Welcome to Black History Is Now, a content series celebrating Black culture in the UK. This year, we’re platforming the Unforgotten Women throughout Black British history, highlighting their achievements and legacy in Britain.
When you picture Britain’s movement to abolish the slave trade – and eventually slavery itself – the faces of exclusively white men are likely to come to mind. While the names of William Wilberforce and Granville Sharp have been immortalised through the centuries, the story of the lesser known abolitionist Mary Prince has been overshadowed by their legacies.
Born in 1788 to an enslaved family of African descent in Bermuda, Prince was separated from her sisters at the age of 12 and sold at a slave market where, in her own words, she “was soon surrounded by strange men, who examined and handled [her] in the same manner that a butcher would a calf or a lamb he was about to purchase.”
For the next two decades, Prince would be sold from slave-owner to slave-owner, across Bermuda and nearby Caribbean islands. Her roles ranged from working as a domestic slave to enduring 17-hour days knee-deep raking salt water to sustain the lucrative export of salt – a pillar of the Bermudian economy at the time.
While working for a family in Antigua, Prince joined the Moravian Church and in 1826, she married a member of the church community, Daniel James, a former slave who had managed to buy his freedom. Her “owner” John Adam Wood reacted to this decision by “horse-whipping” Prince, as she had not asked his permission and he did not want a free Black man living on his property. Two years later, the couple were separated when the Wood family moved to London and Prince was forced to accompany them.
By this point, Britain had passed a law abolishing the transatlantic slave trade (1807) but slavery itself was still legal and remained entrenched in the colonies. Prince became one of the many slaves in England trapped in a state of limbo. Unless she was formally emancipated, she could not return to her husband without being re-enslaved in Antigua.
Prince fled her owners and sought shelter with the Moravian Church, where she was taken under the wing of Thomas Pringle, secretary to the Anti-Slavery Society. Pringle convinced Prince to record her experiences as a slave to strengthen the abolition campaign. Her account was transcribed by Susanna Strickland, a member of the Society, and published in 1831 as The History of Mary Prince – the first autobiography by a Black woman in Britain and still considered a powerful contribution to the anti-slavery movement.
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