Yearning for Freedom

north-town-grand-turkThe Legacy of Mary Prince
By Margot MacFadyen

Oh the horrors of slavery! How the thought of it pains my heart!

But the truth ought to be told of it; and what my eyes have seen I think it is my duty to relate;

for few people in England know what slavery is. I have been a slave – I have felt what a slave feels,

and I know what a slave knows; and I would have all the good people in England to know it too,

that they may break our chains and set us free.

Mary Prince, 1828

Mary Prince, a West Indian slave who had five owners in her lifetime before finding her way to freedom in 1828, struggled under the yoke of her most barbarous slaver, the now infamous “Mr. D.,” while living for ten years, approximately 1802 to 1812, on Grand Turk Island. Under his hand and that of his son Master Dickey, she witnessed cruelty and injustice, and she and others were beaten and subjected to abuse time and time again as they struggled with the burden of relentless, back breaking work in the salt ponds.

mp-bookYet Mary Prince survived to become the first British black woman to write an autobiography, The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave, Related by Herself, and a polemic against slavery, refuting many of the myths abroad about slavery in British white society of the 1820s. Her story builds respect and appreciation, not because of the hardships and indignities she suffered at the hands of the slaveocrats, but because of her unwavering determination to prevail over Evil and because of the triumph of her rebellious spirit. Indeed, Mary Prince is a true heroine of freedom and her remarkable story is her legacy.

Life with her first owners

Born into slavery on a farm owned by Mr. Charles Myners in Brackish Pond, Devonshire Parish, Bermuda, about 1788, was a child named Mary Prince who was to live a hard, anguish-filled, but eventful life and who was to become the best-known black British woman to walk away from slavery. Her mother was a household slave and her father, named Prince, was a sawyer owned by Mr. Trimmingham of Crow Lane. Scholars and historians report that he was none other than David Trimmingham and his wife was Frances.

Mr. Myners died when she was an infant and the household slaves were divided amongst the family. She and her mother were bought by old Captain Darrell and she was given as a gift to his grandchild Betsy Williams, “who made quite a pet of her” (Prince, 57). Her first 12 years were spent with Captain John Williams and his wife Sarah, “a kind-hearted good woman,” the daughter of George Darrell, a period that she claims was “the happiest of [her] life” (57).

This claim to happiness, however, is in spite of the fact that Captain Williams “was a very harsh, selfish man; and [that the family] always dreaded his return from the sea” (58). His wife Sarah was afraid of him, and he often left her in distressed circumstances to take up with female society elsewhere in the West Indies.

Mary Prince was but a child at the time, yet had she seen into the future, she would have dreaded what was to be her fate. The Buckra men (whites) with whom she was to become associated were of a much too similar ilk to Captain Williams.

The death of her mistress Sarah precipitated her sale and the sale of all her siblings. On the “black morning” of the leave taking, Mary Prince’s mother, while dressing them, cried aloud, “See, I am shrouding my poor children; what a task for a mother! . . . I am going to carry my little chickens to market” (61).

When at the vendue, the public auction, Mary Prince writes that she was “surrounded by strange men, who examined and handled [her] in the same manner that a butcher would a calf or a lamb he was about to purchase, and who talked about [her] shape and size” (62). In the end she sold for ₤57 Bermudian, about ₤38 Sterling, “and the people who stood by said that [she] had fetched a great sum for one so young” (63).

Her new master was a “Captain I.,” later identified by scholars and historians as Captain John Ingham, and her new mistress was his wife Mary Spencer Ingham (nee Albuoy), both of Spanish Point, Bermuda. Brutal members of the slaving classes, under their ownership Mary Prince witnessed the torture of children and the murder of a French black called Hetty whom the master had stolen in privateering from another vessel and made his slave.

Hetty, who was Mary Prince’s predecessor in the household in regard to duties, died of puerperal fever after Captain Ingham “flogged her as hard as he could lick, with both the whip and the cow-skin, till she was all over streaming with blood” (67). The result was that Hetty went to childbed before her time and was delivered after severe labour of a dead baby. “Her former strength never returned to her [and] ere long her body and limbs swelled to a great size; and she lay on a mat in the kitchen, till the water burst from her body and she died” (67).

