Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Book 35, Bermuda: "The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave" by Mary Prince

Surprise! I decided to skip the US Virgin Islands for the time being and instead head north, to a country that's Caribbean only in the loosest sense of the word.

Wasn't gonna do it at first, since the only books I could find about Bermuda were snorkeling manuals, scuba detective novels and Bermuda triangle conspiracy screeds. (Incidentally, there've been no disappearances in the Bermuda triangle since they invited GPS. Guess we finally outwitted the Cthulhu-worshipping aliens. Score one for science!)

But then, while surfing the Kindle store, I discovered this:

It's the world's first slave narrative by a woman - and the UK's first autobiography of a black woman. It was published in 1831, before Frederick Douglass, before Hannah Crafts, before Harriet Jacobs (and of course before Harriet Beecher Stowe). It's a canonical text in Black History and Diasporic African Literature. And its author, Mary Prince, was born and raised in Bermuda.

It's a great read. Not just because it's short, and not just because its publication was actually instrumental in drumming up local support for the UK's Anti-Slavery Society. No, what moves me is the graphic brutality of the abuses that Prince describes - nothing quite like this in the more genteel Douglass and Jacobs - floggings with cowskin whips, suspensions in the air while the master's son pierces your foot with a bayonet, being forced to work in the salt ponds of Turks and Caicos Islands causing blisters on your legs, wounds eating your flesh to the bone, full of maggots.

And all in this eloquent, measured 19th century English - "To be free is very sweet," she says. To be sure, she didn't write the whole text herself, being partially literate, but it was copied down almost verbatim, so the Anti-Slavery Society says, putting in footnotes to explain what she means when she calls white folks Buckras.

And here's the other thing. It's also moving to skim the editor's supplement to her own narrative, showing how much work the Buckras of the Anti-Slavery Society put in to prove Prince's credibility as a witness, arguing eloquently against the slander of her former master whom she left (he'd brought her to London despite slavery being outlawed in the UK itself, expecting that she'd never have the will to run away).

God bless these white folks who recognised the horrors of 19th century capitalism, and who worked so hard to end them. God bless Thomas Pringle, the author of the supplement and her subsequent employer; God bless her friend Susanna Strickland, who transcribed her story; God bless also the white washerwomen who took pity on her and helped her with her chores when they saw how sick she had fallen under her master's abuses.

And God damn *us*, for daring to live in a world where there are more slaves than in any other period in history, and doing so little about it.

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Representative quote: 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.

Next book:
by Robert and Melinda Blanchard's Live What You Love, from Anguilla.

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