Anniversary of publication of Mary Prince narrative
In acknowledgement of Black History Month, The Royal Gazette continues the publication of stories throughout February on African-American, Black Bermudian and global African people, events and institutions, and their contributions in history
On a bitterly cold day in 1831, a woman distinctive for her dark African features hurried purposefully through the icy sludge of a London street. It had snowed for three days, just a few days before, and she had wrapped herself as best she could against the freezing temperatures. After all, she was not native to this place ... The Englishmen of that city would describe her as “a Negress”; the Englishmen in the West Indian plantations to the south-west would claim she was “a slave”.
In the distance, the percussive sounds of construction on the nearly complete London Bridge produced a rhythmic beat behind the usual hustle and bustle of the city. The grand opening of this new bridge, designed by the engineer John Rennie, would take place on August 1 that year — a new bridge signifying a new era.
There was anticipation in her determined steps, but her mission on this frigid day in a country far from that of her birth represented a purpose much bigger than her own personal circumstances. Unbeknown to her, her steps echoed those of two men in her native island, Bermuda, who had recently followed the determined steps, percussive sounds and rhythmic beat of the “Gumba” — with a reward now posted for their “apprehension”. Oceans apart, they had a common yearning, which formed part of a groundswell spanning the Atlantic: an undeniable, unassailable insistence on freedom from slavery.
The missive she carried represented her very own personal contribution to a new moral bridge being built with many hands of different hues — a bridge over which millions of oppressed persons might walk, run or dance to the beat of their own drums, come August 1 three years hence, a date not yet envisioned by the proslavery and abolitionist movements. But let’s not get ahead of our story ...
The Black woman reached her destination where she would have an interview and deliver correspondence with respect to a draft copy of The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave, Related by Herself: her story. Two days before, on February 5, the editor of her soon-to-be-published narrative, Thomas Pringle — for whom she now worked — had penned the following correspondence to the person whose door she now stood before: “Rev. Sir, Having learnt from my friend, Mr Macauley, that you are now in London, I think it right to submit to your inspection the accompanying pamphlet, in which your name is mentioned in page 17. If you can afford any information respecting the woman’s character at the time she was baptised by you, or throw light on any other part of her statement, I shall feel much obliged ... Ps. The whole pamphlet having been printed off except a few pages, I shall feel particularly obliged by an early reply.”
While we do not have the full 1831 correspondence between Mr Pringle and the Reverend James Curtin, a Church of England minister who had recently arrived in London from Antigua, we have enough to place the actual publication of the story of Mary Prince between the second and third week of February that year. Although Mr Pringle’s preface to the first edition is dated January 25, 1831, we know that he held back publication to include comments from Mr Curtin and others that would either help to corroborate and clarify details of Mary Prince’s story, or refute her claims.
By February 19, 1831 the final proof had been published, as Thomas Pringle confirms to Mr Curtin by letter of that date: “I now beg your acceptance of a copy of Mary Prince’s history as published. You will find a note containing the substance of the remarks in your letter, for which I beg to return due acknowledgements. I shall feel obliged by your returning the copy formerly sent for your inspection, as it was only a proof, and of course confidential, being in several respects imperfect ...”
What is ironic is that the above quotations from the letters between Pringle and Curtin have been preserved for posterity by one of the most vicious detractors of Mary Prince and the anti-slavery movement of the day: James Macqueen.
Macqueen’s references to the letters provides us with the information that it is Mary Prince herself, braving the winter elements to facilitate Mr Curtin’s input. Macqueen writes, “On Monday the 7th [February 1831], Mr Pringle sent Mary to Mr Curtin with a note which concludes thus: ‘If you can in any respect corroborate her story, I shall feel much obliged ...’”
When Mary Prince arrived in London in 1828 with her owners, she could not have foreseen that three years later she would be invited to tell her life story to a White woman, Susanna Strickland, who would commit it to writing for publication by Mr Pringle. A gut-wrenching story — awful in its personal detail of brutally degrading treatment in a legally accepted institution of human bondage — of being born into slavery in Bermuda and her subsequent experiences of being sold to various owners in Bermuda, Turks & Caicos and Antigua. Finally, someone wanted to listen ...
Let us pause for a moment to imagine and share in the exhilaration Mary Prince must have felt in each step she took as she braved the streets in the cold knowing that the publication of her lifelong experience of enslavement — the first of its kind to be published by a female slave — was so close to being read by the world. It is appropriate that we commemorate the anniversary of the publication of the narrative of Mary Prince 192 years ago in the month of February: Black History Month.
• LeYoni Junos is an independent historical researcher who presented a conference paper titled My Name Is “Sue”: the Mother of Mary Prince ... at Oxford University in 2019
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