Mary Prince (1788-c.1833): on slavery and freedom

For Women’s History Month 2017: Mary Prince was a West Indian slave who freed herself from slavery in England and subsequently narrated her life story to an English woman.

On the break-up of her family after the death of her first master:

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 market-place, 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 by-standers, who were looking at us so carelessly, think of the pain that wrung the hearts of the negro woman and her young ones? No, no! They were not all bad, I dare say, but slavery hardens white people’s hearts towards the blacks; and many of them were not slow to make their remarks upon us aloud, without regard to our grief–though their light words fell like cayenne on the fresh wounds of our hearts. Oh those white people have small hearts who can 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 those who attended the vendue. 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 knocked down to the highest bidder; and 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 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 another, and our poor mammy went home with nothing. [p.4]

On slave-owners claims that slaves are happy and well cared for:

They tie up slaves like hogs–moor them up like cattle, and they lick them, so as hogs, or cattle, or horses never were flogged;–and yet they come home and say, and make some good people believe, that slaves don’t want to get out of slavery. But they put a cloak about the truth. It is not so. All slaves want to be free–to be free is very sweet. I will say the truth to English people who may read this history that my good friend, Miss S—-, is now writing down for me. I have been a slave myself–I know what slaves feel–I can tell by myself what other slaves feel, and by what they have told me. The man that says slaves be quite happy in slavery–that they don’t want to be free–that man is either ignorant or a lying person. I never heard a slave say so. I never heard a Buckra man say so, till I heard tell of it in England. Such people ought to be ashamed of themselves. They can’t do without slaves, they say. What’s the reason they can’t do without slaves as well as in England? No slaves here–no whips–no stocks–no punishment, except for wicked people. They hire servants in England; and if they don’t like them, they send them away: they can’t lick them. Let them work ever so hard in England, they are far better off than slaves. If they get a bad master, they give warning and go hire to another. They have their liberty. That’s just what we want. We don’t mind hard work, if we had proper treatment, and proper wages like English servants, and proper time given in the week to keep us from breaking the Sabbath. But they won’t give it: they will have work–work–work, night and day, sick or well, till we are quite done up; and we must not speak up nor look amiss, however much we be abused. And then when we are quite done up, who cares for us, more than for a lame horse? This is slavery. I tell it, to let English people know the truth; and I hope they will never leave off to pray God, and call loud to the great King of England, till all the poor blacks be given free, and slavery done up for evermore. [p.23]

Documenting the American South: The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave, Related by Herself (1831)

British Library: British Slave Narratives

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