copyright © 2006
in The Guardian
03 June 2006
The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian
Slave is the first autobiography
by a woman slave in the Americas. It was published in London
in 1831, with very careful editorial notes explaining the exact
process by which it had come into being. Mary was literate,
having been taught on Sundays by the Moravian church in Antigua,
but she did not write her story down herself. She told it to
anti-slavery campaigners in London.
The idea was hers. "She wished it to be
done, she said, that good people in England might hear from
a slave what a slave had felt and suffered." Her story
was taken down: "It was written out fully, with all the
narrator's repetitions and prolixities, and afterwards pruned
into its present shape; retaining, as far as was practicable,
Mary's exact expressions and peculiar phraseology."
This avowed attention to linguistic precision
had a motive. The publishers took great pains to emphasise the
absolute genuineness and reliability of Mary's account because
they wanted to convince the reader that, contrary to propaganda,
the slaves were not happy with their lot. They wanted a reliable
witness to be heard in her own words.
The idiom, as it turns out, is not so divergent
from metropolitan English. The "Buckra people", the
whites, "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 ... all slaves want to be free - to be free is very sweet."
Another motive for telling the story was that,
although Mary was a free person as long as she stayed in London,
as soon as she returned to Antigua, where her husband lived,
she would become a slave again. Her owner, who had brought her
to England in service, was doggedly unwilling to sell her or
set her free.
The emphasis, then, is on the brutality of
the slave-owners, their habit of hanging the slaves up by their
wrists to administer a "licking", and on that coincidence
of cruelty and sexual humiliation which, though it cannot be
spelled out, is nevertheless made plain enough to shock. One
of Mary's masters "had an ugly fashion of stripping himself
quite naked, and ordering me then to 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 so full of shame.
He would then come to beat me."
After the descriptions of the appalling conditions
on Turk's Island and Antigua, the reader feels great relief
at the arrival of the Moravian church that, unlike the Church
of England, was prepared to educate slaves without first securing
the permission of their masters. But there are limits to this
relief. "I dearly loved to go to the church," says
Mary. "It was so solemn. I never knew rightly that I had
much sin till I went there. When I found out that I was a great
sinner, I was very sorely grieved, and very much frightened.
I used to pray to God to pardon my sins for Christ's sake, and
forgive me for everything I had done amiss; and when I went
home to my work, I always thought about what I had heard from
the missionaries, and wished to be good that I might go to heaven."
This is the price exacted by those who hold
out the possibility of an alternative to all this suffering:
you must acknowledge your sin and learn to live in fear of the
hereafter. But this notion of sin would clearly have been convincing
to many: the catastrophes that have befallen you all your life
have a reason, which has its roots in your sinful nature. Accept
this, and the Moravians can do a great deal for you. Mary meets
a freed slave, a widower, who wishes to marry her. The Moravians
are prepared to hold the ceremony, which would be impossible
in the English church, where "no free man can marry a slave
Mary Prince's story can be found in The
Classic Slave Narratives, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr
(Mentor). There is another edition in the Schomburg Library's
series of Nineteenth-Century Black Woman Writers, called Six
Women's Slave Narratives, with an introduction by William
L Andrews. Classic is the right word for it: it is a classic
example of autobiography used as a weapon.