1. To what extent does the autobiography of Mary Prince tell her own story?. The following essay shall asses to what extent Mary Prince’s story was published in her own words after being recorded down by Susanna Strickland and then edited by Thomas Pringle for publication. With the passing of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act by the British parliament in 1807, the attention of the campaigners against the slave trade switched to the issue of slavery itself.
Although the trading in slaves itself had been banned , nothing had been done to free those already enslaved within the British Empire. In 1823 several religious groups, politicians and abolitionist supporters came together to form the Anti- Slavery Society who campaigned on behalf of those enslaved to the right of freedom. It wasn’t until august 1833 that the Slave Emancipation Act was finally passed, giving all slaves currently living in bondage within the British Empire their freedom after a set period of years.
The 1833 Act did not actually come into force until the 1st of August 1834 and although the many enslaved people in the British West Indies were no longer legally slaves, they were still exploited, inhumanly treated and often forced to work for low wages and inadequate housing by former masters. The text ‘The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian slave. Related by herself. ’ was one of many slave narratives used by religious abolitionist 2. groups such as the Quakers to promote their campaign and rally public interest and support.
It was also the first slave narrative by a black female from the British Caribbean. Mary Prince was a Bermudan woman that was born into slavery through her parents who where also slaves. She was sold away from her mother and siblings when she was 12 years of age. After many years in slavery with different masters and in various locations she finally arrived in England where she was technically classed as a free woman and left her then owners Mr and Mrs Woods after being threatened with being thrown out into the streets.
With nowhere to go Mary took shelter with a couple from the Moravian church she had been attending and within a short period of time was introduced to Thomas Pringle an active abolitionist writer, a poet and the secretary of the Anti-Slavery Society within whose household she was then employed. A request was made to Pringle by Prince to have her story recorded so that ‘good people in England might hear from a slave what a slave had felt and suffered‘. Pringle agreed to this request and asked Susanna Strickland to recorded Princes narrative so that he may edit and publish it.
Pringle makes it clear in the preface of the text that Mary requested this herself by stating ‘The idea of writing Mary Prince’s history was first suggested by herself. ’ he states this as he felt it important that the reader was absolutely clear that Prince was not in anyway coerced into telling her story, possibly knowing that he would receive heavy criticism from pro-slavery groups declaring he had taken advantage of Prince being in his 3. employment and in a venerable position and convinced her into helping him create a religious propaganda pamphlet serving only to guilt Christians into supporting his campaign.
Throughout the text Prince continuously challenges the ideals of enslaved woman. Prince shows us that she was not as typically submissive as most people in England may have thought, and, that she has an assertive nature and a sense of agency giving us exact examples of the times she had confronted masters and stood up to them ‘I then took courage and said that I could stand the floggings no longer; that I was weary of my life’ it could be said these examples were put in to show Prince clearly has enough agency to put her in a position to ask for her story to be published by an employer .
The problem is would a Slave after running away for several days and being brought home by her father to her master, dare speak to her master in this way. Prince even goes onto say ‘He did not flog me that day. ’ this seems highly unusual as most runaways were harshly punished by their masters as an example to other slaves, of the consequences, of running away. We could take into consideration the use of language as Prince states she was not flogged ‘that day’ perhaps meaning the punishment came later but in order to keep the momentum of the story moving along the memory was cut short upon editing.
Something that is quiet unusual about Princes narrative is the lack of content of the issues surrounding sexual abuse. This is peculiar as sex abuse 4. of slaves seemed to be a distinctive feature of West Indian life for slaves in the 18th and 19th century. Sandra Paquet argues that ’social and religious prohibitions surrounding sexually explicit material in nineteenth century Britain and legal liabilities attached to the publication of such tracts placed further constraints on Mary Prince’s individual voice.
Thomas Pringle being part of the Evangelical movement was fully aware that middle aged white Christian housewives would not want to read about sexual abuse as this would have been distasteful and black slave women already had a reputation for being sexually promiscuous so this would have discredited Prince as a witness. That said, Mary carefully gives details of incidents that have a rather sexual overtone, speaking of her old master Mr D_ she says; He had an ugly fashion of stripping himself quiet naked and ordering me to then wash him in a tub of water.
This was worse to me than all the licks. Sometimes when he called me to wash him I would not come, my eyes were full of shame. But it does not end there, prince goes on to inform the reader ‘for he was a very indecent man -very spiteful, and too indecent; with no shame for his servants, no shame for his own flesh. , here Prince has managed to keep this part of her story in the text by either knowing to tread carefully or by Pringle helping to prune it.
Whilst Prince does not state that she has been sexually abused she hints an alludes to the idea that there was something very sexual in nature about the relationship between Mr D_ and the slaves he 5. owned. The preface of the text written by Thomas Pringle testifies to the truthfulness and authenticity of the narrative by saying ‘The narrative was taken down from Mary’s own lips’ also he states ‘ No fact of importance has been omitted, and not a single circumstance or sentiment has been added. this is a rather bold statement when put into the context that the narrative is being told by someone heavily reliant on memory.
Sometimes things are remembered differently in hindsight. It is clear from the evidence of scars on Princes body (something Strickland claims to have seen with her own eyes) that she has been through a somewhat traumatic experience of slavery, so we have to question how that may have affected her memory and how much did Pringle fill in the blanks with his own input. An example is Princes memory of being sold off at the slave auction by her mother ‘I was then put up for sale.
The bidding commenced at a few pounds, and gradually rose to fifty-seven,’ how can a girl of 12 years old, amongst the chaos of a thriving slave market, with the grief of being ripped apart from her mother and siblings heavy on her heart and after 30+ years of traumatising abuse, whilst being held in bondage, in all honesty remember the exact amount she was sold for. For it may seem a small detail but it does lead the reader to question the authenticity of the small details within Princes narrative. It could have been added later by Pringle to help the narrative read more flowingly as a story to help keep the reader interested.
Pringle being a writer himself knew that 6. people were not interested in reading patchy stories that lacked sentiment and that are hard to follow ,so, he had to make it appealing to his audience. Drawing to conclusion the evidence that has been examined shows that the narrative does include Princes own voice, even though there is at times evidence to suggest that it could have been heavily edited and pruned. Despite this, between Prince’s voice and Pringles clever editorial skills the goal for Mary to tell her story and make it public knowledge in order to gain freedom for all slaves was a successful one.
So damning and full of sentiment was her narrative that it helped push forward the Slave Emancipation Act, which in turn earned thousands of enslaved people their freedom and changed the shape of industry forever. The fact that that Mary Princes story is still studied, analysed and used as an example by writers, teachers and students alike adds testament to the authenticity of her voice and the fact that her narrative reflects the self made herione that she was.
University/College: University of Chicago
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 1 October 2016
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