The History of Mary Prince, a tremendous step towards Freedom

“White people who keep slaves think that black people are like cattle, without natural affection. But my heart tells me it is far otherwise.” It is by her emotional standpoints that Mary Prince became the first slave woman to narrate her history.  It relates, with unprecedented depth and detail, the overwork, abuse, and sexual violence that she witnessed from a very early age. By exposing the truth, Mary Prince emerged as an important image in the anti-slavery campaign of the 1830’s.

First, Mary Prince arrives at her new home and meets her new cruel mister and mistress. And she said: “The stones and the timber were the best things in it; they were not so hard as the hearts of the owners.” There are several passages where she tells about her mistress’s abominable cruelty:

“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 And there was scarcely any punishment more dreadful than the blows I received on my face and head from her hard heavy fist. She was a fearful woman, and a savage mistress to her slave.”

And concerning her master, she says:

“He came to me, and without any more ado, stooped down, and taking off his boots, he struck me such severe blow in the small of my back, that I shriek with agony, and though I was killed;(…) My master knew that the accident was his own fault, but he was so enraged that he seemed glad if an excuse to go on with his ill usage. I cannot remember how many licks he gave me then, but he beat me until I was unable to stand, and till he himself was weary.”

She lived in fear and sorrow every single day.

As we can see, the violence is very striking in this extract, and she was not the only one witnessing the violence of their masters. Her friend Hetty, a French Black slave, suffered one of the most dreadful treatments and death. We learn that she was pregnant, but we don’t know who the father was. As rape was a common usage, we can ask ourselves who the father was. It is easy to assume that she may have been a victim of sexual violence. Prince describes the master’s treatment of her:

“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 time, and was delivered after severe labour of a dead child.”

Unfortunately, those masters were not an exception, as she describes her following master. She says, “I hope, when I left Capt. I, that I should have been better off, but I found it was but going from one butcher to another.” Once again she details the horrific working and living conditions she endured as a slave working in the salt ponds. They worked from the morning until the night, standing up to their knees in the salt water and through the heat of the day. They barely had breaks and were merely fed. They suffered morally and physically. She describes the work, saying, “the sun flaming upon our heads like fire, and raising salt blisters in those parts which were not completely covered. 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.”

Moreover, in the extract we learn that she tried to escape once because she couldn’t bear abuse anymore. However, her father brings her back. She sees it as a betrayal. From an emotional standpoint, to bring back your child back to a place where they are being broken. The bonds of familial affection can’t be inactive. Her father was forced to do it. If he did not do it, they would have killed her and probably him, too. Nevertheless, we learn that she succeeded in running away and found freedom in 1827 with the help of abolitionists. She decided to go public with her experiences as a slave.

Her autobiography had a tremendous impact. It was a key part of the anti-slavery campaign. It made people aware that, although the Slave Trade had been made illegal, the horrors of life on the plantations continued. She became the first black woman to write and publish an autobiography and the first woman to present an anti-slavery petition to Parliament. Indeed, this testimony is of exceptional interest, politically and historically: politically because the XIXth century sees the end of the fight for the abolition of the slavery, and historically because it obliged the people to hear a voice which was sentenced to silence, because she was a slave but also because she was a woman. To extend our knowledge, and to know more about the point of view of a slave man, Olaudah Equiano related his history in The interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah.

Sources:

  • E2BN-East of England Broadband Network and MLA East of England. The Abolition Project. 2009. Web.
  • Source 17 – Mary Prince.” Learning the Campaign for Abolition. British Library, n.d. Web. 25 Oct. 2013.(Image) http://www.bl.uk/learning/histcitizen/campaignforabolition/sources/witnesses/princeeyewitness/maryprince.html
  • 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.
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