This summer, I’ve invited my graduate students to submit blog posts to tellingtheflesh.com. Luckily, they’ve almost all expressed an interest. They’re a highly diverse bunch and I’m really looking forward to reading and posting their thoughts.
The second of these comes from Margot Maddison-MacFadyen, a doctoral candidiate in the Interdisciplinary PhD program here at MUN. Margot, who has vicariously wandered through this blog before, is working on The History of Mary Prince, a slave narrative published in 1831. Margot is working with supervisors spread around the university: Elizabeth Yeoman (Education), Neil Kennedy (History), Rob Finley (English) and me (Gender Studies). You can find out more about Margot, her work, and her publications, here.
Like the Moon Illuminating Shadows at Night: The
Memory of Slavery in the Public Spaces of Bermuda and Prince Edward Island
by Margot Maddison-MacFadyen
At length the vendue master, who was to offer us for sale like sheep or cattle, arrived, and asked my mother which was the eldest. She said nothing, but pointed to me. He took me by the hand, and led me out to the middle of the street, and, turning me slowly round, exposed me to the view of those who attended the vendue. I 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, and who talked about my shape and size in like words–as if I could no more understand their meaning than the dumb beasts. I was then put up for sale. The bidding commenced at a few pounds, and gradually rose to fifty-seven, when I was known to the highest bidder; and the people who stood by said I had fetched a great sum for so young a slave.
(Mary Prince 1831)
I’m planning a research trip to Bermuda this fall, where the memorialization of my research subject, Mary Prince, is hotly contested by the descendants of the victims of the Atlantic slave trade, the enslaved, and the descendants of the perpetrators of the trade, the slave-owners and the slave-merchants.
In short, it looks like I’m headed for a dustup.
Coming from Prince Edward Island (PEI), Canada’s tiny island province, purportedly the ‘gentle’ island where lobster suppers and Anne of Green Gables form identity, you might wonder how I’ll fare, and how I’ll enter the fray.
Prince, born in Bermuda in 1788, is the first known freed black West Indian woman to author a slave narrative. She is the storyteller of The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave, Related by Herself, which was compiled and edited by an abolitionist team in 1829-30, and published in 1831.
She had five successive Bermudian slave-owners, and she lived in three West Indian colonies–Bermuda, Grand Turk Island, and Antigua–before self-emancipation in London, in 1828. She walked out of her last slave-owner’s London residence and was a free woman, at last.
I’ve already been on research trips to Grand Turk Island and Antigua where I found buildings associated with her life in those islands still standing. I also found her listed in the Slave Registers of Former British Overseas Territories for Antigua. These findings are written up in my 2012 article, “Mary Prince, Grand Turk, and Antigua,” that is published in Slavery & Abolition: A Journal of Slave and Post-Slave Studies.
In June, 2012, Bermuda’s first black local government, the Progressive Labor Party (PLP), designated Prince a Bermudian National Hero. Her new status as hero, long overdue in my mind, unleashed a wave of debate, one of many in Bermuda’s current convulsion of racially-charged political tension. This is exemplified in the following excerpt from the Bermuda Royal Gazette and the comments that follow.
The article, written by Owain Johnston-Barnes, appeared in the Gazette in the early morning of June 19, 2012. Bermudian Premier Paula Cox was quoted on her announcement of Prince’s induction as Bermudian National Hero:
“Mary Prince is the hero of her own story,” Premier Cox said. “She is a woman who stood up for principle. She is a woman who stepped outside her comfort zone, and she is a woman who felt we have to become the change that we want.”
“She did it at considerable risk, cost and peril to herself and here tonight it is certainly a privilege for us all to celebrate and acknowledge and salute the 2012 National Hero.”
Reading the official proclamation, she said: “Her words live on in the pages of her autobiography, a first hand description of slavery whose publication in the UK in 1831, while slavery was still legal in Bermuda and the Caribbean, contributed to its abolition in Bermuda and the Caribbean.”
On the heels of this Gazette story, readers took to their keyboards leaving over 40 comments and an ongoing interchange in the Gazette’s comments (weblog) section to the story. The following exchange, between two participants known only by their pseudonyms – Observer and Only in Bermuda – launched this discussion. Their comments illuminate what became a much lengthier racially-charged debate.
Observer: June 19, 2012 (9:40.)
Nominating a character from a work of fiction as a national hero is an insult to real heroes and to the intelligence of Bermudians.
May as well have nominated the Tooth Fairy or the Easter Bunny!
Only in Bermuda: June 19, 2012 (10:06)
Observer — What work of fiction?
Observer: June 19, 2012 (10:14)
Only in Bermuda — The pamphlet written and published by members of the Anti-Slavery Society in London purporting to be about a former slave called Mary Prince is the whole basis for this ridiculous and politically motivated award.
Curiously, these comments – and others posted in response to the original story – have since been expunged from the comments section. Is this yet another rewriting of history?
