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The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave, Related by Herself.

At its publication in London and Edinburgh in 1831, The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave did more than add yet another document to the narratives of British former slaves dating back to the eighteenth century, and to the many case histories of black slave women reported in the Anti-Slavery Society's Anti-Slavery Reporter. Prince provided the first lengthy discussion of life for a black slave woman in one of the British colonies, and her History contributed to the heated debate over slavery that had raged in England since the 1820s, when a bill for full emancipation was first introduced in Parliament. While I hesitate for many reasons to label Prince's narrative the British version of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (no one ever cited Mary Prince as the catalyst in the outbreak of a full-scale Civil War in England), according to Moira Ferguson, The History of Mary Prince had gone into a third edition by the end of 1831, and two years later, in 1833, The Emancipation Bill passed the House of Lords; in 1834 a law went into effect throughout the British Caribbean which set up apprenticeships for "free" blacks; and in 1838 England abolished slavery in the Caribbean completely.

Reading this most recent edition of The History of Mary Prince: A West Indian Slave triggers a deja vu. Everything in the work resembles Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of A Slave Girl: Written by Herself: the strident, moral voice of the former slave recounting and remembering her ordeal in bondage, the harrowing scenes of physical abuse at the hands of both a slave master and a jealous slave mistress, the master's refusal to allow the slave girl to marry the man of her choice - a free black man - and the pivotal moment when the slave decides to rebel and take her stand for freedom. The fact that the Prince story was published thirty years before that of Jacobs proves that slavery in both the Caribbean and the United States locked black women into the same abusive pattern of existence. The two texts corroborate one another.

Moria Ferguson's very thorough critical introduction to Mary Prince and her autobiography reflects her extensive research at libraries in Europe, the Caribbean, and the United States. Her numerous footnotes are replete with useful citations, additional information on the history of British slavery, and identification of practically every person mentioned in the autobiography. Ferguson brings out the salient issues bearing on The History of Mary Prince: the events of Prince's life, the genesis of her book, the abolitionist Thomas Pringle's role as editor, the book's publishing circumstances and critical reception, and its place in the British and American slave narrative and female literary traditions of the nineteenth century. Based on her readings of critical interpretations of African American women's slave narratives, Ferguson offers a very useful analysis of the silence in Mary's story, in particular the silence on anything having to do with sex. Under pressure to conform to the pattern of Christian morality and female decorum that a British reading audience would expect, Mary Prince and her abolitionist editor/publisher Thomas Pringle could not reveal all of these intimate details. Ferguson suggests ways to read the subtext on interracial sexual politics that Mary Prince would have wanted her audience to hear.

One of the many aspects of this narrative that interests me is the phrase "Related By Herself" included in its title. We are accustomed to the phrase "Written by Herself" in the titles of self-scribed nineteenth-century narratives such as Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself and Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written By Himself. Several critics have discussed the literary and political significance of a former slave's having written her or his own narrative. The descriptor "Related By Herself," when reconsidered after one has read the narrative, emphasizes Mary Prince's power as an orator more than her illiteracy. We know that Prince first dictated her story to an English woman residing in the Thomas Pringle household during the time she worked there. Prince makes this clear herself in the final pages of her narrative: "I will say the truth to the English people who may read this history that my good friend, Miss S--, is now writing down for me." (84). The narrative seems to have retained, in Thomas Pringle's phrasing, "as far as was practicable, Mary's exact expressions and peculiar phraseology" (45).

In addition to the orality signaled by the phrase "Related By Herself," the phrase also depicts Prince as giving testimony to the slaves' true feelings about slavery: "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 can tell by myself" can be read in two ways - that she knows what other slaves feel based on how she herself feels about slavery, and that she is confident in her ability to speak by herself as an authority on how slaves feel. She declares herself a more reliable authority on the subject than white men.

"Related By Herself" signals as well Mary Prince's ability to establish logical connections all by herself between slavery as an institution and the demoralization of the English slave holder. She does this by comparing English whites she knew in the West Indies and the English people she met in London:

Since I have been here I have often wondered how English people can go out into the West Indies and act in such a beastly manner. But when they go to the West Indies, they forget God and all feeling of shame, since they can see and do such things. 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. (83-84)

She exposes one of her masters, Mr. D-, as a lewd, licentious brute:

He had an ugly fashion of stripping himself quite naked and ordering me then to wash him. I would not come, my eyes were so full of shame. He would then come to beat me.... I [finally] 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. (67-68)

Mary Prince eventually talked this same Mr. D- into selling her to another English slave holder, a Mr. Wood, who exhibited the same unrestrained behavior. It was while traveling with Wood and his wife in England that Mary Prince talked her way to freedom. Mary Prince's outspokenness throughout her narrative signals her healthy ego and her mastery of the art of oral persuasion. She could not have survived the ordeal of slavery otherwise.

Included in this edition are the lengthy prefatory and supplementary statements by Thomas Pringle, the abolitionist editor/publisher whom Mary asked to assist her in writing her story. He presents letters from a variety of individuals mentioned in Mary's narrative, especially those of her former owner John Wood, to document both her veracity and the former slave master's mendacity. While he does refer to her outspokenness as the one "defect" in her character that he observed while she was employed in his household, Pringle does not accept her former owner's claim that Mary Prince was immoral. He maintains a tone of moral outrage over John Wood's refusal to allow Mary Prince to return to Antigua as a free woman. His entire appeal is directed to other anti-slavery sympathizers; hence, he engages in the same race ritual as did American abolitionist/editors of nineteenth-century slave narratives. He guarantees the truth of the tale and, by extension, the existence of a person calling herself Mary Prince, but it is a conversation with England across the text and figurative body of a silent former slave. While careful to refer to her throughout his statement as a human being, he nonetheless "silences" Mary's voice. We never hear from her as to how she fared in England as a "free" woman following the narrative's publication. All the conversations Pringle claims to have had with her are paraphrased. There is even a letter signed by a group of white women who, in response to a query from a woman who had read an early edition of Mary's story, examined the black woman's body for evidence of physical beatings. This letter describes the scars and paraphrases Mary's explanation as to how she got them. This last letter in the Supplement intended to verify the entire narrative shows that, when all literary efforts to convince the English that she was telling the truth failed, Mary Prince had to subject herself to an auction-block-type probing of her physical body. The text thereby proved more legible, hence more acceptable, for some of the English readers.

This edition of The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave, Related By Herself will appeal to scholars and students alike working on developing critical interpretations and/or historical understandings of the slave narrative. Ferguson's introduction will assist feminist scholars in advancing the discussion of black women's experiences as slaves, and their bouts with the "ordering imperative" in nineteenth-century life-story production.

Reviewed by Alice Deck University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
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Author:Deck, Alice
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1996
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