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Largely unknown history of Mary Prince

Paying tribute: This bronze chair emblazoned with the name of Mary Prince is one of 12 that forms a new piece of artwork, The Jurors, in a field in Runnymede, England, created during the summer to mark 800 years since Magna Carta was signed close to the same spot (Picture supplied by Jill Raine)

Every generation likes to consider itself to be more intelligent, more capable and entirely more virtuous than the one which preceded it. And every generation likes to think it has either attained or is close to attaining the very pinnacle of human perfectibility.

It has always been thus.

Human nature being what it is, we are all of us consumed by a combination of generational narcissism and what could be termed now-ism — a certain blind self-regard and a tendency to live in the moment.

We are passionately concerned with the present, ponder the future usually only so far as it applies to our own specific circumstances and prospects, and have little to no interest in the past.

However, the reality we and the communities which mould us are continuous works in progress, always improving and always improvable (even if such improvements take place at a frustratingly slow, incremental pace).

We are part of an unending natural process of change, one which balances stagnation with transformation, exhaustion with resurgence.

Even if we disregard history, history never disregards us. Whether we acknowledge the fact or not, we are all heirs to — and have been shaped by — the forces which created the modern world and Bermuda’s tiny corner of it.

Just as our coastline was carved by the winds and sea, so has our character been shaped by our surroundings, our shared experiences and the various internal and outside historical processes which have acted upon us.

We inherit all of the whole sweep of Bermuda history. From Sir George Somers to Sally Bassett. From salt-raking to the Theatre Boycott. From Bermuda’s afterthought status in the 1940 Anglo-American Bases-For-Destroyers Deal, an agreement which proved to have the most hugely consequential economic, ecological, social and cultural ramifications for the Island, to the equally transformational 1986 US-Bermuda Tax Treaty.

History provides us with perspective. And perspective, in turn, provides us with a broader way of thinking, a better of way knowing ourselves and our community.

At the very least a firm understanding of where we came from gives us a fuller understanding of how we arrived at our present conditions and how we are likely to proceed, even if only in general terms.

For our past is by no means an assured guide to our future given all of the unpredictable variables involved — the most unpredictable of these being the human factor.

In every generation a relative handful of forceful, dominant and courageous individuals emerge, those who are the principal actors of their times rather than the merely acted upon.

One such individual is, of course, Mary Prince. The one-time Bermuda slave’s 1831 memoir of her servitude here and in the Caribbean helped to instigate, inspire and galvanise the Abolitionist movement, culminating in the landmark 1833 Emancipation Act which ended slavery in the British Empire the following year.

She was, simply put, a moral genius. A Bermudian woman both of her times and well ahead of them, Mary Prince’s simple, compelling repudiation of a widely and complacently accepted institution steeped in human suffering and degradation captured the attention of a great nation and helped to awake its slumbering conscience.

It is impossible to overstate the impact of her book, The History Of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave, on the public consciousness in Britain. Based thousands of miles away in far-flung colonial possessions few in the United Kingdom ever visited, slavery had been kept largely out of sight and out of mind for the vast majority of Britons — an abstract concept rather than a grim daily reality.

Even some who sympathised with the Abolitionist cause had argued slavery was an unfortunate but necessary evil given Britain’s dependence on a West Indian plantation economy.

But they were never again able to mount that specious defence after Mary Prince’s first-hand account of life in bondage revealed slavery as an absolute evil to a huge, scandalised readership.

Examples of moral courage such as hers are rare in any generation. Indeed, they are remembered precisely because the overwhelming majority of humankind has an unhappy tendency to go along to get along.

We accept sometimes even the most manifestly unacceptable practices of our times out of custom or habit or cowardice.

A woman such as Mary Prince gives the lie to all of those rationalisations for failing to act which are based on arguments centred around historical context — that there was nothing else people could do given the times and circumstances. She demonstrated there was something to be done about slavery. And she did it.

Mary Prince, born near Devonshire Marsh to a sawyer father and a house-servant mother, has now been memorialised in Britain near the site where Magna Carta — the common law basis of much of western constitutionalism and the liberties we today take for granted — was signed 800 years ago.

She is one of a dozen pathfinders for freedom, equal rights and human dignity honoured at the Magna Carta-themed installation, and this is not the first time her memory has been celebrated in her adopted country.

Yet on the Island of her birth, Mary Prince still remains a largely unknown figure. Although she was belatedly installed as one of Bermuda’s National Heroes and her life is now touched on in Bermuda’s schools, a woman whose passion and principles cannot be overpraised is still very much a footnote character to most of us.

If we as a people are ever to gain the perspective we so desperately need about how our community evolved, if we are ever to know ourselves and Bermuda as well as we should, then it is imperative that a transcendent figure such as Mary Prince’s story be properly told. Her accomplishments need to be acknowledged and venerated.

It would certainly be salutary for the current generation to realise our Island’s story actually didn’t begin with Hurricane Fabian and that their lives are simply another chapter in a centuries-old saga, not the culmination of it.

And no harm, and potentially a lot of good, can come from alerting the latest crop of young Bermudians, who doubtless view themselves as the last word in intelligence, achievement and ethics, to the fact the only really new thing in the world is the history they do not know.