Dr. Quito Swan, Associate Professor of African Diaspora History at Howard University, recently published a book chapter (2012) titled, “Smoldering Memories and Burning Questions: The Politics of Remembering Sally Bassett and Slavery in Bermuda.” Although the chapter was written prior to the public controversy surrounding the nomination of Mary Prince, it illuminates the issues underlying the debate.
Sally Bassett, an enslaved sixty-eight year old black woman, was burned at the stake in Bermuda in 1730 for allegedly poisoning the slave-owners of her granddaughter, Beck. In 2009, the PLP, the same black local government that designated Mary Prince a Bermudian National Hero, erected a ten-foot-tall sculpture of a pregnant Bassett in front of the Government’s Cabinet Office. Swan attests that this was to: “memorialize the struggle of blacks against slavery” (p. 71). As in the case of Prince’s 2012 nomination, a racially charged-public debate ensued. (For images of the statue, click here)
The process of publicly memorializing slavery is fraught with contention, particularly in such a small colonial space as is Bermuda, “a society that has historically criminalized black protest but now features a black government committed to the promotion of Bermuda’s ‘national’ heritage” (Swan p. 71). These memorializations of slavery in Bermuda are hotly contested spaces of thought and culture that are reflected in contemporary issues of power, race, racism, and colonialism.
Historically, white Bermudian pamphleteers, journalists, and historiographers promoted slavery in Bermuda as a ‘benign’ institution, insinuating that in Bermuda slavery was less horrific than in other colonies. In this discourse, colonialism is legitimated, racism is downplayed, and black protest is made invisible, insignificant, or criminal. It is this depiction of Bermuda’s past that is currently contested.
Scholars are bringing forward from memory a different past for Bermuda, one that is replete with numerous instances of slave resistance, brutality, and racial division, of which the burning of Sally Bassett and the History of Mary Prince are but two examples. Significantly, these two historical figures selected by the PLP for memorialization are evocative of women and children. A gendered account of slavery recognizes that enslaved women working as domestics and, therefore, living in close proximity to their slave-owners, were subject to torture and sexual abuse.
As a result of this revisionist work, scholars are also bringing forward from memory a different past for Europeans, Africans, and South and North Americans, ones in which racial exploitation is ferocious, terrible, an abomination. In The Smithsonian for example, Henry Wiencek’s October, 2012, article, “Master of Monticello,” paints a new portrait of Thomas Jefferson, Founder of the American Nation, which he “decided from evidence recently unearthed or long suppressed” (p. 40).
A unique finding excavated from archives is that Jefferson clearly knew he was making a 4 percent profit from the births of black enslaved children, and that he fostered this, the silent profit of enslavement. Writing to one of his plantation managers, Jefferson instructs that, “A child raised every 2. years is of more profit then the crop of the best laboring man. in this, as in all other cases, providence has made our duties and our interests coincide perfectly . . . . [With] respect therefore to our women & their children I must pray you to inculcate upon the overseers that it is not their labor, but their increase which is the first consideration” (Wiencek 96).
“In his lifetime,” Wiencek relates, “[Jefferson] had owned more than 600 slaves. At any one time about 100 slaves lived on the mountain, [Monticello]” (p. 42). They had been owned by his family for generations and were all descended from the enslaved matriarch Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Hemings.
Slaves being his largest asset, reclaimed memory shows that Jefferson, purportedly the moral leader of his era, used them as collateral for a 1796 bank loan to rebuild Monticello. Like Mary Prince, who was first on the auction block at about age twelve, Jefferson’s slaves were monetized.
What’s this got to do with Canada, the True North Strong and Free?
It turns out that PEI isn’t all about lobster suppers and that hot-tempered little red-headed orphan with pigtails running around Cavendish shores.
In August, 2012, Lawrence Hill, author of The Book of Negroes, visited PEI to not only give a public talk about his craft and published works, but to be present when the municipality of Stratford held a street-naming ceremony to honour the Shepard family. David Shepard and Kesiah Wilson were two of four slaves owned by Edmund Fanning, a former PEI lieutenant-governor who first came to PEI in 1786. Many islanders descend from this couple, and the road named after them is Shepard Drive.
Fanning left the colony for England in 1813, and it is assumed that he emancipated his slaves that same year. Although slavery was legal in British colonies until Emancipation on August 1, 1834, court cases that ensued in Great Britain in the 1770s (beginning with Lord Mansfield’s 1772 Somersett v. Stueart ruling) – thus forty years prior to Fanning’s departure – implied that slavery was illegal in England, Wales, and North Briton. There was, therefore, no reason for Fanning to take his slaves with him to England.
The first slaves had arrived in the colony in 1730, eighty-three years earlier. Are we to believe that slavery here on PEI was benign, a notion clung to by some Bermudians about their territory to this day? Slavery is never benign. Owning others and monetizing them as if they were farm animals is not. The resistance of the enslaved, whether they be personal acts of defiance or group acts of rebellion, shows that it is not. And the violence perpetrated by slave-owners and slave-merchants to control uncooperative slaves teaches us that it is not.
