The portrayal of slavery in 19th century British literature. Mary Prince’s self depiction in "The History Of Mary Prince" and Edgeworth’s depiction of "Caesar" in "The Grateful Negro"

Term Paper, 2009

13 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of contents

1 Introduction

2 Self depiction and depiction of characters in literature on slavery
2.1 Mary Prince’s self depiction in her novel
2.1.1 Her role as a female “slave”
2.1.2 Violence, punishment and physical struggles
2.1.3 Thomas Pringle’s role in publishing the story
2.2 Edgeworth’s depiction of “Caesar”
2.2.1 Caesar’s role as the “grateful negro”
2.2.2 Abolitionist aspects of the account

3 Conclusion

4 Literature

1 Introduction

“How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” asked Samuel Johnson a conservative English Tory (Sandiford 63). With this question he made fun of the American revolt against the British reign while they ruled over others as well and also shows his opinion when it comes to the system of slavery. Johnson can be considered one of the first British people who spoke out against slavery by condemning slavery as unjust because there is any right to be found which could allow the Europeans to exploit the African coast (62-63). Although the British participation in the triangle of slavery[1] is clearly evident, the number of publications on abolitionist texts could not compete with those being published by American authors. But the British were the first to abolish slavery officially in 1807[2] and therefore it appears to be appropriate looking at British abolitionist texts more closely. Many British narrations[3] on slaves have a protagonist who should appeal to the readership in a positive way by depicting him in very “European” style which means to ascribe several positive features to him as looking European, being educated and civilized and so on. Those created texts can of course only give a very limited insight into the life of an African slave, whereas an account as given by Mary Prince for instance claims its status of being authentic. Therefore I will take a closer look at her narration with respect to her self-depiction, especially the way her role as female slave is portrayed and to what extent physical abuse and ill-treatment plays a crucial role within her story and within the system of slavery as such. Furthermore I will briefly analyze Pringle’s role as editor of the text and how far he has influenced the authenticity of Prince’s narration. In order to show some contrastive writing, I will examine the role of Edgeworth’s “grateful negro” and whether her fictional writing can be considered an abolitionist piece of literature or not.

2 Self depiction and depiction of characters in literature on slavery

2.1 Mary Prince’s self depiction in her novel

2.1.1 Her role as a female “slave”

When it comes to analyzing Mary Prince’s self depiction within her own history one has to take a closer look at Mary Prince’s role as a female slave at first. Since Mary Prince evidently writes about herself as a female slave, one can get a firsthand account which is not as common as some other slave narrations on male slaves are (cf. Temple 177).