Mistress Mary Spencer Ingham, just as reprehensible a tyrant as her husband, displayed all the characteristics of the jealous slave mistress. She had Mary Prince sleep on a blanket outside her bedroom door, and by her hands Mary Prince was “licked, and flogged, and pinched by her pitiless fingers in the neck and arms” and she would “strip [her] naked . . . hang [her] up by the wrists and lay [her] flesh open with the cow-skin” (66). She also robbed Mary Prince of much needed sleep as she “used to sit up very late, frequently until morning; and [Mary Prince] had to stand at a bench and wash . . . or pick wool or cotton” (67). Repeatedly punching Mary Prince on her face and head with a “hard heavy fist” (66), Mistress Ingham may have caused her blindness later in life.

One day Mary Prince was sent to empty a very old and deeply cracked earthen jar of rainwater. It fell apart in her hands. When Mistress Ingham found out, she “stripped and flogged [her] long and severely with the cow skin; as long as she had the strength to lash” (68). Later, when Captain Ingham heard of it, he “fell a swearing . . . abusing [her] with every ill name he could think of . . . and giving [her] several heavy blows with his hand” (68). He said, “I shall come home tomorrow morning at twelve, on purpose to give you a round hundred” (68). True to his word he came, “tied [her] up upon a ladder and gave [her] a hundred lashes with his own hand” (68) with Master Benjy, his son, who was two years younger than Mary Prince, counting them off.

While the flogging was underway, a powerful earthquake hit Bermuda, shaking everything so that even “part of the roof fell down” (69). Mary Prince seized the opportunity in the ensuing confusion to get away from her attacker, crawling away to a refuge under the front steps of the house. She lay there until morning “moaning piteously,” her “body all blood and bruises” (69). She relates that, as she lay there, “the life was very weak in me and I wished more than ever to die” (69).

Not long after this incident, a cow got loose on the Ingham farm and into tender plantlings where it ought not to have been. Master Ingham, though it was his own fault, took off his heavy boot and “struck [Mary Prince] such a blow in the small of her back that [she] shrieked with agony and thought [she] was killed” (69). Then he beat her until he was weary. The injury he inflicted upon her stayed with her for life.

Understandably, she ran away to her mother who was a household slave to Richard Darrell. Eventually her father, Prince, heard of the affair and brought her from where her mother had hidden her back to the Ingham property. What else was there to do? He beseeched Captain Ingham “for the love of God . . . to forgive her running away, and . . . to be a kind master to her in the future” (70). Mary Prince told Captain Ingham herself that “[she] could stand the floggings no longer” (70). He insisted that she should be punished for running away, but he did relent, however, and not flog her that day.

In 1788, about the time Mary Prince was born, the cultivated land in Bermuda – an archipelago of 7 major islands and numerous smaller ones that altogether encompass about 20 square miles of land – was approximately 200 acres. The population ranged from 10,000 to 11,000 souls, with 5,000 of these individuals being black.

There had been uprisings in the previous century, some involving poisonings of whites, with the most recent being in 1761 in which half the black population was implicated. The slaveocrats, therefore, were in precarious and personally dangerous situations. The promised and felt sting of the rope, whip and cow skin were the means of keeping order in the land, a social order with the Buckra men in control.

Mary Prince’s time with the Ingham family taught her who was dominant and who, under this system, had the right to brutalize whom. But it was also the first time she stood up to her owners, staking out her own self determination. It was also when she learned to milk cows, care for children, cook for a family and do all household chores. Mary Prince was acquiring knowledge and skills she would later use to bring about her eventual escape to freedom.

The infamous “Mr. D.”

Sometime in the years 1802 to 1806, Mary Prince was sold to “Mr. D.” of Turks Islands and Bermuda, and she was soon transported to Grand Turk where she was sent to be appraised at the local vendue, as was a common custom, and found to be worth ₤100 Bermudian or ₤67 Sterling. In spite of the horrors of living with the merciless Ingham family, what she experienced at the hands of Mr. D. was far worse.

She relates that “there was no satisfying Mr. D.” (72). She had hoped when she left Captain Ingham that she would have been better off, but she found that “it was but going from one butcher to another.” However, she did notice a difference between them: although Master Ingham used to beat her “while raging and foaming with passion,” Mr. D. was “usually quite calm. He would stand by and give orders for a slave to be cruelly whipped, and assist in the punishment, without moving a muscle of his face; walking about and taking snuff with the greatest composure” (72).

Repeatedly, he ordered her to be stripped naked, hung up by her wrists, and beaten. Yet in 1812, when he could have been done with her, leaving her behind on Grand Turk, he took her with him when he returned to his home in Bermuda, there to stay. Back in Bermuda, she refused to wash him while he stood naked in his bathtub. Very likely, his licentious behaviour and demands had been ongoing while on Turks Island but, when she refused him there, he was able to beat her mercilessly until she gave way. In Bermuda, she was able to refuse him without the same severity of consequence, as his barbarities would not be so easily tolerated as they had been in the relative isolation of Grand Turk.

