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Last Updated: Friday, 26 October 2007, 09:21 GMT 10:21 UK
Slave girl's bravery remembered
By Caroline Mallan
BBC News

The true account of a young slave girl's life of torture and degradation galvanized Britain's abolitionist movement when it was first published in 1831.

Mary Prince
The story of a slave's life was so horrific that some doubted her word

Now, more than 200 years after she was born into a Bermudian slave family, Mary Prince's unique contribution to ending slavery is being recognised with a plaque in her honour.

The History of Mary Prince: A West Indian Slave, her autobiographical story of savage beatings, servitude and being left for dead, created a sensation when it was released.

Unrelenting in its brutality, it was the first published account of slavery by a black woman.

"To strip me naked, to hang me up by the wrists and lay my flesh open with the cow skin, was an ordinary punishment for even a slight offence," she wrote of her routine whippings at the age of 12 by her mistress in Bermuda.

"And there was scarcely any punishment more dreadful than the blows received on my face and head from her hard heavy fist," she said.

The beatings left her entire body scarred.

Cause celebre

After being bought and sold by a string of increasingly vicious owners, Mary - born in 1788 - was moved around the Caribbean and then brought to London in 1828 where she soon fled her owners with the help of a local church.

Slave shackles at Liverpool's Slavery Museum
Mary Prince was left for dead by her owners in Antigua

She went on to find shelter and work in the home of abolitionist writer Thomas Pringle.

To a friend of the writer - who transcribed and edited the memoir - she relayed her story of pain, endurance and hope.

It soon became a cause celebre in London society.

The book details how, in Antigua, she became too crippled with arthritis to work and her owners locked her in a cage and left her to die.

A neighbour's slave took pity on her and secretly fed and nursed her, restoring not just her health but her remarkable faith in others.

In her 40s, and with only minimal literacy, her straight-forward record painted a stark, often gruesome picture of slave owners that reinvigorated the lobby for full abolition.

Many details were so shocking they caused some to doubt their veracity even though it is believed her ghost writer toned down some of the worst aspects of the sexual abuse she faced.

While the lucrative trans-Atlantic British slave trade was banned in 1807, slavery across the British Empire was not abolished until 1833.

In England, common law prohibiting the ownership of slaves was first established in 1772.

'Unsung hero'

Labour MP Diane Abbott said that, as a black woman in those times, Mary took a tremendous gamble in speaking out.

Mary Prince was an unsung hero of the movement to abolish slavery
Nubian Jak Community Trust

"She put herself at risk by telling her story and it's very important that we remember the slaves who took part in the struggle to abolish the slave trade," said Ms Abbott, who will attend the ceremony to dedicate the plaque in Mary's memory.

The location of the plaque - at University of London's Senate House - is the site of the house where she lived in 1829.

The Nubian Jak Community Trust, the group behind recent plaques dedicated to reggae singer Bob Marley and slave turned writer Ignatius Sancho, is responsible for the plaque.

The trust's Jak Buela conducted extensive research into the story of Mary Prince.

"Mary Prince was an unsung hero of the movement to abolish slavery," Mr Buela said.

Nothing is known of Mary's life after 1833.

It is thought she may have returned to Antigua to rejoin her husband Daniel James, a slave who had bought his freedom.

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