Mary Prince was the first black British woman to escape enslavement and publish a record of her experiences. In this unique document, Mary Prince vividly recalls her enslaved life in Bermuda, working in the salt ponds on Turks Island, and Antigua – where she was wash maid, nurse and chamber maid – her rebellion against physical and psychological degradation, and her eventual escape to London in 1828.
Born in Bermuda, she was enslaved until the age of twelve when Prince was sold away from her parents to a nearby town. Here she suffered daily abuse and beatings with “hard twisted hide” at the hands of her new mistress.
She also witnessed the abuse of others who were enslaved. One incident in particular was the beating of a pregnant woman who was stripped naked, hung from a tree by her hands and flogged until her skin was raw and bloodied. After a forced, severe labour hours later to a still born child she returned to her duties. However, still enduring daily floggings she one day laid on the kitchen floor unable to move due to a badly beaten body. Her limbs swelled to a great size till the water burst out her body and died. This and other accounts of abuse suffered by others who were enslaved, and by Prince herself are recorded in her narrative.
She recalls in graphic details the pains and degradation of enslavement. With each new master to which Prince was sold she suffered more and more severe abuse. Several times she tried to buy her freedom or have it purchased by someone else including her husband. At this particular request she was once again beaten and threatened with death. Finally, after arriving in London she was able to buy her freedom however at the time of writing this narrative she was still separated from her husband who remained in Antigua.
Mary Prince was born enslaved in Bermuda in about 1788. Until she was twelve years old she was assigned to serve her master’s granddaughter. Then Mary and two of her sisters were sold away at auction while her mother and brothers remained with the previous family. She and her sisters were sold to completely different owners. She experienced the heart ache of a family ripped apart for reasons beyond their control. A life of fear, back breaking labor, and physical abuse followed. Here are her memories of the sale.
I cannot bear to think of that day it is too much — it recalls the great grief that filled my heart, and the woeful thoughts that passed to and fro through my mind, whilst listening the night before to my poor mother, weeping for the loss of her children. I wish I could find words to tell you all I then felt and suffered. Only the great God above knows a poor slave’s heart, the bitter pain that follows when all we love is taken from us. I got no sleep that night for thinking of the morrow…
The black morning at length came; it came too soon for my mother and for us. Whilst she dressed us to be sold, she said, in a sorrowful voice, (I shall never forget it!) “See, I am shrouding my poor children; what a task for a mother!” – She then called Miss Betsey to take leave of us. “I am going to carry my little chickens to market,” (these were her very words.) “take your last look of them: may be you will see them no more.” “Oh, my poor slaves! my own slaves!” said Miss Betsey, “you belong to me: and it grieves my heart to part with you.” Maybe it did, but not enough for her to intercede on our behalf…
Miss Betsey kissed us all, and, when she left us, my mother called the rest of the slaves to bid us good bye. One of them, a woman named Moll, came with her infant in her arms. “Hey!” said my mother, seeing Moll turn away and look at her own child with tears in her eyes, “Your turn will come next.” The slaves could say nothing to comfort us; they could only weep and lament with us. When I left my dear little brothers and the house in which I had been brought up, I thought my heart would burst.
Our mother, weeping as she went, called me away with the children Hannah and Dinah, and we took the road that led to Hamble Town, which we reached about four o’clock in the afternoon. We followed my mother to the marketplace, where she placed us in a row against a large house, with our backs to the wall and our arms folded across our breasts. I, as the eldest, stood first, Hannah next to me, then Dinah; and our mother stood beside, crying over us.
My heart throbbed with grief and terror so violently, that I pressed my hands quite tightly across my breast, but I could not keep it still, and it continued to leap as though it would burst out of my body. But who cared for that? Did one of the many white bystanders, who were looking at us so carelessly, think of the pain that wrung our hearts? No, no! They were not all bad, I dare say. But slavery hardens white people’s hearts towards blacks; and many of them were not slow to make their remarks upon us loud, without regard to our grief – their harsh words falling on us like cayenne on fresh wounds. How can people have such small hearts that they only feel for themselves?
At length the vendue master, who was to offer us for sale like sheep or cattle, arrived, and asked my mother which was the eldest. She said nothing, but pointed to me. He took me by the hand, and led me out into the middle of the street, and, turning me slowly round, exposed me to the view of all those who attended. I was soon surrounded by strange men, who examined and handled me in the same manner that a butcher would a calf or a lamb he was about to purchase, and who talked about my shape and size in like words — as if I could no more understand their meaning than the dumb beasts.
I was then put up to sale. The bidding commenced at a few pounds, and gradually rose to fifty-seven. When I was finally sold to the highest bidder, the people who stood by said that I had fetched a great sum for so young a slave. I then saw my sisters led forth, and sold to different owners: so that we had not even the sad satisfaction of being partners in bondage.
When the sale was over, my mother hugged and kissed us, and mourned over us, begging of us to keep up a good heart, and do our duty to our new masters. It was a sad parting; one went one way, one went another way, one yet another. And our poor mother went home with nothing. Slavery! How the thought of it pains my heart! But the truth must be told of it. What these eyes have seen, it is my duty to relate. For few people really know what slavery is. I… have been a slave. I… have felt what a slave feels. I… know what a slave knows. And I want all good people to know it too… that they may break our chains and set us free.
Mary Prince was first sold to a family that operated a salt water collection pond. She was required to stand up to her knees in salt water for twelve hours a day, digging up salt in the hot tropical sun, and there was no getting sick. For the least infraction Mary was often tied up by her wrists and flogged with cowhide. Ten years later she was sold to the Woods who also beat and her and abused her constantly. Mary married a free man and together they attempted to buy her freedom, but the Woods refused and were irate that she had married without their permission. The Woods relocated to England and took Mary along with them, thinking that with nothing to her name, no knowledge of the country, no one to contact, and no way to return to her husband in the West Indies she would not dare leave them. However under British Law at the time, people who were enslaved were set free once they stepped on English soil. Unable to bear their cruelty any longer Mary went to the Anti-Slavery Society and with their assistance forged a new life for herself as a free woman.
Mary published her autobiography in 1831 and it became quite an important work in the abolitionist’s movement. The Woods attempted to sue her for defamation of character, but they lost their case in the British courts. Mary still had not been reunited with her husband when her book was published.
Voice-over by Hattie Winston