A Historical Perspective of the Narrative of Mary Prince

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Mary Prince, the first woman to write a personal slave narrative account.

Mary Prince, a slave born in Bermuda, wrote one of the first slave narratives ever written by a woman. She details the horrific working and living conditions she endured as a slave, citing that she was continually beaten by sexually abusive owners. This treatment was not uncommon in Caribbean slave society; in fact, the instances that she details in her narrative are extremely similar to what many other women faced. However, when Prince released her History, she was met with sharp criticism as to how factual her narrative actually was. In order to support Prince’s narrative, I will provide historical context to show that the treatment she received was not at all fraudulent, but rather similar to what other women slaves in that area endured.

Prince’s sexually abusive owners frequently beat Hetty, her friend and fellow slave. Prince details the account of Hetty’s horrific death, saying,

One of the cows had dragged the rope away from the stake to which Hetty had fastened it, and got loose. 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” (241).

Although it is unclear whom Hetty was pregnant by, this account follows Hilary Beckles’s statement that “the expression of hostility to pregnant women reflected planters’ perception that it was cheaper to buy than to reproduce slaves naturally” (Beckles, 11). Hetty was treated poorly until her very death, and her pregnancy did nothing to curb the abuse from her owners, especially because her male owner may have caused the pregnancy.

In the Caribbean, women slaves were also frequently sexually assaulted. Prince does not specifically detail whether or not she was ever assaulted, but in the case of Hetty, it is easy to assume that she may have been a victim of sexual violence. This was not at all uncommon within that society, as “laws did not allow slaves to refuse social demands made by owner,” and that rape was used as “a form, or degree, of sexual violation perpetuated against enslaved women by males” (23). Frequently, children were born from these instances of sexual violence, such as the “mulatto” child, Cyrus, that works in the home where Prince lives. Cyrus was perpetually given severe treatment, only furthering the notion that planters and owners treated these children as dispensable and easily replaced (241).

White women also took part in the perpetuation of the slavery of other women, and this is easily seen when Prince describes her mistress. This scene is even mentioned by Beckles:

The next morning my mistress set about instructing me in my tasks. She taught me to do all sorts of household work; to wash and bake, pick cotton and wool, and wash floors, and cook. And she taught me (how can I ever forget it!) more things than these; she caused me to know the exact difference between the smart of the rope, the cart-whip, and the cow-skin, when applied to my naked body by her own cruel hand (240-1).

Beckles cites that “white women participated fully in the accumulationist and elitist colonial culture that depended upon the successful control of slave labor” (67). Throughout her time as a slave at that particular residence, Prince was always at the mercy of her mistress, but she continually found none. Her situation was not unlike many other women slaves as all were often dominated in order to remain profitable to their owners.

As I mentioned previously, after Prince published her narrative, she was immediately met with sharp criticism that her work was fraudulent. Perhaps one of the reasons why proslavery advocates challenged Prince can be found in the analysis of Beckles:

White society merely assumed that all black and mixed race women were slaves, imposing on them the onus to prove otherwise. Their freedom, then, was compromised by its vulnerability to constant scrutiny and violation. Since the concept of a free black woman seemed contradictory, most free black women found themselves constantly challenging attempts to reinstate them; many were unable to prove and enforce their freedom…(177).

It is true that Prince was invariably challenging these accusations. She had been living with Thomas Pringle, a secretary of the Anti-Slavery Society, who helped her publish her narrative. Pringle began to sue publications that deemed her narrative false, while Prince’s previous owner sued Pringle for libel. Throughout this ordeal, Prince was continually defending her past, as well as defending her new status as a free black woman. Her situation was similar to other women, as she had to frequently establish her claims as truthful, although she did it by way of lawsuits, and many other women did not have such a luxury.

It is extremely important to look upon Prince’s narrative as not an isolated or unusual set of circumstances, but rather understand that the situations described in her autobiography were very real, common practices. Her treatment as a woman was what many women had endured before. The objectification of women was not questioned, and women were frequently dehumanized as a result of it. Although proslavery groups dismissed her narrative as anti-slavery propaganda, it is clear that looking back in history that many women were subjected to even worse fates. Prince’s autobiography is crucial for our society because many women who were slaves were never afforded a chance to leave their violent situations and to start over somewhere new. In looking at the historical context of her words, we are able to see how other women perpetuated a cruel practice, how slave women were continually violated, as well as the idea that humans of a different skin color were treated as those they were expendable. Sometimes it is easy to believe that as readers, what we are seeing is a piece of text that has been dramatized, but in the case of Prince, nothing could be farther from the truth.

Sources:

Prince, Mary. “The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave, Related by Herself.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature. Ed. David Damrosch & Kevin J. H. Dettmar. 5th Ed. Vol. 2A. New York: Longman, 2012. 239-244. Print. The Romantics and Their Contemporaries.

Beckles, Hilary McD. Centering Woman: Gender Discourses in Caribbean Slave Society. Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers Inc, 1999. Print.

Image Courtesy of E2BN-East of England Broadband Network and MLA East of England. The Abolition Project. 2009. Web.

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