Two Voices, One Purpose: The Slave Narratives of Mary Prince and Olaudah Equiano

© July 25, 2016 Mary Crockford

The slave narrative has become an important genre in the British Romantic literature canon. The narratives of Mary Prince and Olaudah Equiano have many aspects in common, as well as compelling differences. Both provide “rich details…about various aspects of enslavement” of West Indian and African blacks (Maddison-MacFadyen 653). Each chronicles the individual slave’s quest for manumission, and challenge “the myth of the ‘contented slave’ and made make clear the fact that every slave wished to be free” (Alonzo 118). Each was “a deep, personal reflection on the institution of slavery” and “a great success” which “gave rise to considerable controversy” (Black 586) amid the rising tide of anti-slavery sentiment in colonial Britain. The differences in the narratives are varied, sometimes subtle, and largely stylistic, reflecting differences in background, psychology, education, religion, and gender of the author.

Mary Prince “was not illiterate when she approached London’s Anti-Slavery Society” in 1831, but “she spoke a ‘peculiar phraseology’ that would have been difficult for the average London citizen to understand,” so “Susanna Strickland, a young abolitionist and skilled writer…composed her story” with the endorsement of Thomas Pringle (McFAdyen 654). Many major aspects of her story have been verified through historical documents including “Slave Registers of Former British Overseas Territories, minutes from abolitionists’ meetings and remnants of human-built structures associated with” her enslavement, which “add further credibility to the narrative’s validity” (MacFadyen 655). The History of Mary Prince chronicles experiences of a female born into slavery in Bermuda, whose “mother was a household slave” and father “was a sawyer belonging to Mr. Trimmingham, a shipbuilder at Crow-Lane” (Prince 587). Her quest for manumission became a lifelong one through numerous episodes of sale:

“I had scarcely reached my twelfth year when my mistress became too

poor to keep so many of us at home; and she hired me out…I cried bitterly

at the parting with my dear mistress and Miss Betsey, and when I kissed

my mother and brothers and sisters, I thought my young heart would

break, it pained me so. But there was no help I was forced to go.” (588)

Prince’s account of being publicly sold for the first time is told in the simple but poignant language of shame and pain, as she is offered like chattel to “strange men, who examined and handled [her] in the same manner that a butcher would a calf or lamb he was about to purchase” (590). Toiling in salt ponds, she suffered many times “the smart of the rope, the cart-whip, and the cow-skin…applied to” her and other slaves’ “naked skin” (591), long days up to her knees in salt water which would leave her with boils and rheumatism, and sexual exploitation. Mary saw “no end to [her] toils” which caused her to “weep, weep, weep” (591). In t is here that readers get their first glimpse of the role which religion would play later in Prince’s slave journey. She writes, “the hand of God whom then I knew not, was stretched over me” when fleeing her cruel taskmaster Mr. D, and subsequent purchase by a Mr. Wood with whom she would travel to London. “Ill of the rheumatism” and “forced to walk with a stick,” she endured illness and hunger while forced to sleep “in a little old out-house…swarming with bugs and vermin” (596), though she was nursed to relative health by a fellow slave. She used the ensuing years of her employment to secretly trade and sell goods for extra money, saving in hopes of buying her freedom:

“Sometimes I bought a hog cheap on board ship, and sold it for double

the money on shore; and I also earned a good deal by selling coffee. By

this means I by degrees acquired a little cash.” (597)

Mary’s petitions for freedom were continually rebuffed and the Woods whose “hearts were hard”—too hard to consent” to her pleas that “To be free is very sweet.” Instead they continued to take “good care to keep [her] as a slave” (598). It was during this time that she was “led by [her] spirit to the Moravian Church” and followed “the church earnestly at every opportunity” in secret (597). Her marriage to Daniel James, a freed slave, was not honored in Britain, nor by Mr. Wood who “flew into a great rage” and his wife who “could not forgive” her salve for marrying:

“She did not lick me herself, but she got her husband to do it for her,

whilst she fretted the flesh off my bones. Yet for all this she would

not sell me.” (598)

Even in marriage to her “dear husband” Daniel, Mary would have “not much happiness in marriage” due to continued beatings, one “false report” after another of her impending freedom, and threats to return her to Antigua for any act of disobedience. Knowing she “was a free woman in England” (600), she fled the Woods for the last time, and while illness and unsteady employment remained a problem, relief from Quaker women and the Abolition office in London led to her employment with the Pringles. She learned to read the Bible, converted to Christianity, and in “great sorrow” continued to argue against the untruth that “slaves do not need better usage, and do not want to be free” (601). Through “Miss S” she made the case that British who owned slaves showed “no modesty or decency” and acted in “a beastly manner” in which “they forget God and all feeling of shame…that they can see and do such things” (602-603). Mary never gave up her identification with, or role as spokeswoman for her fellow slaves, and she was not able to achieve legal emancipation in her lifetime.

In contrast to Mary Prince, the veracity of some details of Olaudah Equiano’s slave narrative are the subject of current debate. Equiano claims in his Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself, to have been born the free son of an aristocrat in the Republic of Benin. But Caretta claims he was in fact “born in South Carolina, albeit as a slave” (Paul 851). His slave narrative is thus seen by some as “therefore not just a memoir or a diary of his personal recollections—but an argument” (Catapano par. 2), in partially fictionalized form indicating a “condition of psychological dualism” as Equiano attempts a “radical reinvention of himself as a freed Black slave in a racist society” (Paul 849).

