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Analysis of Mary Prince

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2010, Prof. Schmid

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Analysis of Mary Prince´s Slave Narrative:

The History of Mary Prince

A West Indian Slave. Related by herself.

Ruhr-Universität Bochum

English Department

HS: Caribbean Culture

PD Dr. Susanne Schmid

WS 2010/ 11


Table of Contents


1. Introduction 3


2. Historical Review on Slavery 4

2.1 Short History of Slavery in the Americas 4

2.2 Abolishing the Slave Trade 4


3. Slave Narratives 6

3.1 Development of the Slave Narrative and its aims 6

3.2 Authentication through Whites 8


4. Mary Prince and her autobiography 9

4.1 Content 9

4.2 Authentication of her story 9

4.3 Sexual abuse 11

4.4 Travelling 13


5. Conclusion 15


6. Bibliography


1. Introdcution

Slavery is an evil and immoral part in American History. It was legally supported for a long time and although it was prohibited by law in the 19th century, slavery still lasted and blacks were not adhered the same rights. From the problem of slavery arose the problem of racism. Blacks legally achieved the same rights on the American continent with the help of Martin Luther King by 1965.

In which way did society, slaves and abolitionist contribute to the abolition of slavery? During slavery a number of slave narratives arose as political documents to increase the opposition. These narratives offer an insight view into the life of a slave, their feelings and thoughts. This paper deals with the slave narrative of Mary Prince.

Her narrative comprises the topic of slavery and most important, Prince’s History is written from a female point of view. She probably was the first slave woman that wrote a narrative in English[1] and apart from Mary Seacole the only black British writer in the 18th century.[2] Her narrative The History of Mary Prince was published in 1831. Her story is not written by herself, but she dictated it.

To be reliable for the reader, the white author and abolitionist Thomas Pringle attached a prologue and supplements.

This essay attempts to analyze her narrative and focuses on certain aspects in her narrative. In a first step a short overview on slavery in the Americas is given to understand the context. In a second step the genre of the Slave Narrative will be explained. It examines the development, their aims and the typical themes they comprise.

In addition to that the typical character of a narrative, the authentication through whites will be explained. After that the narrative by Prince will be analyzed in terms of their authentication, sexual abuse and the motif of travelling. It was typical for slave narratives that white people authorized the story. Otherwise the truthfulness would have been doubted. This feature will be analyzed as well as Prince´s contradictory behavior regarding sexuality.

Prince´s life seems to be full of many changes of location. The meaning of these changes will be analyzed in a next step. Due to reasons of space the paper will concentrate on three aspects. In the last chapter a conclusion is given summarizing the results of the analysis. In addition to that further ideas about possible studies regarding Mary Prince will be given.


2. Historical Review on Slavery


2.1 Short History of Slavery in the Americas

It were the Portuguese who started to use slaves as cheap work labor in Portugal. They also were the first to trade with slaves. This took place in the middle of the 15th century. The Spanish also began to take advantage of the usage of slaves and so it happened that they were imported more frequently from Africa.[3] The discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus in 1492 was a key event in the history of slavery.

The Spanish and the Portuguese already had experiences in using slaves in Europe. So, they started to demand African slaves “to enable the colonies to flourish.”[4] The first slaves arrived in the Americas in 1493 with Columbus´s second voyage.[5] The provision of African slaves was “a source of commercial, and later international, diplomatic control and licensing.”[6] The lucrative business of slave trading was quickly established and ships were sent from Europe to Afr.....[read full text]

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The development of the slave narrative was closely linked to the rise of abolitionism. In that time the Anti-Slavery Society was formed as well. According to Bruce Dickson the slave narrative aimed at three goals. It first focused on the abolition of slavery, secondly on democratization and thirdly on the idea of freedom.[22] During the abolitionist movement proslavery writing arose to defend slavery.

Defenders of slavery were attacked by abolitionists to answer their arguments. Some of the arguments had to do with race saying that “people of African descent were intellectually and morally inferior to Europeans and Euro-Americans and were therefore, fit only for slavery”.[23] Abolitionists denied such arguments pledging for humanity and equality. In addition to that it was said that slavery should be used to increase Christianity, but “slave narratives contradicted this claim”, because most of the slaves really dedicated themselves to Christianity.[24] All in all, the slave narratives played a significant role in the abolition movement.

