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Mary Prince was born into enslavement on Bermuda around 1788, and sold away from her family at the age of ten. She was treated cruelly by a series of masters on several West Indian islands, enduring extreme hardship and sexual abuse. For years she was forced to work up to her waist all day in salt ponds, manufacturing salt. This work caused sun blisters on exposed parts of the body and painful boils and sores on the legs.
In 1828, she was brought from Antigua to England by her then owners, Mr and Mrs John Wood. Slavery was still legal in the West Indies, but no longer in Britain itself, so once in London, Prince left the Woods and went to the Anti-Slavery Society.
In 1829, she unsuccessfully petitioned parliament for her freedom, so she could return to her husband in Antigua without finding herself once again enslaved. She told her life story to abolitionist sympathisers, and it was published in 1831 as ‘The History of Mary Prince’ – attracting a large readership just as the anti-slavery movement was mounting a powerful and ultimately successful campaign for the emancipation of all Africans enslaved by the British.
Unfortunately the remainder of Mary Prince’s life is a mystery. It is unknown whether she died in Britain or was able to return, free, to Antigua.
BOOK: The History of Mary Prince: A West Indian Slave (Penguin Classics) By Mary Prince
The History of Mary Prince (1831) was the first narrative of a black woman to be published in Britain. It describes Prince’s sufferings as
a slave in Bermuda, Turks Island and Antigua, and her eventual arrival in London with her brutal owner Mr Wood in 1828.
Prince escaped from him and sought assistance from the Anti-Slavery Society, where she dictated her remarkable story to Susanna Strickland (later Moodie). A moving and graphic document, The History drew attention to the continuation of slavery in the Caribbean, despite an 1807 Act of Parliament officially ending the slave trade.
It inspired two libel actions and ran into three editions in the year of its publication. This powerful rallying cry for emancipation remains an extraordinary testament to Prince’s ill-treatment, suffering and survival.