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History of Mary Prince: A West Indian Slave

Autor:   •  May 17, 2017  •  Research Paper  •  1,767 Words (8 Pages)  •  179 Views

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Anyone reading the History of Mary Prince: A West Indian Slave, feels completely involved in the narration of her pains and her poor life. That is precisely why the text inspires the reader to go through it and discover anything that is hidden in the lines. When reading it critically, even starting from the physical structure of the book, we can understand that the editor influenced the making of the autobiography. Exactly that and the emotional state of the main character led us to think about the authenticity of Mary’s words. This essay will try to explain the reasons of certain alterations or omissions inside the story, considering the point of view of bell hook on writing an autobiography and the social context of the book’s publication; this last point will motivate us to reveal the causes of the story’s drafting and the importance of this testimony.

The History of Mary Prince: A West Indian Slave, is the first slave narrative from a black female printed in three editions in its first year of publication (1831) in London and Edinburg. Mary, a Bermudan woman born in slavery since her parents were also slaves, tells about her life from childhood until her freedom, in 1828. The book was transcribed by Susanna Strickland and edited by Thomas Pringle, a Scottish abolitionist and Secretary of the England’s Anti-Slavery Society. It consists of: a Preface, Mary Prince’s own story and a supplement added by the editor after the first edition, which includes some polemics following the first publication, notes and different documents and letters concerning with Prince’s enslavement and freedom.

  From the Preface, we can immediately understand that Prince herself expresses the will of telling her story. But while reading the text it comes to our attention that, even if she suggests this intention, ‘The narrative was taken down from Mary’s own lips by a lady’ (Thomas Pringle 1831, Preface). Moreover, with his following words, Pringle seems to want to underline the fact that no alterations of Prince’s voice have been made: ‘No fact of importance has been omitted’, ‘not a single circumstance or sentiment has been added’ , ‘It is essentially her own’ (Thomas Pringle 1831, Preface), but actually different critics are led to believe that Mary’s voice was manipulated by the editor and the slavery society both in terms of grammar and lexicon: ‘without any material alteration farther than was requisite to exclude redundancies and gross grammatical errors, so as to render it clearly intelligible’, (Pringle 1831, Preface) both in terms of contents, with the aim of increasing awareness among English people informing them about the inhumane condition of the West India slaves. Moreover, he did not want to sensationalize Prince’s story excessively for fear that British people would not believe the horrors she had suffered.

 As a matter of fact, we can notice some gaps in Mary’s narrative, especially as regards the sexual sphere. The protagonist never tells clearly about her relations or abuses, and it is impossible to think Prince has never experienced violence, since also Sheridan affirms carnal abuse was a feature of slavery. In the History, everything is told in an implicit way, through Prince words we can only ‘imagine’, as in the episode in which she reveals that her master had the ‘ugly fashion of stripping himself quite naked and ordering me then to wash him in a tub of water’ (Mary Prince, 1831, p.13), and then she adds that obeying this order was worse than all the lashes, confessing, in this way, absolute contempt for her condition. So, even though Mary does not say explicitly she has been sexually abused, she suggests an allusion to the idea of the existence of a carnal relationship between Mr. D___ and his slaves.

According to Ferguson, the silences surrounding that topic are linked to her inability of telling the truth about her sexual past experiences, faced with the Christianity of her listener. She knows that ‘her survival as a free woman partly depends on passing Pringle’s test.’  (Ferguson, Subject to the others, 1992, p.287) and for this reason tries to avoid the explicit narration of the events. Furthermore, Mary is a religious woman, she is a member of the Moravian church, and she recognized her sins and asked God to forgive her, consequently she feels the need of presenting herself in a good way, maybe to redeem and forgive herself.

It is of fundamental importance to underline that apart from the intentional omissions, wanted by Prince or Pringle, the passing of time, the suffering and the emotional status of the protagonist have certainly led to a distorted picture of the past and of the event experienced.

Bell hooks in her “Writing an autobiography” affirms the memories “came in a surreal, dreamlike style which made me cease to think of them as strictly autobiographical because it seemed that myth, dream, and reality had merged” (Hooks women, autobiography, theory, 1998, p. 430).

In other words everything lying in memory is not necessarily true; in retrospect, events could be remembered in a different way, especially after the traumatic experience of slavery. It is, for example, impossible to believe that Mary after years and years of exploitation, abuses and humiliation could remember exactly the price she was sold for at the age of twelve years old, sold for the first time in the noise of the market and being about to be stripped off her mother and siblings.

Even though Mary’s story is not entirely clear, and there are still doubts about what mentioned above, the proof of the suffered abuses is not only her broken down body, but the bodies of all the slaves. Mary Prince does not want to write her autobiography just to “kill the self she was” (bell hooks, 1998, p.429) or just to use it us a “hope chest”, Mary’s aim is not just to tell her story or redeem herself, but ‘She wished it to be done,…so that good people in England might hear from a slave what a slave had felt and suffered’. (Thomas Pringle 1831, Preface) She wants English people to be aware of the atrocities and the torture of the slavery. The protagonist decides to approach her editor to tell the truth about the ‘socioeconomic system in the British West Indies’ (Andrews, 1988 p. xxxii) because she needs to be helped, her people need to be helped. In fact, often she describes their conditions and suffering using the plural:  ‘… we were obliged… Our feet and legs became full of dreadful boils… we went back to our employment till dark at night…We slept in a long shed…’ From that, we can understand Prince is not speaking just as herself or as slave or as woman, she is speaking on behalf of her community and on behalf of all the “Negros” sharing her condition of exploitation.


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