Mary Prince, an enslaved Bermudian—and, thus, a British subject—is the first known black woman to relate a slave narrative. She was the storyteller of an abolitionist collaborative writing team that brought her story to print. Susanna Strickland was the compiler. She listened to Mary tell her story, and then she wrote it down. Thomas Pringle, the secretary of London’s Anti-Slavery Society, was the editor, and he was also the financial backer of the project.
The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave, Related by Herself was first published in the latter part of February, 1831 at the height of Britain’s Abolition movement. Abolition was (and still is) a movement to end slavery. The History of Mary Prince went to print three times that year. It was a successful strategy that aided in bringing about Emancipation. Historically, Emancipation was when slaves were made free. In the British Empire, this was 1 August 1834.
Mary was born in 1787, or 1788, in Bermuda to enslaved parents. Her siblings were also enslaved. She had five different slave-owners in her lifetime. All of these slave-owners were Bermudian, although they did not all live in Bermuda. Two of her slave-owners had residences and business interests in West Indian colonies—one was situated in Grand Turk Island where he was a proprietor in the salt industry, and the other was situated in Antigua where he was a merchant-rentier. A merchant-rentier, or a jobber, rented slaves to other slave-owners and to people who did not have slaves.
Mary’s first slave-owner was Charles Myners (Minors).1 Her mother was a slave in the Minors' household, and Mary was an infant. Mary's mother's name was Sue (Susannah). Captain George Darrel (Darrell) purchased Mary and her mother from Charles Minors, and gave them both as a “gift” to his granddaughter Betsey Williams. Betsey was close to the same age as Mary, and she was Mary’s second slave-owner.
Betsey’s mother was Sarah Williams, and her father was Captain John Williams. The Williams' residence was in Bermuda’s Devonshire Parish.
Mary’s mother worked as a household slave in the Williams’ household, and Mary was Betsey’s playmate. Mary relates that when she was a child in the Williams’ household it was “the happiest period of my life” but adds that this was because “I was too young to understand rightly my condition as a slave” (Prince 1).2
Prince was Mary’s father. The slave-owner brothers, Daniel and Francis Trimmingham (Trimingham), owned Prince. He worked for them as a sawyer, probably in their shipbuilding yard at Crow Lane.
When Mary had just turned 12, her situation changed. She was put out to work at the Pruden (Prudden) household. The Prudden residence was in the neighbouring parish, Paget. Mary relates that this was because Sarah Williams was “too poor to keep so many of us at home” (Prince 2).
A few months later, Mary was sold at an auction in Hamble Town (Hamilton), Bermuda, along with her younger sisters Hannah and Dinah. Her younger brothers were not sold that day. Sarah Williams had died, and Captain John Williams needed money to remarry.
A different slave-owner purchased each girl. Captain John Ingham purchased Mary for £57 Bermudian currency. He was her third slave-owner. His son Benjy (Benjamin) took Mary to the Ingham farm, which was located in Bermuda’s Pembroke Parish. Captain Ingham and his wife, Mary Ingham, were cruel slave-owners who flogged their slaves as “an ordinary punishment for even a slight offence” (Prince 7). Mary and the other Ingham slaves were subjected to torture.
Mary ran away from the Ingham farm to her mother, who had joined Richard Darrell’s household. Richard Darrell's residence was called Cavendish Hall, and it was located in Devonshire Parish. He was Betsey’s uncle. Mary’s mother, and probably her younger brothers, had gone to live at his residence when the slaves had been divided.
Mary’s mother could be punished for harbouring a runaway slave, so she hid Mary in a “hole in the rocks” (Prince 9) near the house and brought her food at night. Eventually, Mary’s father Prince took Mary back to the Ingham farm.
Grand Turk Island
A few years after Mary had run to her mother at Richard Darrell’s residence, Captain Ingham put her aboard a sloop headed for Grand Turk Island. Slave-owners considered running away rebellious behaviour, so Mary may have been sent to Grand Turk Island for punishment.
At the time, Grand Turk Island was a satellite colony of Bermuda. Many Bermudians were involved in the salt industry there. Using the labour of slaves, they produced solar-evaporated salt, which was a very valuable commodity. Salt was used before refrigeration to preserve meat and fish.
When she arrived at Grand Turk Island, Mary was put up for auction, and Robert Darrell purchased her for £100 Bermudian currency (Prince 9). He was her fourth slave-owner. Like Captain Ingham and Mary Ingham, he was cruel, and his son Dickey (Richard) was no better. Robert Darrell's residence was located at the intersection of Middle Street and Market Street on Grand Turk Island.
Mary worked as a salt pond slave on Grand Turk Island for about ten years, and then Robert Darrell took her with him back to Bermuda, where he had a residence. He left his son Richard in charge of his salt business.
Back in Bermuda, Mary was put out to work at Cedar Hills (Cedar Hill). She earned money, but everything she earned was turned over to Robert Darrell. She learned that John Adams Wood Jr. was going to Antigua. His family was there and that is where he lived. She asked Robert Darrell to “let me go in Mr. Wood’s service,” (Prince 14) and it was agreed that she could.
