"Oh the horrors of slavery! — How the thought of it pains my heart."
—Mary Prince, 11
The History of Mary Prince & Bermudian Enslavement
One historical view of Bermudian enslavement is that it was benign in comparison to other British colonies and to the American mainland. Forty years ago, James Smith suggested Bermudian enslavement was “characterized by mildness and leniency” (73). Two decades later, Virginia Bernhard expanded on this idea, suggesting that the close living proximity of slave and slave-owner “broadened the perimeters of acceptable conduct” between them (234). Quito Swan contests this, explaining that the close living proximity between Blacks and whites in Bermuda incorrectly implied “an unprecedented intimacy that led masters to treat enslaved persons like family members” (80). Although enslaved people and those who claimed them as property lived in close proximity, it did not mean all slave-owners treated the enslaved people who lived with them as family members.
Michael Jarvis adds “[w]e must temper our inclination to describe the relationship between white and black Bermudians in terms of abstract roles like master and slave because within Bermuda’s intensely interracial maritime society, highly complex personal relations developed between white and black members of households over time” (268). Jarvis implies that a complex reading of the relationships between black and white household members shows a variety of possible associations.
Prince’s narrative supports Jarvis’s view. Prince relates a relatively happy childhood whilst living with Betsey and Sarah Williams. “This was the happiest period of my life,” (57) Prince relates, but then qualifies her statement with “[because] I was too young to understand rightly my condition as a slave” (57). Even though Prince’s childhood was “happy,” as an adolescent girl of twelve years old she was sold at auction, and was sold twice more as a mature woman. She was flogged, sexually abused, and she witnessed the murders of two enslaved women, Hetty and Sally, all at the hands of Bermudian slave-owners. Of her fourth slave-owner, Robert Darrell, she relates: “[n]othing could touch his hard heart—neither sighs, nor tears, nor streaming blood; he was deaf to our cries, and careless of our sufferings” (72). It may be that Prince was lucky to have been claimed as property by Betsey Williams when she was a child, and that her terrible experiences of later years were more typical of enslavement in Bermuda
Laws for crime and punishment also demonstrate that Bermudian enslavement was not benign. The Bermuda Acts, 1704-94, which were in place when Prince was a child, attest to this. Three of the several laws that are listed are as follows: “slaves banished from the Island but returning of their own will would suffer death; male slaves having bastards by white women would be whipped by the hangman under the gallows; and slaves convicted of stealing oranges, pineapples, or other fruit would be severely whipped on the naked back throughout the parish where the crime took place. Three lashes, well laid on, were to be delivered at every 30 paces” (Packwood 149-150).
As well, enslaved people undertook conspiracies and rebellious plots to overthrow those who claimed them as property, showing that they were not content with their status (Packwood 162). A last point showing that Bermudian enslavement was not benign is that it was intergenerational. An individual born to an enslaved woman was also enslaved for life.