Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past, with a particular focus of women, whose contribution to history is often overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. This post is about Mary Prince, a woman who escaped slavery to become a key figure in the campaign to abolish slavery.
In 1807, the Abolition Act abolished the slave trade, marking a great victory for abolitionists. They had won a significant battle, but had not yet won the war; the slave trade was gone, but slavery itself was not. Slaves, and any children they had, remained indentured. Women were over a century away from winning the vote in Britain, but they found other ways to influence politics and were key to the success of the abolition movement. As the main food purchasers, they were ideally placed to organise boycotts of slave-grown sugar in the 1790s, 1820s, and 1830s. Mary Prince was both a slave and a woman, significant disadvantages in the early nineteenth century. However it was these characteristics that made her such a powerful tool for the abolition movement.
Prince was born to an enslaved family in Bermuda in 1788. She was passed between owners and suffered from awful treatment. In 1815 she was bought by the Wood family, her last owners, for $300. In December 1826, Prince was in Antigua when she married Daniel James, a former slave who had bought his freedom. She did not seek permission from the Wood family, and they badly beat her as punishment.
Despite a deteriorating relationship with the Woods, they took Prince with them when they travelled to England in 1828. She ran away, but was legally only free in England. The Woods refused to emancipate or sell her, so if she returned to her husband in Antigua the Woods would have been able to claim her as their property once again. She petitioned Parliament to grant her freedom, but this too failed.
Prince got a job with Thomas Pringle, an abolitionist writer and Secretary of the Anti-slavery Society. With the help of the Society, she published an autobiography entitled The History of Mary Prince: A West Indian Slave (1831). It was the first account of a black woman’s life published in Great Britain. The book went through three printings in its first year; Mary’s personal story helped to raise awareness of how bad conditions still were for those in slavery.
Nobody knows what happened to Prince after her book was published. In 1833, the Slavery Abolition Act was passed, which banned slavery in the British Empire. Colonies were given time to allow their economies to adapt, so slavery was abolished in Bermuda in 1834 and the West Indies in 1838. If she was still alive, Prince could have gone back to her place of birth or to her husband.
Mary Prince was not seen as a campaigner in her own right, not even by her supporters; as a black, working class woman her social status was about as low as it could get. Nevertheless, her powerful and shocking narrative played an important role in maintaining the momentum of the abolition movement. Sarah Salih, who edited a recent edition of Prince’s book, argues that Mary was a defiant woman; her illicit marriage, and her tendency to defend herself and others both verbally and physically, hinted at a rebellious streak that culminated with the publication of her History. Mary may not have been respected in her lifetime, but she certainly deserves our respect now.
Sources and Further Reading
100 Great Black Britons. “Mary Prince.” No date, accessed 25th May 2016. Available at http://www.100greatblackbritons.com/bios/mary_prince.html
Abolition Project, The. “Mary Prince (1788-c.1833): The First Woman to Present a Petition to Parliament.” No date, accessed 25th May 2016. Available at http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2007/oct/19/race.historybooks
Hochschild, Adam. “The Unsung Heroes of Abolition: Mary Prince.” BBC History. Last modified 17th February 2011, accessed 25th May 2016. Available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/abolition/abolitionists_gallery_04.shtml
Simkin, John. “Mary Prince.” Sparacus Educational. Last modified August 2014, accessed 25th May 2016. Available at http://spartacus-educational.com/SprinceM.htm
Wajid, Sara. “‘They Bought Me as a Butcher Would a Calf or Lamb.'” The Guardian. Last modified 19th October 2007, accessed 25th May 2016. Available at http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2007/oct/19/race.historybooks
Wikipedia. “Mary Prince.” Last modified 11th May 2016, accessed 25th May 2016. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Prince