An Interview With Mary Prince

By Jackie Grant | 30 November 2006
etching shows large group of people gathered in public hall

The Anti-Slavery Society at Exeter Hall in 1840. Courtesy of Anti-Slavery international

This 'interview' with Mary Prince was one of the runners up in our 2006 Black History Month journalism competition. There are no surviving pictures of Mary Prince, so we're grateful to Anti-Slavery International - which began life as the Anti-Slavery Society - for lending us images from the archives of their long history.

Many of Mary Prince's trials occurred after 1807, because the 'Abolition of Slavery' only had a partially liberating effect. The work of Anti-Slavery International still continues today.

"A what keep you?

I was the first female West Indian Slave to have my book published in Britain.

My book was published in 1831, and it's taken you 175 years to get round to talk to me about it?

Now you know me as Mary Prince but most people call me Molly. Like the Irish girl in that folk song (sings) 'In Dublin fair city where the girls are so pretty I first set my eyes on sweet Molly Malone.'

What a life I had. I've been though earthquake, working in the hot sun all day up to my knees in salt water, whipped till I could hardly move, done enough laundry, and even survived your London Cholera. Me born in Bermuda, been to Antigua, Turks Island back to Antigua and I end up here in this cold and dirty place, London.

The bakra man, my master of the time, Mr. Wood and his wife, he bring me here to London in 1828 when I was about 40 years of age. I was to nurse their child, but end up doing laundry most of the time.

My masters house was at Leigh Street not far from the Foundling Hospital. Now I think it's Coram's Fields in St Pancras.

What a mean man. I was always so ill used by him, lashes from his cow skin whip and lashes from him tongue, and his wife was just as bad. He use to say me worthless, ungrateful, base, troublesome, licentious, and depraved and more.

Well tell me this, If me so troublesome, licentious, and depraved why didn't he sell me and why wouldn't he let me buy my freedom. For about 13 long years me worked for that man and his family.

You see I had saved up enough money to buy my freedom but my master was to mean mined to let me buy my freedom from him, not for any amount of money.

So there I was in London a place as foreign to me as the moon.

A few times my master and mistress had threatened to turn me out in the streets, on accounts me saying I couldn't do certain tasks when I was sick. I worked like a horse whenever I worked and no consideration was shown to me when I was sick.

One day, after having been abused by him and his wife for so many years, I could not take any more. And though I did not know but one person in London I called his bluff and took myself out of his house, a free woman alone in a foreign land.

With the help of God I found some good people to help me find my feet. One black man, name of Mr. Mash, a shoe black by trade, and his wife took me in for a while.

Although I was a free woman in London if I went back to my husband in Antigua I would still be the slave of me master and mistress.

But Providence was good to me, and I found out about the Anti Slavery Society. It was with their help that I got my book published in 1831. And it was republished 2 or 3 times in that first year.

The secretary at the Anti Slavery Society, Thomas Pringle, was very kind to me and I worked for him and his wife for about 3 to 4 years as a charlady up in Claremont Square, not far from Sadler's Wells

I wished, that good people in England might hear from a slave what a slave had felt and suffered, so I thought that by getting my story published it would help me get my freedom so I could go back to my husband Daniel and not be a slave any more in Antigua.

photo shows banner hanging in street with 1920s motorcars passing

A banner for the Anti-Slavery Society hanging in a Hull street in the 1920s. It announces a meeting and quotes the Bible 'behold and see if there is any sorrow like unto my sorrow.' Courtesy of Anti-Slavery International.

The Anti Slavery Society used my book as a tool to help make slavery illegal. And in 1834 slavery within the whole of the British Empire, which included Antigua, was abolished. This was about 25 years after the buying and selling people like them cattle had been abolished.

And in Antigua on Emancipation day, the great day of Friday 1st Aug 1834 when all the slaves in the British Empire were made free, slaves were jumping out of their beds saying 'I am free, I am free'. I heard that nearly all the people went to church to 'thank God that he make a we free' - there was more religiousness on that day than you could think of. All the chapels and churches on the island were busting at the seems and over flowing. People clapped their hands and burst into song, hugged each other, laughed, cried, leaped around like the holy sprit got a hold of them or like they were dancing on hot coals. It was a mighty grateful rejoicing crowd in many churches. Methodist, Moravian, Wesleyan alike.

painting shows hundreds of people packed in a room in 19th century dress

The Anti-Slavery convention of 1840. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery (this picture is on display in Room 20).

Well I haven't got time to tell you my whole life story so why don't you go out and read my book. The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave, Related by Herself.I wasn't, a scholar, famous or outstanding in any way just, an ordinary slave wanting my freedom the way God made it to be."

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