As Mary Prince herself travels from one place to another during the story, her duties also seem to shift. She starts her narration with a quite unusual beginning for the typical slave narrative of the late 18th and early 19th century by telling how she was already born a slave in Bermuda because her mother was a slave as well as her father (Prince 2004, 7). After having read several slave narratives of this period, one gets the impression that those kinds of accounts always have to contain a part where the protagonist’s normal life in his native country suddenly changes with the character being enslaved.[4] By differentiating between her mother’s and her father’s role as slave, Mary Prince offers the reader the impression that female slaves more likely had to fulfil household duties, whereas the men were expected to do physically demanding labour (2004, 7). Without knowing what living in freedom is like, Mary Prince describes her childhood when she used to be the “pet” for Miss Betsey, as “the happiest period of [her] life” (Prince 2004, 7). Reading the first two pages, one might suppose that she really enjoyed her life at the Williams where she was mainly surrounded by other women and children which definitely influenced her future relationship to women as such and especially to children (Prince 2004, 7-9). With her mistress being so kind to her, Mary Prince creates some kind of expectation concerning her future mistresses and the sort of work she has to do. The way Mary Prince is sold several times from one place to another (Prince 2004, 8, 9, 19, 25) clearly shows her role within the cycle of “commodification and trade” (Brown 2) the “female figure” (Brown 2) was connected to in the 18th century. Merinda Simmons argues that Mary Prince has crucial difficulties to explore her real condition because of her travels (76). Nevertheless Mary Prince gives the impression that those watersheds do not obstruct her in finding a place to belong to but offer her the possibility to leave behind some kind of difficult past and to start off again (2004, 19, 23-24, 25). Obviously leaving Miss Betsey and Mrs Pruden[5] is somehow different for Mary Prince and shows how she believes to belong to Miss Betsey by saying to be “by right her property” (2004, 10). This early confession is important for the further development within her story. At the beginning she does not know anything else than being enslaved and to be “rightful” property of white people whose[6] value can simply be measured in pounds (2004, 19). Later on however she develops some kind of self-awareness (Simmons 82) by telling her master that “[she] would not live longer with him, for he was a very indecent man...” (2004, 24) and even being brave enough to protect his own daughter from his beatings (2004, 24). During her time at the Woods, Mary Prince also shows how she has developed a very determined desire for freedom when she uses her spare time to earn money hoping to buy her freedom once (2004, 27). Another important aspect that emphasizes her grown self-awareness and self-confidence can be recognized when she marries her husband what strictly speaking was not allowed to slaves, especially because she did not ask her owners for permission (2004, 30). Having a husband, who is a free man, even if he is black, helps Mary Prince to distinguish between freedom and being enslaved[7]. Consequently she depicts herself for the first time as a woman who really desires to be totally free in order to live her life together with her husband (2004, 30-31). Afterwards she is very excited about travelling to London where she hoped to get cured from her illness and even more important to achieve freedom (2004, 31-32). As Mary Prince has developed a self-awareness of herself as black woman who insistently seeks to be a free woman as well, one might suppose that London could be her “deus ex machine” where all her problems would be solved. But after arriving in London and knowing that she actually is a free woman from the moment she set foot on English ground (Temple 186), Mary Prince clearly draws a picture of herself which tells the reader that being free has nothing to do with one’s legal status as long as one does not know where one belongs to (2004, 33). As a conclusion it can be recorded that she considers herself to be in a “slave-like” condition during her time in London, even though she is free according to the English law (20004, 33-34). Finally she depicts herself as the slave who “will say the truth to English people...” (2004, 38) and shows herself in a position to represent other slaves as well because “[she] know[s] what slaves feel-[she] can tell by [her]self what other slaves fell, and by what they have told [her]” (2004, 38).

2.1.2 Violence, punishment and physical struggles

One might suppose that violence at first plays an important role in Mary Prince’s account when she is sold to Captain I and his woman (2004, 12-13) however there is already a decisive notion of violence when Mary lived at the Williams. At this stage of her life Mary Prince learned how her mistress bore the “ill-treatment” of her husband “with great patience” what led to an even closer connection between her and her mistress (2004, 8), (Simmons 90). Therefore Mary is used to physical abuse and violence towards other women from childhood. Talking about Mary’s self depiction when it comes to violence, she first of all shows herself sympathetic about the bodily abuse of Hetty, she feels a certain kinship with (Prince 2004, 14-16), (Simmons 92). After Hetty’s death it is Mary who “aligns herself with Hetty, this time on the level of labor” (Simmons 92). Her fears “that [her] turn would come next” (Prince 2004, 14) soon come true when she is severely punished by Captain I and his wife as well several times. The way Mary describes the endless beatings and floggings (2004, 16-18) she automatically evokes the reader’s pity who then only wants the narration to turn because it is really difficult to stand such a detailed description of physical struggles. Unlike the reader Mary desires another ending for her pain which is her wish to die as Hotty did to “escape from this cruel bondage and be at rest in the grave” (2004, 16). Although one has to keep in mind that Mary Prince’s narration is led by abolitionists’ aims, she nonetheless creates a very authentic account by depicting her and other slaves’ suffering in a way that really makes the reader stop and think about what he or she has just read (Simmons 77, 79, 82). A very level-headed assessment is given by Prince when she says that “there was nothing very remarkable in this” when talking about the punishment she receives from Mr D her new Master (2004, 20). On the one hand she tries to catch the reader’s attention by giving those detailed descriptions of her sufferings which probably intend to evoke the reader’s sympathy for Mary Prince’s fate. In this context Mary Prince also calls herself “poor me” (2004, 20) and stresses how her work will never be completely[8] finished by repeating “work-work-work!” (2004, 20). Moreover she addresses the people in England directly with her task to inform them about the cruelty slavery is shaped by (2004, 21). On the other hand she points out that this brutal treatment was what her everyday life looked like (2004, 20) and makes her account more authentic (Simmons 86). After having suffered for so many times under the merciless punishments of her masters, Mary shows herself in a position where she is able to protect another woman (Miss D) from the ill-treatment of her husband, Mr D (Prince 2004, 24). Yet Mary Prince describes something else as even worse than all the beatings and licks she has received from her master. Even though she never speaks about sexual abuse directly, the suspicion cannot be denied after the scenery she describes when her master asks her to wash him (2004, 24). According to Merinda Simmons sexual abuse and physical violence, especially when the victims were exposed naked, were considered to be immoral behaviour by British society in the 19th Century and therefore Prince might use these allusion to sexual abuse by her master as well as all the detailed reports about her flogging or being whipped to make the addressed readership feel compassion for her and to connect slavery with those immoral procedures.