His son, Master Dickey, was no better than his father. It was he who murdered Sarah, an older slave, “who was subject to several bodily infirmities, and was not quite right in her head, [and] did not push the wheel barrow fast enough to please him” (75). He threw her on the ground, beat her severely, and then “flung her among the prickly-pear bushes, which are all covered over with sharp venomous prickles” (75). Her body “swelled and festered all over, and she died a few days after” (75).

Interestingly, “Mrs. D.,” the wife and mother of these two slavers, does not take a prominent place in the account. Mary Prince simply states that upon her arrival at Grand Turk, “the first person [she] saw . . . was Mr. D., a stout sulky looking man, who carried [her] through the hall to show [her] to his wife and children” (71). Nothing more is said. It seems a glaring omission in the narrative, one the significance and implications of which we can only ponder.

Once back in Bermuda, Mary Prince again stood up to her master, this time telling Mr. D. that she “would no longer live with him, for he was a very indecent man – very spiteful, and too indecent; with no shame for his servants, no shame for his own flesh” (78). She took this stand against him after she had saved Miss D., his daughter, from one of his attacks in which Miss D. was “all black and blue with bruises” and “he had beat[en] her with his fist and almost killed her” (77).

Thereafter, he hired Mary Prince out to work at Cedar Hills where she earned “two dollars and a quarter a week, which was twenty pence a day” (78); however, every Saturday night she gave her money over to her master, Mr. D.

Eventually, Mary Prince convinced Mr. D. to let her accompany Mr. John Wood, a Bermudian merchant, and his wife to Antigua, it being an attractive place for a slave as free black men could vote there. Although this law did not apply to Mary Prince, its relative spirit of freedom in the Caribbean Islands was significant in her very purposeful move towards her own freedom.

Her Antigua years:

Master and Mistress Wood

Master Wood did not purchase Mary Prince straight off. Once in Antigua, he wrote to Mr. D. to inquire what was to be done and, when he replied, ironically, “that [she] should not be sold to any one that would treat [her] ill,” Mr. Wood purchased her for ₤100 Bermudian. Thus, Mr. D. had exploited Mary Prince’s labour and body for a decade with no cost to himself. (In fact, he had made a small profit since, when she took in work from outside his household, she had to turn her earnings over to him.)

Initially, Master Wood and his wife regarded Mary Prince highly as a slave, entrusting her with many important duties. She would care for the house when they were absent, which was frequent; she was to attend the chambers, nurse the child and go down to the pond to wash the clothes. But she fell ill with rheumatism, got Saint Anthony’s fire in her left leg and had to walk with a stick. Had it not been for the kindness of a neighbour, a Mrs. Greene, who sent a slave of her own to help Mary Prince and bring her a little soup, or bathe her every night in a medicinal bath made of “the bark of some bush that was good for pains,” she might have “lain and died” (79) in a small outbuilding she occupied on the property when she was in ill health.

Eventually, Mary Prince recovered and was able to work again in the house, but she still complained of severe rheumatism, especially in her hands and arms, and had difficulty completing her round of chores. Mistress Wood hired a free mulatto woman, Martha Wilcox, to nurse the child and assist with the chores, but she was a “saucy woman, very saucy” (79), and she caused trouble, inciting Mistress Wood to threaten Mary Prince with a flogging of 50 lashes.

In a later incident, Mistress Wood sent Mary Prince to be put in the “Cage one night, and next morning flogged, by the magistrate’s order, at her desire” (80), as she had been in a quarrel about a pig with another slave woman. She received 50 lashes on her naked back for this but afterwards, Justice Dyatt said that she was in the right and ordered the pig returned.

In spite of her status as a slave, Mary Prince evinced an admirable entrepreneurial spirit and was able to carry on small business ventures, such as the getting of a pig aboard a ship come to harbour, and then the selling of it for double the money, once fattened up, on shore. Also, by the “selling of coffee,” the selling of “yams and other provisions to the captains of ships,” and by “tak[ing] in washing” (81). In this way, Mary Prince, “by degrees acquired a little cash” (81), and with it she attempted to buy her freedom.

Eventually, she had saved ₤100 Bermudian, what she apparently was worth in the slave market and, with it, she tried to financially negotiate her manumission. Twice, Master Wood, in a fury, “gave her a note and bade her go and look for an owner” (81) and each time when she had done so, first with Adam White, a cooper and a free black man, and then with a Mr. Burchell, he declined to sell her and put the would-be purchasers off. For her first attempt at finding a new owner, one who would subsequently free her, Master Wood whipped her himself.