Sally Bassett was burned at the stake. Mary Prince reports beatings and whip lashings by four members of the five different families that owned her, one a woman. A second woman, though she did not beat Prince herself, incited her husband to do so.
In her 2006 book, The Hanging of Angélique, which is a Canadian slave narrative, Afua Cooper brings forward from memory the enslavement story of Marie-Joseph Angélique, a slave owned by Thérèse de Couagne de Franchville. Marie-Joseph Angélique was hanged in 1734 for the burning of Old Montreal.
In the book’s preface Cooper writes that “[s]lavery has disappeared from Canada’s historical chronicles, erased from its memory and banished to the dungeons of its past. This in a country where the enslavement of Black people was institutionalized and practiced for the better part of three centuries” (p. 7).
Moreover, George Elliot Clarke, in his forward to Cooper’s book, informs us that “slavery was practiced in a solid third of what is now Canada–in Upper Canada (Ontario), New France (Québec), New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia” (p. XVI). I would add Newfoundland to this list. In my 2012 article in the Newfoundland Quarterly, “Turks Islands’ Salt, Enslavement, and the Newfoundland-West Indian Trade,” I show that at the very least, Bermudians fishing the Banks in 1788 and using vacant fishing rooms south of St. John’s to land their catches, used slave labour brought with them from Bermuda.
My research in Bermuda, Grand Turk Island, and Antigua lies at the crossroads of public and private histories of enslavement. By examining the unfolding of abolition and contested freedom in these small island communities, I hope to be able to speak to current debates about the legacies of enslavement, not only in the West Indies, but here in Canada, as well.
I’ll do this as a white woman raised in the wealthy community of West Vancouver, with the privilege of an excellent education. My ancestry traces back to early colonists in North America in the 1600s, Ojibwa peltry brokers working in the fur trade, fishers in Newfoundland, and to British Empire Loyalists settling in Upper Canada. Certainly, some must have been slave-owners, if not slave-merchants.
My white ancestors are memorialized in Canada: pioneers, settlers, explorers, war heroes, and politicians. I see their statues everywhere. A 2010 addition on PEI is a statue of Sir John A. MacDonald, the first Prime Minister of Canada, reposing on a Charlottetown bench at the entrance to Victoria Row, an area highly visible to tourists flocking off cruise ships at dock in the harbour.
The statue is situated right next to the Anne of Green Gables Store, which sells Anne hats, Anne calendars, Anne dolls, Anne snow globes, Anne mugs and cups. Indeed, just about anything to do with the commodification of L. M. Montgomery’s fictional character Anne, can be got at this store.
I’d like to see the ancestors of others memorialized, including black men, women, and children who came to this country enslaved, those who fled here to escape enslavement, or were freed here, either by emancipation or self-manumission. It’s long past time to see this done.
Our anonymous Gazette commenter, Observer, whose words introduced this discussion, remarks that nominating Mary Prince a national hero is an insult to real heroes–that she is a fictional character.
I would say that she’s more like the moon illuminating shadows at night.
I’d like to see a ten-foot-tall statue of her when I get to Bermuda, right next to the one of Sally Bassett. I’d also like to see a ten-foot-tall statue of Kesiah Wilson, ancestral matriarch of so many Prince Edward Islanders, at Victoria Row.
Clarke, George Elliott. Forward. The Hanging of Angélique. By Cooper. Toronto: HarperCollins, 2006. xi-xviii.
Cooper, Afua. Preface. The Hanging of Angélique. By Cooper. Toronto: HarperCollins, 2006. 1-13.
Hill, Lawrence. The Book of Negroes. Toronto: HarperCollins, 2007.
Johnston-Barnes, Owain. “Mary Prince Inducted as National Hero.” Bermuda Royal Gazette, June 19, 2012: http://www.royalgazette.com/article/20120619/NEWS/706199921.
Maddison-MacFadyen, Margot. “Mary Prince, Grand Turk, and Antigua.” Slavery & Abolition: A Journal of Slave and Post-Slave Studies. published online 26 November2012.
Maddison-MacFadyen, Margot. “Turks Islands’ Salt, Enslavement, and the Newfoundland-West Indies Trade.” Newfoundland Quarterly 104, no. 4(Summer 2012): 40-44.
Swan, Quito. “Smoldering Memories and Burning Questions: The Politics of Remembering Sally Bassett and Slavery in Bermuda.” in Politics of Memory: Making Slavery Visible in the Public Sphere. Ed. Ana Lucia Araujo. New York: Routledge, 2012. 71-91.
Wiencek, Henry. “Master of Monticello.” Smithsonian 43, no. 6 (Oct. 2012): 40-49 & 92-97.
text and images copyright Margot Maddison-MacFadyen, 2013.