The Mary Prince we know
“…those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”— George Santayana
As someone who created the Safe Hands Award in the late 1990s as well as the idea to honour Mary Prince on the second day of Cup Match, which the Government adopted and implemented under Lovitta Foggo’s ministry, I take personal pride and cherish my association with and contributions made to the annual Cup Match classic.
Would I have given both up to play even one Cup Match representing St George’s? In a heartbeat (wink, wink). One can dream ...
The Safe Hands Award, which honours my childhood and neighbourhood hero out at Key West, the legendary Calvin “Bummy” Symonds who captained the unbeaten St George's Cup Match teams mostly during the 1960s, will soon reach its 25th year. The granting of the award was suspended because of the pandemic threat represented by Covid two years ago. But I was exceedingly pleased that last year’s Cup Match was the first one that was played since Mary Prince Day was implemented as the second day of the two-day holiday in 2020.
As expected, it elicited a lot of interest both locally and internationally, and Bermudians, which included many Black Bermudian women especially from the professional class and those from the ranks of our educators claimed the newly christened day as their own. This was even manifested in clothing choices, with many of them donning African kente cloth creations that were stunning in their impact upon the eye.
No problem there. Where I do have a problem, or what I did find problematic, is the revisionist take on Mary Prince that frankly has little or no basis in history. I found an example during the Cup Match period last year when that revisionist, somewhat skewed historical narrative had even migrated to Britain itself.
That revisionist narrative is one that posits Prince as some superwoman/superhero abolitionist who played a key, even defining role in the British abolitionist movement with her “Black Girl Magic”. The Black girl magic reference was intentional, of course. It was concerning, although understandable, in light of the African-American-led Black Lives Matter movement of 2020 to 2021, that the temptation for some of us to project the present 21st-century narratives around the resistance to racial oppression on to the actions of the early 19th-century world that Prince inhabited and her perceived actions is tempting and seductive from a distance; but that can only occur if it is done through an historical lens, which is what has occurred. The result, however, comes at the expense of the historical truth. Prince in fact was a reluctant anti-slavery warrior, who if her slave owners by that time, the Woods of Antigua, had been more sympathetic of her malady — such as her very painful rheumatism — by easing her workload, it is highly likely that Mary Prince would have reconciled herself as she had up until that period to her condition of enslavement.
Mary Prince became a cause célèbre because of her compelling life story with the publication of the book in question, The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave, Related by Herself. But would she be considered a leading figure in the abolition movement in Britain at the time? I believe the answer is no, as by 1831-32 the abolition movement in Britain was already on the trajectory to abolition — the only question being when, not if.
First, allow me to convey what was my primary and even sole rationale in proposing that Mary Prince be honoured upon the hallowed grounds of the Cup March classic on the second day. It was primarily because of the first-hand account of her life story as an enslaved person in Bermuda where she was born, and by extension her time in Turks & Caicos, Antigua and, lastly, Britain as transcribed by the writer Susanna Strickland and published by the British-based anti-slavery society in 1831.
From my perspective, I believed that her story as published could serve as a powerful counter-narrative and rebuke to the insidiously evil and destructively false narrative that generations of Black and White Bermudians were subjected to, even at an institutional level by the dominant White Anglo majority here up until the early 1970s.
And what of that narrative or story? It was one that asserted that slavery in Bermuda was “benign” full stop. As late as the early to mid-20th-century era, that malicious trope or story had as its chief popularising agent an English Immigrant by the name of Terry Tucker, a wannabe historian and novelist who, in perhaps an attempt to ingratiate herself with Bermuda’s Anglo elite, peddled the idea of kindly White paternalism — the benign part — as being good for Black Bermudians and as a chief and desired feature of the relationship as long as both parties knew their place.
That place, of course, had one group as being marked as inherently racially superior, while the other group was deemed to be inherently inferior — the natural order of things. I might add that basic narrative or world view was one that was somewhat mainstream throughout the British Empire and, of course, Bermuda at that time. Generations of Blacks were inculcated with this view, and even today remnants or variants of it consistently emerge like a virus that refuses to go away and die.
Prince’s testimony was the first record or account of an enslaved woman’s experience of the horrors of slavery that added fuel to the advocacy of the anti-slavery movement in Britain.
It is also poignant that that same rationale appeared to be at play on the part of the anti-slavery society and its backers during the early 1830s in deciding to record and publish her story. For me that real gem or gift that Mary bequeathed to the world and to us down through the ages was precisely that window into a system of power that at its heart was designed to ruthlessly exploit and dehumanise its victims. But did her sensational story of her life strike the final blow against a system of chattel slavery that existed throughout the British Empire? No, but it is a valuable and poignant tale of man’s and woman’s inhumanity towards each other that continues to resonate as powerfully as it did then in 1831.
We should honour Mary Prince for what she accomplished, which defied all the odds, but we should not make the mistake of mythologising her. She was a reluctant warrior, but one whose real and authentic contributions should be valued, as they still speak to us today across the span of centuries. Her testimony remains a vitally important and compelling one.
The end of Part 1...
• Rolfe Commissiong was the Progressive Labour Party MP for Pembroke South East (Constituency 21) between December 2012 and August 2020, and the former chairman of the joint select committee considering the establishment of a living wage