As her years in Antigua came to a close, Mary Prince became interested in the Moravian Church and to consider Christian teachings. The Moravian ladies taught her to read and “[she] was admitted a candidate for the holy Communion” (83). About the same time, she met and married, autonomously, Daniel James, a free black man, at Christmas, 1826.

Master and Mistress Wood were outraged. Mrs. Wood went so far as to compel her husband to flog Mary Prince with a horsewhip. She said that “she would not have nigger men about the yard or premises, or allow a nigger man’s clothes to be washed in the same tub where hers were washed” (85). Although Mistress Wood was constantly abusing Mary Prince in regard to her husband and “fretting the flesh” off of her, Master Wood relented and did finally allow Daniel to have a place in the yard.

Her bid for freedom

Mary Prince had been about 26 years of age when she had accompanied the Wood family to Antigua. Thirteen years later, in 1827 or 1828, they were going to England to put their son in school and to bring their daughters home. It was arranged that she was to leave her husband Daniel James in Antigua and accompany the Wood family to London to care for their young child.

Mary was in agreement, for in March, 1807 the British Government had outlawed the slave trade abolishing slavery in the United Kingdom which reaffirmed the fact that slavery had never actually been legal in England or Wales. London meant another step closer to freedom. However, still ill with rheumatism that worsened as she travelled north into colder climes, she was yet expected to wash exceptionally large loads of heavy laundry, such as bed ticks and coverlets, in cold water which caused her much pain. When she refused, Master and Mistress Wood “made a dreadful uproar, and from that day on, they constantly kept cursing and abusing [her]” (87). Indeed, they were exceedingly vexed at what they saw as her sabotage of their notion to exploit her to the maximum.

Four times they threatened to throw her out of the house to the mercy of London streets or send her “down to the brig in the river, to carry her back to Antigua” (87) but, when she asked if she could buy her freedom, they refused, Master Wood saying, “he would never sell [her] freedom – if [she] wished to be free, [she] was free in England, and [she] might go and try what freedom would do for [her], and be d—-d” (88).

The fourth time this happened, she placed her trust in Providence and left. In the ensuing months, she was first taken in by Mr. Mash, a shoeblack, and his wife; she then found service with a lady, a Mrs. Forsyth, for a six month period until the lady left London. It was at this point that she approached the Anti-Slavery Society and found employment as a domestic worker for Thomas Pringle, the Methodist secretary of the Anti-Slavery Society, and his wife.

A petition, two court cases and freedom at last

Mary Prince lived in Thomas Pringle’s house working as a paid domestic servant in the years 1829 to 1830 and, during this time, the abolitionists tried to convince the Woods to sell Mary her freedom, but all their attempts failed. They then mounted a Petition to Parliament, dated June 24, 1829 for her return to “West Indies not as a slave,” but this, too, failed. Mary Prince was deemed free in the United Kingdom but, should she return to Antigua and her husband Daniel James, she would run the risk of enslavement and, subsequently, severe punishment for her bold actions in Britain.

Thomas Pringle’s friend Susanna Strickland transcribed Mary Prince’s narrative during this time, and Thomas Pringle was its editor. The publication of her narrative brought about nothing less than a fury of intense public controversy. Mary Prince and Thomas Pringle, on the one side, were hotly contested by anti-emancipationists, primarily by James Macqueen, editor of the Glasgow Courier. Two court cases ensued.

In the first, Thomas Pringle sued Thomas Cadell, publisher of Blackwood’s Magazine which had published James Macqueen’s diatribe against Mary Prince, Thomas Pringle and emancipation. In the second, John Wood, identified as John Adams Wood in the court records (Mary Prince’s former owner), brought an act of libel against Thomas Pringle.

In the second case, Wood v. Pringle, Mary Prince testified, reaffirming the acts of brutality reported in her narrative but also revealing intimate relationships that she had engaged in with two men which had been omitted from her narrative due to the censorship of Thomas Pringle’s evangelical Christian sensibility. This revelation came to light in cross examination as she had been charged with “gross immorality” (Wood v. Pringle, 147) and depravity.

In retrospect, it seems odd that John Wood did not take the proffered sum of ₤100 for Mary Prince when it was offered to him if she was as immoral and depraved as he claimed. It seems more likely that she was an excellent worker whom he was able to exploit to his and his family’s benefit, and he did not want to see an end of her labour in his household. Caught in the exposure of her narrative, he attempted to save face by slapping her character with charges of vice in court.

