On the wall of the University of London’s Senate House is fixed a bronze plaque, commemorating a woman who lived in a house on that site in 1829. That woman was Mary Prince, the first black woman to publish an account of a life in slavery.
Mary Prince was born into slavery in Bermuda in the late eighteenth century. Her early childhood was spent with her family, all of them owned by the same family, but Mary’s life changed for the worse when she was sold at the age of twelve. She passed between several owners, treated no better than an animal, before finally ending up with John Adams Wood who took her to Antigua. It was in Antigua that she joined the Moravian Church, where she learned to read. It was also through the church that she met Daniel James, a free man who worked as a carpenter. Mary and Daniel married in December 1826 but this caused her no end of problems with the Woods who had not given permission for the marriage, and weren’t happy either about having a free man around their slaves. Mary was beaten, but this was nothing new to her. They already treated her badly, especially when her rheumatism played up and she was unable to work.
In 1828 the Woods travelled to London bringing Mary with them. They claimed that she came at her own request, and she did hope that the air might alleviate her rheumatism. Unfortunately, this was not the case and Mrs Wood threatened to throw her out. By this time, slavery was no longer recognised as a free woman, but Mary had nowhere to go, was unable to work, and had a husband in Antigua. She was able to take shelter with the Moravia church in Hatton Garden, then went to the Anti-Slavery Society.
The Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery Throughout the British Dominions was founded in 1823. One of its founding members was Thomas Pringle, whose house lay in Bloomsbury in the area where the Senate House now sits. The abolitionists were more than happy to help Mary’s cause, and began a petition to win manumission for her so that she could return to her husband in Antigua without being enslaved again. They also asked the Woods to sell Mary’s freedom but this request was repeatedly refused.
In 1829, Thomas Pringle offered Mary a job in his household and suggested she tell her story. Her ghost writer, Susanna Strickland, transcribed Mary’s words, and the book was then edited by Pringle before publication in 1830. It is thought that much of Mary’s tale was toned down or omitted, specifically passages that related to sexual abuse and the worst of her physical torture. Even in its sanitised state the book was found to be shocking, with some readers disbelieving of the level of violence meted against slaves. Three editions of the book were produced and of course it is still widely available today.
In 1833 Pringle successfully sued a pro-slavery magazine publisher who ran an article calling aspects of the book into question. He won, but when Wood brought a libel case against Pringle the court found in favour of the slave owner. Mary testified at both trials, and this is the last we know of her. The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 would have allowed her theoretically to travel back to the West Indies as a free woman once the law came into effect (1834 for her birthplace of Bermuda, 1838 for most of the other colonies). It can be hoped that her story had a happy ending, and that she was finally reunited with her husband in Antigua.