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”.
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.