The first relationship brought into question had been with Oyskman, a freeman who had been the first to court her when she had arrived in Antigua and had “made a fool of her by telling her he would make her free” (148) when he could in no way deliver it. The second had been with a Captain Abbott, a white man, with whom “she had lived 7 years . . . in a hut which she had, in addition to her room in [Master Wood’s] yard” (147). Hindered with the status of a slave, she had not been in a position to marry either and, even if she had been, interracial marriages were not in favour at the time.

Both court cases were settled the same year that the Emancipation Bill finally passed the House of Lords, 1833. In the first, Pringle v. Cadell, Pringle won with damages coming to him in the order of ₤3. In the second, Wood v. Pringle, Wood won, the judge saying that Mary Prince’s testimony was exaggerated; damages coming to Wood were in the order of ₤25. However, Thomas Pringle was not able to produce much needed witnesses from the West Indies to support his case, whereas Wood had several witnesses: his daughter, persons who had known him but briefly and those who were proprietors of slaves themselves. One witness, Dr. John M’Goul, for example, stated when cross examined that he “never ordered more than a dozen and a half or two dozen lashes himself” (Court Case, 143).

mp-with-familyHer contribution to the cause

It would be a fine ending to the story to say that Mary Prince lived a life of comfort, basking in her freedom in the years after the publication of her narrative and that she walked out of those courtrooms a free woman, embarking on a new phase of her life in London. However, her appearance in court the second time was the last heard of her, and, although some scholars hope that under the cover of anonymity she found her way back to her husband and family in the West Indies, there is also the possibility that she died.

Some who read or hear of her tale may think it exaggerated, as did the judge in Wood v. Pringle, believing that the radicals involved in the emancipation movement moulded it into a heady slave tale fit to rouse the passions of the British in order to dig them out of apathetic graves. True enough, it went to print three times in the first year of its publication and the public was incensed, raising a hue and cry that reached all the way to Parliament.

Others may think that it was softened and, thereby, made palatable to the British public so that much of what actually transpired in Mary Prince’s story was downplayed. Indeed, her editor Thomas Pringle did choose to mask the identities of Mr. I. and his wife and that of Mr. D. and, additionally, much was revealed in the Wood v. Pringle court case that had been omitted in the narrative. However, we might then beg the question: What else in the narrative was couched in the darkest of euphemism or altogether excluded? If nothing else, let us say that it exposed the degraded behaviour of Englishmen in the Caribbean as opposed to their counterparts in Britain.

Mary Prince was not a militant leader of slave revolt, although she may have been influenced by knowledge of slave uprisings in the past: those that had occurred in Bermuda in her parents’ lifetimes and those that had occurred in Antigua where, with its prevalence of freed black slaves and its two stalwart heroes of slave uprisings, Tacky and Tomboy, freedom was a tangible reality. She may also have known slaves who escaped from Grand Turk to Haiti, a neighbouring country whose revolution had begun in 1791.

She did, however, contribute greatly to the radical tradition through the writing of her extraordinary narrative which added immensely to anti-slavery debates of the time. In truth, she is a heroine of freedom, a heroine who has gone unsung for far too long.

Perhaps it is timely to remember Mary Prince in a more substantial way. Her determination to survive in the face of institutionalised slavery and barbarity, her intelligence in manoeuvring herself ever closer to freedom and her rebellious spirit that eventually turned the tables on not only her owners, but the entirety of the slaveocracy of her day, demand honouring.


Prince, Mary. The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave, Related by Herself; Edited with an Introduction by Moira Ferguson. Revised Edition. (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1997) pp. 57-94.

“Court Case Involving Mary Prince, Wood v. Pringle, March 1, 1833.” The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave, Related by Herself, Edited with an Introduction by Moira Ferguson. Revised Edition. (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1997) pp. 140-149.

Editor’s Note:  The author of this piece has done substantial research aimed at uncovering the identity of the infamous “Mr.D.” Read the Fall 2008 issue of  Times of the Islands to learn more about Mary Prince and her Grand Turk master.

To commemorate Emancipation Day (August 1) this year, David Bowen, Director of Culture for the TCI Cultural and Arts Commission, is working on a dramatic presentation of the Mary Prince story to be presented in Grand Turk.

David Bowen and Margot MacFadyen are also preparing a resource package for TCI students and teachers to help them study the legacy of Mary Prince, slavery and emancipation as it affected the Turks & Caicos Islands.

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