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Researching the moving story of Bermudian freed slave Mary Prince

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A Canadian researcher wants to bring the moving story of Bermudian freed slave Mary Prince to elementary school students around the world.

Mary Prince is believed to have been one of the first women ever to publish a memoir of her life in slavery. Her story, put out in pamphlet form in London in 1831, helped to end slavery in Britain's colonies.

Margot Maddison-MacFadyen, a doctoral candidate from Memorial University in Newfoundland, is currently being hosted by the Bermuda National Museum. She will give several lectures in the community on the life of Mary Prince, focusing on Miss Prince's time spent on Grand Turk Island and in Antigua.

The narrative is now frequently taken in universities in the United States and Canada. Mrs Maddison-MacFadyen first read the narrative while an undergraduate in university, but really became interested while Head of English at British West Indies Collegiate in the Turks and Caicos.

“There was an advertisement in the local paper for Museum Day on Grand Turk,' she said. “I was living on Providenciales at the time, so I took a plane over there and stayed overnight. I went to Museum Day and saw several copies of the Prince slave narrative in the local gift shop. I was surprised to see it there and they said she was a local author.'

At the approximate age of 14 Mary Prince had been sent from Bermuda to Grand Turk Island to work in the salt ponds.

With Mrs Maddison-MacFadyen's interest kindled, she and her husband moved to Grand Turk for six months so she could learn more about Mary Prince's life.

“The elders on Grand Turk Island really steered me in the right direction,' she said. “They knew the story. All I had to do was listen and figure out where to look in the archives to verify it.'

“It would have been awful working in the salt ponds,' said Mrs Maddison-MacFadyen. “It would be something like working as a field slave, but maybe worse. The slaves who worked there often had boils and sores on their hands and feet from working with the salt. Many slaves went blind from being constantly exposed to the sun's reflection on the white ground. And Miss Prince reported beatings and lashings in her story.'

Mrs Maddison-MacFadyen thinks Mary might have been sent to Grand Turk as a punishment, due to her defiant nature.

“In her narrative her fourth owner is referred to as ‘Mr D',' said Mrs Maddison-MacFadyen. “I think it was probably Robert Darrell, but I don't know that for certain. My information, though good, is not conclusive. Perhaps in time proof will be found that confirms Robert Darrell as the Mr D of Prince's account. She was in Grand Turk for approximately ten years and was brought back to Bermuda by Mr D when she was about twenty-four.'

Over the course of her life she had five slave owners. The last was James Adams Woods Jr, a Bermudian merchant living Antigua. He changed her name to Molly Wood and would often mockingly call her ‘Molly Princess of Wales'. He took her from Antigua to London, England to be a nanny for his children in 1828. When she got to England, however, she was more involved with washing the family laundry in the London washhouses. This caused her great pain as she suffered from rheumatism. She begged her owner to let her buy her own freedom, but he refused. Eventually, she learned that in England it was illegal to own slaves (though not in the colonies) and she gained her own freedom by simply walking out the front door.

Between 1829 and 1830, Ms Prince told her story to slavery abolitionist, Susanna Strickland, in London, who then compiled one of the first personal accounts detailing what it was like to be a slave. Other members of the collaborative writing and editing team were Thomas Pringle, the secretary of London's Anti-Slavery Society who worked as editor, and Joseph Phillips, of Antigua, who assisted on the Antigua section. The resulting manuscript was titled, ‘The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave, Related by Herself'. It became a best-seller.

Some people in London reacted by doubting the story or accusing Miss Prince of exaggerating about the brutal treatment she received.

“People asked if there was any proof,' said Mrs Maddison-MacFadyen. “What about the lashings she described in the story? So four women, who were abolitionists, inspected her back and found that she was covered in scars, not just on her back but down to the bottom of her legs. There were scars caused by lacerations that had gone down to the bone, in some cases.'

Mrs Maddison-MacFadyen believed the narrative of a woman in slavery, the first to be written by a former West Indian slave, helped the abolitionist cause immensely.

While Mrs Maddison-MacFadyen was living on Grand Turk in 2008, the Spirit of Bermuda visited the Island carrying Bermuda history experts such as Dr Mike Jarvis and Dr Clarence Maxwell. She made a point to go out and meet them and show them significant places related to Miss Prince on Grand Turk. They greatly encouraged her studies, and she went on to publish an article in the Bermuda Journal of Archaeology and Maritime History Volume 19 in 2009.

She is now living in Canada again, on Prince Edward Island. She is studying for her doctoral degree at Memorial University in St John's, Newfoundland.

She will be in Bermuda until November 13 and is based at the National Museum of Bermuda in Dockyard. While here she hopes to see places relevant to Mary Prince's life and also to make contact with other people with similar interests.

She will be giving a lecture about Mary Prince, especially Prince's time spent in both Grand Turk and in Antigua, for Citizens Uprooting Racism (CURB) tomorrow from 5.45pm to 7.15pm at the Anglican Cathedral Hall on Church Street. She will also be talking to literature students at the Bermuda College on October 30, and meeting with members of the Bahai Community on November 10.

“I find when you get people together with the same interests you bounce ideas off each other and find new perspectives,' she said.

To learn more about her see her blog at www.margotmadddisonmacfadyen.com.

Author: Margot Maddison-MacFadyen
Author: Margot Maddison-MacFadyen
Cover of the book -- ‘The History of Mary Prince' ¬

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Published October 28, 2013 at 9:00 am (Updated October 26, 2013 at 2:26 pm)

Researching the moving story of Bermudian freed slave Mary Prince

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