Source 17 - Mary Prince

This is the only known autobiographical account, published in 1831, of a female slave from the British West Indies. Mary Prince was born on Barbados but was brought to London in the 1820s by her owners, the Woods. After years of mistreatment she tried unsuccessfully to gain her freedom, first through the courts and then via a petition to Parliament.

Unsure of her legal status, she decided to go public with her experiences as a slave. She narrated her life story to the author Susannah Strickland. Strickland was careful to write Mary's story in Standard English and to arrange it to make it acceptable to the British public. It is possible that Strickland may have edited out some details to make Mary seem more 'respectable'.

The autobiography had a tremendous impact, published when the campaign to support the slavery still continuing in the Americas and the Caribbean was at its height. It particularly appealed to female anti-slavery campaigners as it highlighted the effect of slavery upon domestic life: the break up of families, the absence of 'normal' married life, the sexual oppression and the humiliation endured by female slaves. Prince's account was also used by Thomas Pringle, the leader of the Anti-Slavery Society, to put pressure on Parliament.

Though Mary played an important part in the anti-slavery campaign of the 1830s, she was not looked upon as a campaigner in her own right. Even her supporters, who included many middle class women, did not consider her an equal and did not invite her to join their societies. Mary was a working class, black, female domestic servant and while her cause was taken up by others, she did not have the right to act on her own behalf.

  • Why do you think Mary's story was so influential?
  • What sort of evidence did she provide for the campaign against slavery?

Taken from: The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave
Author / Creator: Mary Prince
Publisher: F. Westly and A. H. Davis, London
Date: 1831
Copyright: By permission of the British Library
Shelfmark: 8157.bbb.30