Finally Prince emphasizes the impact which the continuous violence has on her body combined with the hard labour she had to do by showing how she has become unfit for work because of her rheumatism and Saint Anthony’s fire (2004, 25, 32). With this information in mind it is very paradox that her illness, which is a result of her status as slave (Temple 182), finally is the reason why her master and mistress let her go because she is useless for them and they replace her by an employed washwoman (Prince 2004, 32). Altogether she creates a link between the physically demanding labour of slaves and the British working-class (Temple 180) which seems to be quite logical with respect to the physical conditions of the British working-class and the slave system.[9] Temple also uses the cure of Prince’s illness metaphorically as “a cure for the evils of slavery itself” (Temple 180). To me this thesis sounds too far-fetched and has to be dealt with very carefully. Obviously curing her illness could represent healing her wounds from the dreadful conditions of slavery. Nonetheless it would also mean that she were able to work again and even though she were in England at the moment of her recovery this cannot be prove for the final ending of her life as slave.


[1] British sailing to African coast lines and enslaving the inhabitants in order to sell them in the Caribbean or the USA where they produce raw material like cotton and salt which than is shipped to England for being worked on.

[2] The Act of Parliament to abolish the British Slave Trade was passed on 25 March 1807, taken from the course description.

[3] Cp. Oroonoko and Mungo in a Harlot’s progress.

[4] Cp. Equiano, Oroonoko.

[5] Especially because of the baby

[6] Writing “which’s“ seemed to be more adequate in this case since Mary Prince depicts herself nearly as an object that can be purchased like a piece of furniture. Nevertheless I simply could not use this pronoun when describing a human creature.

[7] Especially because she was born as a slave and never has had the chance to feel what freedom really means.

[8] What reminds the reader of the Greek myth on Sisyphus who has to do the same work for the rest of his life without any chance of fulfilling his task.

[9] Comparing the British working-class to the slaves in the Caribbean may be sensible when talking about the conditions and risks both “groups” had to suffer from while working. But taking a closer look at these two “groups” with respect to general issues like living conditions, freedom and personal rights, any kind of comparison would look like an insult to all those people who were enslaved by the British companies.

Excerpt out of 13 pages


The portrayal of slavery in 19th century British literature. Mary Prince’s self depiction in "The History Of Mary Prince" and Edgeworth’s depiction of "Caesar" in "The Grateful Negro"
Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg
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british, mary, prince’s, history, prince, edgeworth’s, caesar, grateful, negro
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Fabian Zschiesche (Author), 2009, The portrayal of slavery in 19th century British literature. Mary Prince’s self depiction in "The History Of Mary Prince" and Edgeworth’s depiction of "Caesar" in "The Grateful Negro", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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Title: The portrayal of slavery in 19th century British literature. Mary Prince’s self depiction in "The History Of Mary Prince" and Edgeworth’s depiction of "Caesar" in "The Grateful Negro"

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