John Adams Wood Jr. was a merchant-rentier, or a jobber. This meant he rented slaves to other slave-owners and to people who did not have slaves to get work done. Often, these were the very worst jobs, such as digging holes in which sugarcane would be planted. Perhaps Mary was going to be put out to work when she arrived in Antigua, but John Wood's wife Margaret Wood realized Mary could do domestic work, and she wanted to buy her.
The Woods purchased Mary from Robert Darrell for £100 Bermudian currency (Prince 14). This meant Robert Darrell got his initial “investment” of £100 Bermudian currency back, plus he had benefitted from all the labour Mary had performed for him, and from the money she had earned at Cedar Hill.
Mary worked for the Woods in Antigua for 13 years. John Adams Wood Jr. was Mary’s fifth, and final, slave-owner. She was a household slave.
A few years after arriving at Antigua, Mary joined the Moravian congregation at Spring Gardens, St. John’s (Prince 16). The Spring Gardens Moravian Mission provided an education for slaves. Three Moravian missionaries, Mrs. Richter, Mrs. Olufsen, and Mrs. Sauter (Sautter), taught Mary to read and to write.
At Christmas 1826, Mary married a free black man, Daniel James. The Rev. Mr. Olufsen married Mary and Daniel in the Moravian Chapel at Spring Gardens. The Woods were angry when they learned Mary had married Daniel without their permission.
About a year and a half after Mary married Daniel, the Woods went to London, England, and they took Mary with them. Shortly after they arrived, Mary walked out their door into the streets of London a free woman (Prince 20). It was 1828, and slavery was not supported by the British legal system, although it was still allowed in Britain’s colonies.
Many people helped Mary when she was in London. They gave her warm clothes and money, and got her paying work. Near the end of November 1828, she was taken to the Anti-Slavery office in Aldermanbury, where she met Thomas Pringle (Pringle, footnote in Prince 21).
Thomas took her to George Stephen, who was also an abolitionist, and he was a lawyer. Mary wanted to return to Antigua, and to her husband Daniel, as a free woman. It was decided to try to negotiate with John Adams Wood Jr. for Mary’s freedom, but Wood would not free her on any terms.
Next, it was decided to bring Mary’s case to Parliament, and a petition was drawn up. It was presented 24 June 1829 and it expressed her wish to return to the West Indies, but not as a slave. The petition was not successful. Soon after it was presented to Parliament, the Wood family returned to Antigua.
Mary, who had been working and earning a living, became unemployed. Thomas Pringle and his wife Margaret hired her as a paid domestic servant, and she moved into their home. They had been friends with Mary for about a year.
While Mary lived with the Pringles, one of her friends was Rev. Mr. Mortimer, the clergyman of the parish (Prince 22). The Church of St. Mark, London, was Mortimer's charge, and Mary sat under his ministry.
John Adams Wood Jr.’s Letter and Thomas Pringle’s Supplement
It was Mary’s idea to get her story into print, but the project wasn’t begun until Thomas Pringle read a copy of a letter about Mary that had been written in Antigua by John Adams Wood Jr. (Pringle, preface in Prince iii). The letter was dated 20 October 1830, and it had been written to Mr. Taylor, who was the secretary of Antigua’s Governor Patrick Ross (Pringle, supplement in Prince 28).
Thomas Pringle, and other abolitionists, had tried one more time to arrange an amicable agreement with John Adams Wood Jr. to get Mary her freedom. Through a network of friends, Thomas had arranged for Rev. Mr. Newby of the Moravian Church in Antigua, to pay a visit to Wood to negotiate for Mary's freedom. Abolitionists in London would pay.
At the same time, and again arranged through a network of friends, Antigua’s Governor Ross was to suggest to Wood that Wood comply with the request Newby was going to make. Wood refused, and wrote the letter addressed to Taylor.
In the letter, Wood explained his position. He made several points in regard to Mary’s character. For example, Wood wrote that “her moral character is very bad, as the police records will shew; and she could be a very troublesome character should she come here without any restraint” (Pringle, supplement in Prince 28).
Thomas Pringle made short work of Wood’s letter, in a rebuttal. He published his rebuttal, along with Wood’s letter, in a supplement that appeared with Mary’s testimony.
Mary's story was given half the space of the pamphlet. The materials that appeared with her story—Thomas's preface and supplement, and Louis Asa-Asa's slave narrative, which I mention in the next section—was given the other half.
Thomas pointed out that Wood had tried to frighten Governor Ross, but that in doing so Wood had also mocked Antigua’s police and courts of justice. Wood had implied that they would be no matches for the likes of Mary Prince. But how could the police and courts of justice be unable to handle a poor black woman? And why wouldn’t John Adams Wood Jr. sell Mary, and be done with her, if she had such a bad moral character?
