than get it for nothing. They were very good to give me a supply, but I felt shame at being obliged to apply for relief whilst I had strength to work.
At last I went into the service of Mr. and Mrs. Pringle, where I have been ever since, and am as comfortable as I can be while separated from my dear husband, and away from my own country and all old friends and connections.

At this time Mary was approximately 40 years old and despite the Pringle’s support, Mary’s master wouldn’t grant her freedom even with many offerings of money.

As she had no one to refer to for a character in this country except himself, he doubtless calculated securely on her being speedily driven back, as soon as the slender fund she had in her possession was expended, to throw herself unconditionally upon his tender mercies; and his disappointment in this expectation appears to have exasperated his feelings of resentment towards the poor woman…

…prefers losing entirely the full price of the slave, for the mere satisfaction of preventing a poor black woman from returning home to her husband!

…there existed no legal means of compelling Mary’s master to grant her manumission;

…intention to bring in a Bill to provide for the entire emancipation of all slaves brought to England with the owner’s consent.

Mr. Wood became at length alarmed,—not relishing, it appears, the idea of having the case publicly discussed in the House of Commons; and to avert this result he submitted to temporize—assumed a demeanour of unwonted civility, and even hinted to Mr. Manning (as I was given to understand) that if he was not driven to utter hostility by the threatened exposure, he would probably meet our wishes “in his own time and way.”

In trying to help Mary, her new boss, Mr. Pringle, conversed with Mary’s owner by letter:

He alleges that she was, before marriage, licentious, and even depraved in her conduct, and unfaithful to her husband afterwards.

Her husband, he says, has taken another wife; “so that on that score,” he adds, “he does her no injury.” Supposing this fact be true, (which I doubt…

Pringle was deeply offended at the cruelty of such words. He had no reason to believe the lies since he saw Mary as …a well-disposed and respectable woman.

Pringle later finds from a source in Bermuda that:

…she was viewed by her owners as their most respectable and trustworthy female slave. It is within my personal knowledge that she had usually the charge of the house in their absence, was entrusted with the keys, &c.; and was always considered by the neighbours and visitors as their confidential household servant, and as a person in whose integrity they placed unlimited confidence…

How ironic. For Mary to be treated so dreadfully for 13 years by her owners to find they valued her so highly. To throw her away, tossing her out into the street, you’d think they hated her. That’s no way to treat someone you want to keep around.

In fact, how slaves were treated in general made no economic sense. If you beat and maim your slaves, they lose value. Their productivity drops, perhaps permanently. You’ll not make back the money you paid trying to sell them on. And killing them, well, you might as well have burned your money. What was paid for slaves back then translates into hundreds and thousands of Great British Pounds today. It was in their best interests to treat them well, and yet they didn’t.

“I would rather go into my grave than go back a slave to Antigua, though I wish to go back to my husband very much—very much—very much! I am much afraid my owners would separate me from my husband, and use me very hard, or perhaps sell me for a field negro;—and slavery is too too bad. I would rather go into my grave!” – heard by Thomas Pringle

Countless efforts involving men of influence to beseech Mary’s owner on her behalf, he never set her free. However, two years after publication slavery was abolished. It’s not known whether Mary returned to Antigua to be with her husband after finally gaining her freedom, but I’d like to hope they were reunited and that their ending was a happy one. Although I suspect if she did return, Mr. Woods, her vindictive former owner, would never allow Mary to be happy for one moment while he still breathed.

I admire Mary for her strength, bravery and determination to never let the bastards win, as well as her willingness to openly share her story with others, to tell England and its countless families profiting from slavery what she really thinks of them:

I am often much vexed, and I feel great sorrow when I hear some people in this country say, that the slaves do not need better usage, and do not want to be free. They believe the foreign people, who deceive them, and say slaves are happy. I say, Not so. 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?

I have often wondered how English people can go out into the West Indies and act in such a beastly manner. But when they go to the West Indies, they forget God and all feeling of shame, I think, since they can see and do such things. They tie up slaves like hogs—moor them up like cattle, and they lick them, so as hogs, or cattle, or horses never were flogged;—and yet they come home and say, and make some good people believe, that slaves don’t want to get out of slavery. But they put a cloak about the truth. It is not so. All slaves want to be free—to be free is very sweet.

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? This is slavery. I tell it, to let English people know the truth; and I hope they will never leave off to pray God, and call loud to the great King of England, till all the poor blacks be given free, and slavery done up for evermore.

‘Wherever slavery prevails, there will inevitably be found cruelty and oppression.’ – Mr. Thomas Pringle

The story of Louis Asa-Asa

A great many people, whom we called Adinyés, set fire to Egie in the morning before daybreak; there were some thousands of them. They killed a great many, and burnt all their houses. They staid two days, and then carried away all the people whom they did not kill.

They sold all they carried away, to be slaves. I know this because I afterwards saw them as slaves on the other side of the sea.

…the children were too small for slaves, so they killed them.

I do not know if they found my father and mother, and brothers and sisters: they had run faster than me, and were half a mile farther when I got up into the tree: I have never seen them since.

[I] was about thirteen years old. It was about half a year from the time I was taken, before I saw the white people.

…offered the choice of going back to Africa, replied, “Me no father, no mother now; me stay with you.”

…for if I go back to my own country, I might be taken as a slave again. I would rather stay here, where I am free, than go back to my country to be sold.

I am well off myself, for I am well taken care of, and have good bed and good clothes; but I wish my own people to be as comfortable.”

What drew me to this book is the first hand account from a slave who was not only from  the Caribbean but had also lived in England. From what I can tell, that’s rare. Most slave narratives, at least the most popular ones, are American. Finding out there was also an account from a slave who was taken from Africa was an unexpected bonus. Both made for fascinating reading despite the harrowing yet insightful content. There was never a dull moment.

It was heartening to know Mary finally made it beyond a life of physical suffering, if not a mental one, to know that she never once blamed all white people for the crimes committed against her, and to know there were kind and powerful allies who championed her cause.

Powerful, inspiring and informative.

View my review on Goodreads

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