As already mentioned the slave narratives took part in the process of democratization. The reason for that is, the movement was built “on ideas and values going back to the American Revolution, democratic rhetoric and practices became dominant modes in the nation´s politics.”[25] The slave narrative supported this process of democratization as it was characterized by those principles.

Democratization implied that everybody was allowed to vote and that nobody was denied to participate actively in politics. This would have meant to include black people and women as well.[26] The concept of democracy and slavery was completely opposed as the principles of democracy “included values of individualism and independence”, so there was a polemic discussion how slavery could be linked to these principles.

The final idea of freedom that was also treated in the slave narratives was also embedded in the ideology of abolitionism movement.[27] Slaves were excluded from “self-definition and self-control.”[28] In addition to that the narrators underlined slavery as a forced labor system connected to brutality and violence that was not possible to be combined to independence as a democratic principle.

Precisely because slaves could compare their status and conditions with their owners they started to claim for freedom and independence. Slave owner tried to isolate their slaves from abolitionist ideas to prevent them from “the influence of abolitionist ideas”, but those ideas “did penetrate the plantation world.”[29] Different procedures of how freedom was achieved will be found in slave narratives.

Usually it describes the dangerous depiction of escape from the South to the North risking one´s life.[30]

Concerning the autobiographical writing Gillian Whitlock says that interaction in the contact zone was only done by means of autobiographies. The contact zone is a region where different groups of people encounter, who originally are geographically separated. This leads to the involvement of unlike conditions.

There exists a number of white autobiographical writing as well that is “self-centered and […] self-aggrandizing.[31]” The contact zone is a “site of interaction and improvisation […] the site of possession and displacement […] where European authority was acquired at the expense of subordinated others.[32] The “others” are those who “were ruled, colonized and gathered.”[33] What is special about Prince´s narrative is that it was written in Britain, but deals with slavery and Mary´s experiences of slavery in the Caribbean, to be more precise Bermuda, Antigua and Turk´s Island.

Further explanations to th.....

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But she stayed with them until they threw them out for the fourth time. She wanted to return to Bermuda to go back to her husband, but the Woods would not let her go as a free person. She thereby was confronted with the decision of going back into slavery to be with her husband or to remain in England being free but far away from her home. She found employment with Thomas Pringle, who was a white abolitionist.

Due to the support of Susana Strickland and Thomas Pringle, Mary Prince was able to write her story down. It was published in 1831. Until then, she had been living with several masters and on different places.



4.2 Authentication of her story

The History of Mary Prince is full of Anti-Slavery thoughts. Her history was published during a period of change in Britain. This can be seen in the fact that the Emancipation Bill was put into effect two years after the publication. So, the truthfulness of her story was doubted as well as “Prince´s own feminine moral character.”[39] In addition to that the representation of a life of slavery won public support and to get more supporter for the abolition movement, slaves were portrayed “as pure and Christian like, innocent victims and martyrs.”[40] This was a reason to question her story, because it was argued that their representation was formed to raise supporters.

To avoid skeptical thoughts, at the beginning of her narrative authenticity is given by Thomas Pringle. He discusses her circumstances by saying:

“The narrative was taken down from Mary´s own lips by a lady who happened to be at the time residing in my family as a visitor. 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.

No fact of importance has been omitted, and not a single circumstance or sentiment has been added. It is essentially her own, without any material alteration farther than was requisite to exclude redundancies and gross grammatical errors, so as to render it clearly intelligible.”[41]

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The documentation of her beatings and the cruel brutality is another proof for her authenticity. “Using her abuse as a marker of narrative authenticity still takes her audience into account, of course.”[54] In addition to that in the supplement a discussion of severe punishment on Prince´s body is raised.

It is a discussion between Strickland, Thomas Pringle´s wife and others. Mary Prince is absent and this is to underline and certify the brutality done to her. Mrs. Pringle wrote:

“[…] I beg in reply to state, that the whole of the back part of her body is distinctly scarred, and, as it were, chequered, with the vestiges of severe floggings. Beside this, there are many large scars on other parts of her person, exhibiting an appearance as if the flesh had been deeply cut, or lacerated with gashes, by some instrument wielded by most unmerciful hands.