In the supplement, Thomas Pringle also demanded that Government introduce a Bill into Legislature that would give freedom to any slave who had been in Britain (Pringle, supplement in Prince 40). If such a Bill were passed, Mary, and other slaves in the same position as her, would be free to return to Britain's colonies and remain free.
The writing team got down to work. Mary told her story to Susanna Strickland, a young English woman, and an abolitionist, who compiled it. Thomas Pringle edited the manuscript, and Joseph Phillips, an abolitionist who had been in Antigua for many years, helped on the Antigua section. Thomas's supplement and Louis Asa-Asa's slave narrative were added. The printer was Samuel Bagster. The London publisher was F. Westley and A. H. Davis, and, in Edinburgh, it was Waugh & Innes.
The Narrative of Louis Asa-Asa
Thomas Pringle included the Narrative of Louis Asa-Asa, A Captured African with Mary's story. As did Mary Prince, Louis Asa-Asa told his story to a compiler who wrote it down.
Asa-Asa's story was about his capture in Africa, but rather than being transported across the Atlantic, he was transported north to Europe. Whereas Mary Prince suffered in colonial slavery, Louis Asa-Asa suffered in the transatlantic slave trade.
When he was twelve or thirteen, Louis Asa-Asa was kidnapped near his village in Africa, and he was sold or traded six times before being sold to white Frenchmen. He and other captives were aboard the French slave ship the Pearl, when foul weather drove the vessel into St. Ives, Cornwall.
George Stephen arranged for Louis Asa-Asa to be brought to London. It was George Stephen who suggested including Louis Asa-Asa’s testimony in The History of Mary Prince project.
Two Court Cases
After The History of Mary Prince was published, there were public altercations between Thomas Pringle and people who did not want slaves to be freed. Two court cases ensued, and Mary Prince appeared as a witness in both cases.
The first was a libel case between Thomas Pringle and Thomas Cadell, the London publisher of Blackwood's Magazine. James McQueen, a pro-slavery advocate, had written maliciously about Thomas Pringle in Blackwood's.
The Pringle v. Cadell case was heard 21 February 1833. James McQueen was conveniently unavailable to appear in court, so Thomas Cadell stood in. Pringle won the case. He was awarded £5, plus costs. Cadell paid him £160.
Wood charged Pringle with libel, and the Wood v. Pringle case was heard 27 February 1833. The judge, Sir James Scarlett, found Prince’s story exaggerated. Wood was awarded £25 but not costs.
Slavery Abolition Act
Five months later, the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 had its third reading in Parliament. This was on 26 July 1833. A month after that, on 28 August 1833, it received Royal Assent. It commenced on 1 August 1834.
There was a required six-year apprenticeship. This meant ex-slaves had to continue working for their previous slave-owners. Bermuda and Antigua were exempted from the apprenticeship program. Because of protest, the apprenticeship program ended two years ahead of schedule. On 1 August 1838, approximately 800,000 British slaves were truly, and finally, free.
The Act included £20 million in compensation for slave-owners who had lost their “property,” when their slaves were freed. John Adams Wood Jr. registered 30 claims for over 1,000 slaves, including slaves on 13 estates in Antigua. He was successful in 25 of these claims, receiving over £10 thousand in compensation for 737 slaves (Legacies of British Slave-ownership). He was not able to claim for Mary Prince.
The third section of the Act freed all slaves who at any time previous to its passing had been brought with the consent of their slave-owners to any part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. This affected Mary Prince’s situation. As of 28 August 1833, she could return to Antigua and remain free. Although more research needs to be undertaken, there is a very strong possibility that she returned to Antigua in the fall of that year.
The Middle Passage and the institution of slavery in the Americas is a catastrophic legacy of colonialism. A terrible and brutal knowledge, it also provides an opening for understanding. Discerning the past helps us to live in the present with the past, and the future, in mind.
Mary Prince was a storyteller, an abolitionist, and a rebel. Her slave narrative, The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave, Related by Herself, tells a story of past enslavement in Bermuda that is different from the story of enslavement that has been more commonly told. This is that Bermudian enslavement was comparatively benign, or gentle.
Bringing Mary Prince’s The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave, Related by Herself forward, and reclaiming it, creates a space for change. Perhaps Mary's story can help us to better understand colonial enslavement, and to heal from trauma that is associated with its afterlife.
In 2012, Mary Prince was recognized as a National Hero of Bermuda.
1. Many of the proper nouns—the names of people and places—are spelled incorrectly in Mary's slave narrative. This is probably because Susanna Strickland, who compiled Mary's story, and Thomas Pringle, who edited the manuscript, heard what Mary told them, but they were unfamiliar with Bermudian and Antiguan place names and surnames. Using archival records as my sources, I have indicated the correct spelling of these proper nouns when they are first used on this website by placing the correct spelling in parenthesis. After making a correction once, I only use the correct spelling thereafter.
2. I am using a first edition of The History of Mary Prince that is in the collection of the British National Library. It has been digitized and is available as a Google eBook. There is a link to this copy on the page of this website titled The Slave Narrative.