Does Mary Prince’s History Confirm Jacobs’ Comment?

The quote in question appears within Harriet Jacobs’ book, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, the passage it was extracted from embodies her most important influences on the literature of Slavery – her representation of slave women. Jacobs addresses both race and gender issues within her novel, discussing the struggles and sexual abuses of slave women. Her narrative differs to those of narratives written by men, it should be noted that in the time the book was published, slave narratives were written predominantly by men. She does not just discuss the physical abuses and endurance as a slave but also addresses the emotional and phycological struggles she faced as a slave woman and as the quote suggests, believed that they were “far more terrible” than the experiences of a man. There are many similarities between Jacobs’ narrative and The History of Mary Prince. 

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For example, the inclusion of motherly struggles, the observation of the treatment from not just master’s but also the Mistresses and finally the use of techniques from sentimental novels to emphasise the emotional effects of slave life. However, not all aspects of Prince’s narrative confirm Jacobs’ comment that ‘Slavery was terrible for men; but […] far more terrible for women’. This essay will explore Mary Prince’s narrative and attempt to provide evidence for whether it confirms Jacobs’ comment. Throughout ‘The History of Mary Prince’, there are certainly many parallels that can be drawn between itself and Jacobs’ narrative. They both explore the physical and psychological abuses they and those around them faced as slaves and as women. It seems there are also many instances within Prince’s narrative that do confirm Jacobs’ statement. Not only does Prince describe the horrific punishments she faced herself but some of the most violent and disturbing memoirs from the narrative include the abuses of Miss Hetty by Captain I – and Mrs I-. Hetty was a French slave who was kind to Prince, she even used to refer to her as Aunt. Hetty’s presence was almost motherly in the absence of Princes parents. 

Even though Hetty is pregnant, that does not stop the master and mistress flogging her so severely that she was “brought to bed before her time and was delivered after severe labour of a dead child”(Prince 15). Hetty was then continuously beaten until she later died from the impact. This not only supports Jacobs’ comment in the sense that, this is a black slave being beaten not only by her master and her mistress, but a female slave who was pregnant at the time and had to face not just the physical pain of the experience but also the psychological effects of having given birth to a dead child. Another noteworthy point here is that it is unclear to whom Hetty was pregnant by, which may suggest possible sexual abuse. This may explain the mistresses rage directed toward Hetty and the other female slaves. This relates to how Jacobs often writes in her narrative about the ever-present risk of sexual abuse as a female slave which also meant having to deal with the “Jealous Mistress”(Jacobs 32); something that as a male slave you were unlikely to have to face. There is also another instance within the text that alludes to sexual abuse. 

Not only is she often stripped naked before being punished but Prince describes Mr D- as having “an ugly fashion of stripping himself quite naked, and ordering [me] then to wash him in a tub of water”(Prince 24). She describes this as being worse than all the licks because of the shame it brought her. It is very likely that there were sexual abuses involved in these instances but regardless the emotional turmoil it caused her either way was enough. It seems within the text that it was far more likely for women to be working within the household of the master and therefore it would have been more likely that women like Prince had to deal with this close contact, emotional abuse from their owners compared to men; who were often out of the house doing manual labour. This again seems to confirm Jacobs’ comment, since female slaves not only had to endure the physical pain but also the mental strains of situations like this one. As Andrea Starr Alonzo states, female slaves were “subjected to the humiliation and pain of sexual exploitation. 

Rape, concubinage, and the wrath of jealous mistresses were only a few of the indignities female slave suffered just because they were women,” which female slaves often considered even worse than the whippings(Alonzo 121). Another factor from Prince’s History, to confirm Jacobs’ statement, is the fact that Prince as a woman, not only faced sexual threats by having to work near her owners but she had to endure other emotional effects of the domestic roles she was given in her lifetime; these effects can be seen within the text. When she was first sold by Betsey to Captain I-, Mrs I- says, “You are not come here to stand up in corners and cry, you are come here to work’, She then put a child in my arms, and, tired as I was, I was forced instantly to take up my occupation of a nurse’(Prince 13). 

Prince had to live under the same roof as her owners and witness all day and night the atrocities they committed to her fellow slaves, all the while bringing up and nursing their child. As much as we see physical abuses to the male slave, rarely throughout text do we encounter men who have faced these same psychological cruelties. It confirms Jacobs’ statement because these more domestic roles such as nursing and attending to the masters in their chambers may have been more mentally demanding than the tasks a male slave may have faced. For many women they would have had to be a wet nurse for white children, whilst being separated from their own. Wet nursing for example, is a “UNIQUELY GENDERED KIND OF EXPLOITATION, AND under slavery it represented the point at which the exploitation of enslaved women as workers and as reproducers literally intersected”(West and Knight 37). 

Despite this, there are many other factors which may discredit the idea that Prince’s History confirms Jacobs’ comments. Within the narrative, Prince describes the harsh beatings of the “two little slave boys in the house”(Prince 14). Prince recalls how neither master or mistress restrained their cruelty notwithstanding the infancy of these two boys. In the same way that Hetty’s pregnancy didn’t prevent them beating her, the fact that these two boys were only children themselves made no difference. Prince said, “not a day passed without these boys receiving the most severe treatment”(Prince 15). Perhaps this proves that whether female or male, young or old, the treatment you received as a slave was equally as brutal. As well as this, there is an instance when we see the emotional struggles of a slave man within the text. Henry, the black driver who takes Mary to the Methodist meeting, confesses to her that he had previously been cruel to other slaves because he was ordered to by his master, “He prayed them all to forgive him, and he prayed that God would forgive him.” And also, that “He said it was a horrid thing for a ranger to have to have sometimes to beat his own wife or sister; but he must do so if ordered to by his master”(Prince 28). This shows that it was not just women who were psychologically affected by their slave experiences and therefore doesn’t confirm Jacobs’ comment. 

Prince’s History shows how “slave women had to endure physical labour, just like the men but also were expected to rear, nurse and witness the destruction of their own family units”(Weed 122–33) . It discusses how pregnant slaves were not exempt from punishment, those, like Hetty, expected to work through it. Prince recounts the sexual exploitation from Mr D-, that humiliated her, and says it was worse than all the beatings. And if Jacobs is right, this may have been why her mistress punished her so severely. Prince’s history shows that female slaves were not just the victim of violence but also sexual exploitation and psychological damage. Overall, it does seem, that Prince’s History confirms Jacobs’ comment, however, this is subjective as it is a female slave narrative written by a woman. 

Therefore, it will ultimately appear to show more feminine struggles than those of men, purely since she is a woman and experienced slavery through a female perspective. Yet, there are plenty of instances where the hardships of male slaves are related, the abuse of the two young boys and the psychological effect on Henry are just two examples. As well as this, although Prince does often discuss the harrows of mothers being separated from their children, this is not a gendered issue, we see her brothers taken away at a young age never to see them again. Prince often makes a point of not separating gender when she talks about the struggles of being a slave, for example she says at the very end of the text, “There is no modesty or decency shown by the owner to his slaves; men, women and children are exposed alike”(Prince 37). Within Prince’s History, her experience of slavery was not a matter of man versus women and who had it worse, but master versus slave. For this reason, it can be determined that overall Prince’s History does not confirm Jacobs’ comment. 

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Does Mary Prince’s History confirm Jacobs’ comment?. (2021, Dec 30). Retrieved June 29, 2022 , from
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