Mary affirms, that all these scars were occasioned by the various cruel punishments she has mentioned or referred to in her narrative […] In order to put in possession of such full and authentic evidence, respecting the marks on Mary Prince´s person, as may serve your benevolent purpose in making the inquiry, I beg to add to my own testimony that of Miss Strickland […]” [55]


Regarding Sandra Paquet it is not precisely Thomas Pringle who gives the story its authority. She says that “the real authority of the text originates in her autobiographical consciousness.”[56] However “the self-consciousness about negotiations of the conditions of speaking [and] the limitations of available discourses of identity”[57] are extraordinary, but give the story a further authorization.


4.3 Sexual abuse

As the story focuses on slavery as a “lived historical reality”[58] and not so much about women, “the abusive sexual experience, enter the text only in encoded ways.” The reader does not know nothing about Prince´s marriage to her husband and very few words are said about her sexual abuses done to her.[59] However Mary Prince makes allusions to sexual abuse:

“He 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 could not come, my eyes were so full of shame.”[60]

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Mary Prince is of a strong character that develops through the narrative and becomes more and more emancipated. Being on Bermuda with Mr. D. she “reprimands him for his violence and indecency and refuses to be his sexual slave”[66] anymore:


“He struck me so severely for this, that at last I defended myself, for I thought it was high time to do so. I then told him I would not live longer with him, for he was a very indecent man- very spiteful, and too indecent; with no shame for his servants, no shame for his own flesh.”[67]


A similar situation, where strength and a kind of self-confidence can be seen takes place in the Wood´s household in England. At first Mary Prince feels insecure of leaving the home when the Woods throw her out:

“I knew that I was free in England, but I did not know where to go, or how to get my living; and therefore, I did not like to leave the house.”[68]


But they happen to throw her out again and she answers:

“Stop, before you take up this trunk, and hear what I have to say before these people. I am going out of this house, as I was ordered; but I have done no wrong at all to my owners, neither here nor in the West Indies. I always works very hard to please them, both by night and day; but there was no giving satisfaction, for my mistress could never be satisfied with reasonable service.

I told my mistress I was sick, and yet she has ordered me out of doors. This is the fourth time; and now I am going out.”[69]


She refers to the fact that she had been thrown out and this is her justification of leaving. This implies that she no longer can be seen as a victim, because she “acts independently and on principle, and redefines herself in the process.”[70] However, by then she was a free person. More on that will be given in the next chapter.



.....

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The fact that Mary Prince travelled a lot through her time of being a slave is important to mention “since the condition [of her life] changes in accordance with place.”[81] At the beginning of the story Mary Prince reflects her life and describes her early times as a slave. The first family she lived with was on Bermuda. She still was young and this time is described as her happiest time in her life:[82]

“I was made quite a pet of by Miss Betsey, and loved her very much. She used to lead me about by the hand, an call me her little nigger. This was the happiest period of my life; for I was too young to understand rightly my condition as a slave, and too thoughtless and full of spirits to look forward to the days of toil and sorrow.”[83]


Mary Prince here represents an innocent character “that she actually believed her mistress cared for her as an equal.”[84] Miss Betsey even embodies a sister for Prince.[85]

Soon after that she was sold on a slave auction that separated her from her mother and her siblings. From that moment on there is no happiness anymore in her life. She describes the “brutality and cruelty” of her masters.[86] She now has made the transformation to an adult and “comprehends the actual situation and would have analyzed and described this sequence quite differently had she not been so naïve.”[87]

From then on, her life is clearly described as degrading and brutal. Her journeys represent the variation of race, gender and sexuality, but they are changing rather than stable.[88]

Mary Prince knows about the circumstance that her living conditions vary from place to place:

“He turned round and began to lick me. Then I said, ´Sir, this is not Turk´s Island.` I can´t repeat his answer, the words were too wicked - too bad to say. He wanted to treat me the same in Bermuda as he had done in Turk´s Island.” [89]


The narrative is characterized by a “journey from slavery to freedom, from childhood to womanhood, from Bermuda to England, is a journey from the private self-consciousness of a child to a politicized public self-consciousness of an enslaved woman speaking on behalf of all slaves.”[90] She no longer represents a victim. This is underlined by the fact that she wanted t.....

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