Piecing Together the Puzzle
The Antiguan years of Mary Prince
Story & Photos By Margot Maddison-MacFadyen
Bermudian-born Mary Prince is the earliest known freed black woman writer from the West Indies. Born in Bermuda in 1788, she was a member of that generation of enslaved West Indians living through first, the abolishment of the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans by British Parliament in 1807 and secondly, the emancipation of all slaves living in British Colonies, an Act that became law on August 1, 1834.
Her now-famous narrative, The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave, Related by Herself, which was first published in London in 1831, was a best seller going to print three times in that year. It contributed to the on-going parliamentary debate on abolition—as did an 1829 parliamentary petition for her to be deemed free should she return to the West Indies.
In her History, Prince documents her struggle to survive the brutalities of five successive slave owners in three different British territories, Bermuda, Turks Island and Antigua, plus England. Much of what we know of Prince comes from this book or has been reconstructed from archives and additional historic facts—yet there are major pieces of the Prince story still missing.
Although it is still uncertain where and when Prince passed away, half of the 45 years of her life of which we are aware were spent either in Turks Island or in Antigua. In her History, she writes that “about” ten were spent on Turks Island with her fourth slave owner Mr. D—, Robert Darrell, a Turks Island salt proprietor from Bermuda. More may be read about these years of hardship in the article, “Toiling in the Salt Ponds: The Grand Turk years of Mary Prince,” which appeared in this magazine’s Fall 2008 issue. Thirteen years were with her fifth and final slave owner John Adams Wood Jr., an Antiguan merchant with Bermudian and Turks Island connections, and his wife Margaret Gilbert Wood (nee Albouy).
One of the puzzles surrounding Prince has been dating her movements between owners and territories. Environmental catastrophes mentioned in her narrative are clues, which, when followed with archival explorations, situate her in certain places in specific years. For instance, she mentions a “dreadful earthquake” while living in Bermuda with her third slave owner, Captain I—, John Ingham, and this is verified in the Bermudian Royal Gazette as occurring at 9:10 the morning of February 19, 1801.
Similarly, she mentions a “flood” hitting Turks Island after she has left that place for Bermuda that was so powerful it, “washed away many houses, filled the place with sand, and overflowed the ponds.” This must be the documented hurricane of 1813. We can conclude, therefore, that the ten years she reports working in the salt ponds of Turks Island must be the approximate years 1802 – 1812.
Another mystery to solve, which would similarly situate Prince in a timeline of events, was to find her listed in the Slave Registers of Former British Overseas Territories. Although historians of the past have searched the Registers with the hope to find her, their endeavours have been unsuccessful. However, the Internet and its powerful search engines make today’s searches relatively easy and improve results—if the historian knows what name to look for.
Mary Prince went by several names. Her father, Prince, was owned by the Trimmingham family of Crow Lane, Bermuda, but that family did not see fit to give their surname to their slaves, actually paying them at Emancipation not to take Trimmingham as their own. Therefore, where she might have been Mary Trimmingham, she was not given this appellation.
At Christmas, 1826, and when in Antigua, Prince married Daniel James, a free black man. She took his surname and was, thereafter, sometimes known as Mary James. However, Wood, her owner at the time, and his wife, objected vehemently to the marriage, and insisted on calling her Molly Wood, sometimes referring to her contemptuously as Molly, Princess of Wales.
In the Slave Registers for Antigua, Wood entered her name as Molly in the years 1817, 1821 and 1824. He also listed his other slaves, as well as their sales and purchases. Prince’s complaint that Mrs. Wood sold five other slaves while she was with them, all the while refusing to sell her, is verified in these documents. During this time three men offered to purchase Prince—each with the view that they would then manumit her—Adam White, a free black artisan, Mr. Burchell, and Captain Abbot, but they were all turned down.
When the Woods “went from their home,” presumably to travel within the Island or abroad—as Prince recalls they often did—she was put in charge of household affairs, and it was during these times that she was able to perform additional work outside the home to earn and save money for her manumission. She took in extra washing, sold coffee, yams and other provisions to ship captains, or bought pigs from ships and sold them for double the amount on shore. Yet, when she asked the Woods to sell her, her freedom Mrs. Wood called her a “black devil” and “asked [her] who had put freedom into [her] head.”