Like Prince, Equiano’s autobiography contains “a testimony of personal endurance and a powerful indictment of the evils of the slave trade” (849), and describes the “hellish treatment of slaves” with what Mary Wollstonecraft described as “truth and simplicity” (850). Both contain “vivid description[s] of the violence or slavery,” “separation of family and disregard for slave marriages,” slave owners’ reneged promises of freedom, and slaves’ “desire for freedom and education” (Lloyd par. 4). His powerful rhetorical style in describing boarding a slave ship as a youth, has been compared in scope and eloquence to the writings of such notable individuals as Benjamin Franklin and Frederick Douglass:

Indeed, such were the horrors of my views and fears at the moment, that,

if ten thousand worlds had been my own, I would have freely parted with

them all to have exchanged my position with that of the meanest slave

in my own country. (Ch. 2)

His descriptions of his ocean voyage depict a young man’s confusion, fear he had “got into a world of bad spirits,” and despair in which he “wished for the last friend, Death, to relieve [him]” from suffering at the hands of crewmen who forced the sick slaves to eat, whipping them if they would not. It was “the white people” watching over them who behaved “in so savage a manner,” with “brutal cruelty” including the flogging of a fellow slave “so unmercifully with a large rope…that he died in consequence of it.” He describes his voyage below deck through the Middle Passage as a Dante-esque “scene of horror almost inconceivable” with “the loathsome smells…brought on by the sickness of slaves” and “the groans of the dying,” including children. He counted the fate of those thrown or falling overboard into “the deep much more happy than myself” (Ch. 2).

Where Mary Prince had not converted to Christianity until late in her autobiography, Equiano’s call for “the renovation of liberty and justice” is suffused with Christian language and ideas through much of his account. In Chapter 12, he asks that “the blessings of the Lord be upon the heads of all those who commiserated the cases of the oppressed negroes,” comparing them to Job who wept “for him that was in trouble” and whose soul “grieved for the poor.” He “asks the audience to think about the horrors of slavery both as Christians and people with families and friends.” This “dual appeal” of a former slave who “relies on his Christianity to give him strength to survive his ordeal” (par. 5) and expresses indebtedness to “whites who practiced Christian kindness and helped him to learn valuable skills” (par. 6), is a powerful combination for readers expecting the black man who at one point “whitened [his] face” (Ch. 10), engaged in “exploitation of African’s human and natural resources” himself (Paul 856), and integrated into white society to have become inured to the cause of black slaves:

Our vessel being ready to sail for the Musquito shore, I went with the

Doctor on board a Guinea-man, to purchase some slaves to carry with

us, and cultivate a plantation; and I chose them all my own

countrymen. (Ch. 11)

Equiano’s contribution to the cause of abolition is all the more remarkable in light of this time “in a state of emotional denial…over such shameful dealings with other Blacks” (857). Paul states that in spite of Equiano’s creative license in calling himself “the African,” his later advocacy had “not so much to do with with any genuine sense of pride in his native roots” than his process of “becoming an English author, a man of economic means, and a true Christian” (859). Whatever his motivations—and perhaps they are as multifaceted and complex as Equiano himself—his is a fascinating tale of contradictions and contrasts, from perhaps allegorical descriptions of “idyllic tribal life,” “projection of himself as a lapsed African aristocrat,” to his very real “deportation on a slave ship” (Paul 852) and years of captivity prior to manumission.

Redeemed but never freed in her lifetime, Mary Prince ends her equally compelling narrative with a plea to British citizens to “never leave off to pray to God, and call loud the King of England, till all the poor blacks be given free, and slavery done up for evermore” (602). Equiano called upon his Creator and England’s king as a “most dutiful and devoted servant” carrying the prospect of “the heartfelt pleasure of procuring happiness to millions” of captives (Ch. 11). Through their similar experiences, in highly individual but equally compelling voices, both Prince and Equiano sounded the same clarion call of conscience, and their stories resound today as testimonies to the indomitability of the human spirit in the face of suffering, and the unquenchable desire for freedom.

Works Cited

Alonzo, Andrea Starr. “A Study of Two Women’s Slave Narratives: “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” and “The History of Mary Prince”” Women’s Studies Quarterly 17.3/4 (1989): 118-22. JSTOR. The Feminist Press and the City University of New York. Web. 22 July 2016.

Black, Joseph. “Mary Prince.” The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: The Age of Romanticism. 2nd ed. Vol. 4. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Pr, 2010. 587-602. Print.

Catapano, P. “Olaudah Equiano, Or, Gustavus Vassa, the African.” City University of New York. Web. 23 July 2016.

Lloyd, W. D. “Lecture Notes for Olaudah Equiano.” North Carolina State University. 24 July 2016. Lecture.

Maddison-Macfadyen, Margot. “Mary Prince, Grand Turk, and Antigua.” Slavery & Abolition 34.4 (2013): 653-62. Shapiro Library. Web. 25 July 2016.

Equiano, Olaudah. “The Interesting Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, The African: Written By Himself.” Internet Archive. Ed. Suzann Shell and Diane Monico. Archive.org. 17 Mar. 2005. Web. 23 July 2016.

Paul, R. “”I Whitened My Face, That They Might Not Know Me”: Race and Identity in Olaudah Equiano’s Slave Narrative.” Journal of Black Studies 39.6 (2007): 848-64. Shapiro Library. Web. 22 July 2016.

Prince, Mary. “The History of Mary Prince A West Indian Slave Related by Herself.” Comp. Joseph L. Black. The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: The Age of Romanticism. 2nd ed. Vol. 4. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Pr, 2010. 587-602. Print.

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