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Focus on Prince’s story pleases ADHT

Vivid history: The cover of The History of Mary Prince

The growing prominence in Britain of former Bermudian slave Mary Prince, whose searing account of her life galvanised the abolitionist movement, has been hailed by the African Diaspora Heritage Trail.

Her role as an abolitionist was highlighted in Britain as part of the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade.

However, for Florence Maxwell of the ADHT, the remarkable survival of Prince’s story is a testament to an effort at home to whitewash the ugly truths about slavery in Bermuda.

The story of Sally Bassett, commemorated with a statue on the grounds of the Cabinet building, is widely known, while Prince’s story, until recently, was not.

“Mary Prince’s story is more compelling, in that she told it,” Ms Maxwell said of the 1831 book The History of Mary Prince.

“Sally Bassett did not write or tell her story. It’s only through research that we know of her. With Mary Prince, you can’t read her narrative without shuddering. There are very few slave narratives, and she just happens to be one of them.”

Describing Bermuda as “the paradise that pretended everybody got along”, Ms Maxwell said the recent discovery of Prince’s story back home had struck down the narrative that Bermudian slavery was benign, and slaves were treated as part of the family.

“We’re still doing it,” she said. “Bermuda’s real problem is its isolation, its size, and the power that a few people had over the majority. They kept their dirty laundry concealed.”

She recalled historian Cyril Packwood knowing little of Prince at the time of his research into the book Chained on the Rock: Slavery in Bermuda, because knowledge of her had effectively vanished in her home island.

“When we first found out that she is known as an abolitionist, we got her full story of what slavery was in Bermuda,” Ms Maxwell said.

“She exposed the cruelty. Because of her, Bermudians can no longer say that slavery was very different here than it was elsewhere. That, to me, was a very important fact.”

Prince’s story is part of the school curriculum in the UK, according to ADHT chairwoman Maxine Esdaille, where the British heritage group Historic England recently highlighted her role alongside other women in the crusade to abolish slavery.

“For me, it was exciting to see — and you will remember that she was made a National Hero here in 2012, which the ADHT had a part in,” Ms Esdaille said. “We had taken part in the United Nations day for the remembrance of the victims of slavery, when the theme was ‘heroes, resisters and survivors’.” That event, which included a video conference for local students to take part, led to a push to have Prince formally recognised.

Ms Esdaille added that the ADHT often hears from members of the public concerned about Bermudian history being taught in schools.

“I used to be the senior educational officer responsible for the curriculum — I can’t speak to the curriculum now because I have been out of the system since 2008,” she said.

“But there is a fair amount of Bermudian history in the curriculum. Perhaps we don’t talk about it, but it’s there.”

She is one of the most famous figures of Bermuda’s history, but outside the record that she gave, much of Prince’s life remains unknown.

The Bermuda National Trust now owns the house where she was kept after being sold, at the age of 12, to Captain John Ingham of Spanish Point. Slaves were brutally punished at the house. There has been talk of commemorating her time there with a plaque at “School Lands Cottage” in Pembroke.

According to the Trust’s chief executive officer, Jennifer Gray, Prince may also have spent time at the organisation’s headquarters, “Waterville”, the old home of the Trimingham family.

Prince’s health was in decline after a lifetime of harsh work by the time she settled in Britain, Ms Maxwell said, and very little of her is known after 1833.

“I don’t get the impression that she came back to Bermuda,” she said. “No one even knows where she was buried. I think that is a great shame. It’s almost as if she disappeared.”