Prince’s earliest listing in the Slave Registers places her in Antigua in 1817, and this concurs with the statement she made in her History when she was dictating it to her amanuensis Suzanna Strickland in 1829—that she had lived with the Wood family for 13 years. Since she approached the Anti-Slavery Office in London in November of 1828, after having been gone from the Wood residence in London for only a few months, she would have been sold by Robert Darrell to John Adams Wood in 1815.
The 13 years she spent with the Woods in Antigua were also her introduction to and subsequent growth in organized Christian religion. Almost half of the Antiguan recollections in her History are devoted to her religious experiences. It is true that the editor of her History, Thomas Pringle, who was the secretary of the Anti-Slavery Society in England, would have encouraged Prince to present religion as a culminating force in her life since the purpose of its publication was to attract a white Christian audience to the anti-slavery cause. Although the theme of religious conversion to Christianity is part and parcel of virtually all slave narratives, could it not be that Prince was truly inspired by Christian teachings and that this is where she got the idea of freedom eschewed so aggressively by Mrs. Wood?
Her introduction to religion was at Christmas in an unknown year at a Methodist meeting held at Winthorps Plantation. The Wood family was at nearby Date Hill for a “change of air” and, whilst there, a slave woman who had care of the place asked her to go to her husband’s house for prayers. For Prince, they were the first prayers she had ever understood and they left a strong impression on her mind. When she returned to St. John’s, she went to the Moravian Church and had her name entered in the Missionaries’ book.
The Reverend Mr. Curtin of the Anglican Church had baptized her before this in August 1817, but he would not allow her to attend Sunday School without the consent of her owner, Wood. She never asked for this consent, knowing that she would be turned down. Similarly, knowing that her attendance at the Moravian Church would also be disallowed, she did not tell the Woods of her membership but found opportunities to attend without their knowledge. Whenever she took the Wood children their lunches at school, she would go by the church to hear the teachers.
The Moravian missionaries, Mrs. Richter, Mrs. Olufson and Mrs. Sauter, taught her how to read and “spell” (write), and they read the Bible. She reports that there were all sorts of people in the class—“old and young, grey-headed folks and children, but [that] most of them were free.”
The Moravian church allied her with other slaves, free black people and with white people who believed in equality. Her family long lost to her, the congregation would have taken its place. Perhaps this is why when Daniel James suggested marriage, she would not agree to it until he had gone to church with her and joined the Moravians. This opportunity for connection with others not only gave her a new place in society, but it taught her of freedom and was the seed of her work as an abolitionist in days to come when she would be in London working with the Anti-Slavery Society.
The Moravian Mission in Antigua to which Prince had applied for membership had been established in 1756 by the Yorkshire missionary Samuel Isles (1723 – 1764) and his wife Molly and was, therefore, nearing its 70-year anniversary when Prince made application. The Sandbox Tree under which he and later missionaries would teach their students still graces the grounds of the current Spring Garden Moravian Church in St. John’s which has replaced the older buildings that had sprung up around the tree.
Undoubtedly, Mary Prince would have sat under this same tree with her Moravian friends on many a day. Though any vestiges of the Wood residences in Antigua are long gone, the Sandbox Tree remains as a symbol of enlightenment, growth and empowerment.
Mary Prince gave up much when she willingly accompanied the Woods to London in 1828. She thought that once there, she would be freed and that she would soon return to Antigua, but this was a “false report.” More than likely, she was taken away from Antigua to separate her from her husband and the Moravian congregation. Nonetheless, with the help of the Moravians at Hatton Garden, London, she seized the opportunity that presented itself, and, in a spectacular self-emancipatory act, walked into the streets of London a free woman, at last.
Clearly, the Moravian Mission in Antigua played a large role in the development and eventual freedom of Mary Prince. A better understanding of the advantage it afforded her may be the next step in the Prince scholarship.
Head of English for a number of years at British West Indies Collegiate on Providenciales, Margot Maddison-MacFadyen currently resides in Canada’s smallest province, Prince Edward Island. A PhD candidate in Interdisciplinary Studies at the Memorial University of Newfoundland, she found the chrysalis of her project, Remembering Mary Prince, whilst living in the Turks & Caicos Islands. Essentially, she is interested in reclaiming local histories of the maritime Atlantic as they pertain to enslavement and emancipation.
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Desmond Missick demonstrates how the conch shell can be blown as a horn. It was used practically to signal, warn, or communicate, and also serves as a musical instrument. Photo by James Roy of www.MyParadisePhoto.com