No images survive of Mary Prince herself, but this photo has often been used to illustrate her story.
Mary Prince, an enslaved woman, was the first black woman to publish an account of her life in Britain - an account so brutal that few believed it. Now she is finally being celebrated, writes Sara Wajid.
Mary Prince may have been the only Caribbean woman ever to come to Britain hopeful about the weather. It was 1828, and a myth was circling the empire that the English air could heal rheumatism. Luckily, her other hope, that she be free from slavery here, had some basis in reality.
This year is, of course, the bicentenary of the act that sought to abolish the transatlantic slave trade, and the anniversary has marked a renewed interest in Prince, the abolitionist and first black woman to publish an account of her life in Britain - The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave, Related by Herself, 1831.
This month a Mary Prince commemorative plaque is being mounted in Bloomsbury (where she once lived) and a new slavery gallery, opening at the Museum in Docklands, recognises her as an author who "played a crucial role in the abolition campaign". A fictionalised Prince also appears as the love interest in Bridgetower, a new jazz opera about the 18th-century black musician George Bridgetower.
Born in Brackish Pond, Bermuda, in 1788, Prince and her siblings were raised by her adoring mother until she was 12. Her mother worked as a household slave to a family called Williams, and Mary wrote that she "was made quite a pet of by Miss Betsey [the Williams's child, who] used to lead me about by the hand, and call me her little nigger".
When the Williamses fortunes changed, Mary's devastated mother took her to the market to be sold. Mary "was soon surrounded by strange men, who examined and handled me in the same manner that a butcher would a calf or a lamb he was about to purchase".
The plaque to commemorate the life of Mary Prince was unveiled by Diane Abbott.
For the next 15 years, Mary was passed between brutal owners ("from one butcher to another") across the Caribbean Islands. Then, in 1815, she was bought by the sadistic John Wood, a white Caribbean man. He and his family took her to Antigua and, in 1826, through her Moravian Church, she met and married Daniel James, a free carpenter.
She had not asked permission to marry and was horsewhipped for this insurrection. The Woods abused her in other ways too: locking her in a cage and beating her, and leaving her to die in an outhouse when her rheumatism prevented her from working for some months. She was saved by a neighbour. Despite essentially condemning her to death, the Woods refused Prince's requests to buy her freedom. They didn't want to lose someone who, when well, was such a phenomenally hard worker.
And so, in 1828, Prince accompanied them to London, hopeful that the air might improve her rheumatism and that she might be able to return to her husband a free woman. Prince's limbs quickly seized up in the new climate and she was unable to wash laundry, enraging Mrs Wood, who threatened to throw her on to the streets.
Prince wrote that she "stood a long time before I could answer, for I knew that I was free in England, but did not know where to go, or how to get my living". She escaped from the Woods in the same year she arrived in the UK, making it to the Moravian missionary church in Hatton Garden and then to the Anti-Slavery society in Aldermanbury, east London. There she learned that, although free in London, if she returned to her beloved husband in Antigua, it would have to be as the Woods' property.
A petition to parliament for her to return to the "West Indies not as a slave" failed, as did all attempts by the abolitionists who took up her cause to convince the Woods to sell Mary her freedom. The History was published in 1831 by her new abolitionist employer, Mr Pringle, so that, in Prince's words, "good people in England might hear from a slave what a slave had felt and suffered".
Labour Diane Abbott MP, Camden’s mayor Councillor Dawn Somper and Jak Buela chief executive of the Nubian Jak Community Trust.
It ran to three editions and almost immediately provoked two court cases. First, in February 1833, Pringle successfully sued the publisher of a magazine that ran an article damning the book. A month later, though, Wood himself brought a libel case against Pringle, which he won.
At the time, readers found the account of the relentless violence against Prince too extreme to be believable. So much so that Mrs Pringle wrote to one doubting women's group (the Birmingham Society for Relief of Negro Slaves) confirming that she had inspected Mary and the "whole of the back part of her body is distinctively scarred . . . chequered with the vestiges of severe floggings".
For Gretchen Gerzina, author of Black London, Prince represents "the tip of the iceberg". Shocking though the details are, Gerzina says it is the record, rather than the story it contains, that is unusual. "As far as slave narratives go," she notes, "it is a familiar story." The History is a particularly important document because there were far fewer black women than men in Britain at this time.
Jak Beula, founder of Nubian Jak, the organisation behind the Mary Prince plaque, says Prince has always been overlooked because she is an awkward heroine. "History has a problem with her as a genuine heroine because she wasn't educated and was very obviously reliant on the anti-slavery movement to represent her - unlike someone such as Mary Seacole, who was a self-made woman. She may not have been a poster girl for women's independence, but," he insists passionately, "she's an extraordinary symbol of tenacity and resilience."
In fact, research by Sarah Salih, editor of the most recent edition of Prince's book, suggests that Mary was not the passive victim that she sometimes seems in her account. Prince's ghost writer, Susanna Strickland, subtly tailored the book to suit the abolitionist cause. At the libel court case brought by Mr Wood, in March 1833, though, Prince appeared as a witness and talked in detail about her seven-year sexual relationship with a Captain Abbot and "Oyskman - a freedman".
Strickland had omitted these passages because, according to Salih's introduction, "it was important for the anti-slavery society to present Prince as sexually pure". Salih points to examples throughout the account of Prince's resistance (marrying without permission and repeatedly defending herself and others, physically and verbally). She concludes: "Far from passively accepting the punishments meted out to her, Mary Prince protested against her treatment at every available opportunity. Her History is a culmination of this protest"
The English Touring Opera's production of Bridgetower tours from October 23, see www.englishtouringopera.org.uk