Mary Prince was born into enslavement in Brackish Pond, Bermuda, in 1788, Prince and her siblings, were raised by her adoring mother until she was 12. Her mother was a household slave to a family called Williams, and Mary would later write that she “was made quite a pet of by the Williams’s child, Miss Betsey, who used to lead me about by the hand, and call me her little nigger”. When the Williams’s fortunes changed, Mary’s devastated mother took her to the market to be sold. Mary “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”.
For the next 15 years, Mary was treated cruelly by a series of masters on several West Indian islands, enduring extreme hardship and sexual abuse. In 1828, she was brought from Antigua to England by her then owners, the sadistic John Wood, a white Caribbean man. He and his family took her to Antigua and, in 1826, through her Moravian Church, she met and married Daniel James, a free carpenter.
She was horsewhipped for not asking permission. The Woods also abused her by locking her in a cage and beating her, and leaving her to die in an outhouse when her rheumatism prevented her from working for some months. She was eventually saved by a neighbour but, despite essentially condemning her to death, the Woods refused Prince’s requests to buy her freedom.
Prince accompanied them to London in 1928, she was hopeful that the myth about the English air being able to heal rheumatism was true and would improve her rheumatism so she might be able to return to her husband a free woman. Unfortunately, it only made life harder for her.
Slavery was still legal in the West Indies, but no longer in Britain itself, so once in London, Prince left the Woods and went to the Anti-Slavery Society.
In 1829, she unsuccessfully petitioned parliament for her freedom, she told her life story to abolitionist sympathisers, and it was published by her new abolitionist employer, Mr Pringle in 1831 as ‘The History of Mary Prince’ so that, in Prince’s words, “good people in England might hear from a slave what a slave had felt and suffered”. It attracted a large readership just as the anti-slavery movement was mounting a powerful and ultimately successful campaign for the emancipation of all Africans enslaved by the British.