Speitz, "Blood Sugar and Salt Licks"

Circulations: Romanticism and the Black Atlantic

"Blood Sugar and Salt Licks: Corroding Bodies and Preserving Nations in The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave, Related by Herself"  [1] 

Michele Speitz
University of Colorado, Boulder


1.        The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave, Related by Herself is a particularly slippery narrative. Published in 1831, it appeared well after the 1807 Act of Parliament that had abolished the slave trade, but just two years before the Crown’s 1833 Emancipation Bill. [2]  The later document legally freed slaves in British colonies, and few doubt the place of Prince’s History in the mounting storm of anti-slavery voices that swayed the popular sentiment necessary for the bill’s passage. But questions of authorship and veracity trouble this text. [3]  Critics recognize that Prince’s History is a highly mediated document, involving the Quaker Susanna Strickland Moodie, who was Prince’s amanuensis, and the abolitionist Thomas Pringle, whose notably anxious prefatory remarks disavow any biased editorial work. [4]  Debates over the narrative’s multigeneric qualities add to these questions of authenticity. Indeed, the work contains many tropes common to early-nineteenth-century slave narratives: an almost epic catalogue of physical, sexual, and mental violations; scenes of forced, degrading, and painful familial separation; accounts of “going from one butcher to another” when being sold and passed on to new slave owners; and apostrophic appeals given up to a Christian deity that both establish the speaker as righteous and call attention to the contrastingly “ungodly” acts perpetrated by masters, overseers, and plantocrats alike (71-2). [5]  However, this essay seeks to move beyond regarding this text as a record of the horrific realties of the institution of slavery in some abstract sense. Instead, it turns to the material and metaphoric significance of salt in Prince’s autobiography in order to recover a lost history of the Caribbean slave economy and to recognize types of rhetorical and artistic nuance overlooked in critical discussions about slave narratives.

2.        A focus on salt allows us to see in more complicated ways how the narrative of Mary Prince figures in the popular imagination, especially when considering the ways in which histories of Caribbean slave economies have been and continue to be influenced by academic scholarship on the Caribbean, the Americas, and the British Empire. Prince’s account of slavery in the Bermudan salt flats bespeaks a commercial diversity not often acknowledged in scholarly accounts of slave economies. Current critical dialogues seem to have let our Romantic predecessors set the boundaries of our considerations of the Caribbean and, like Coleridge, Shelley, or William Fox, we tend to speak widely about sugar and tobacco, two generally expendable or superfluous goods, and grant little attention to more essential consumables harvested by enslaved laborers. This concentration on the sweet or smoky has occluded the Caribbean salt industry’s material significance and covered over this particular slave commodity. Further, buttressing the vast amount of scholarship on the historical significance of luxury consumables which could easily impede international or regional revenue streams if boycotted, this paper brings to light the unacknowledged history of Caribbean salt raking relative to not only British colonial economies and politics, but also to the revolutionary history of the United States, in which it plays a pivotal role.

3.        Prince’s narrative attests to the importance of salt, a central product of slave labor in the British-held West Indies. Although its overall value is largely ignored in literary scholarship, harvesting salt proved harmful enough to inspire Prince’s rendition of a horrific contortion of being. Her repeated detrimental exposure to salt transforms Prince’s body, consciousness, and ultimately, of course, her narrative — making it tantamount to a material history and psychological case study of a forced merger of landscape, labor, body, and mind. Prince’s text records how lethal amounts of salt seep through the skin, forging a visceral, literal, and grotesque union between salt, the commodified substance, and the slave, the commodified worker.

4.        William Fox’s "An Address to the People of Great Britain, on the Utility of Refraining from the Use of West India Sugar and Rum" exemplifies the general scope and reach of British abolitionist rhetoric, which was often linked only to the sugar trade. He describes the West Indies as “a world of groans, tears and blood, where the body is externalized, turned into the environment in which it is tortured” (131). For transatlantic slavery economies, it is precisely the salt marshes of the West Indies where such a transformation was possible; where the body is beyond a doubt “externalized” in the manner Fox mentions above as it blends and metamorphosizes into a state of dreadful hypersalinity, increasingly absorbing and resembling the salt-drenched landscape within which it labors. Critic Timothy Morton cites Fox’s speech in his wonderful collection Radical Food, but in keeping with contemporary discourse on slavery and British colonial commodities he applies the statement to sugar only, though it can also offer a point of origin for the complex array of Caribbean slave commodities, both excessive and essential (6-7, 13).

5.        In his influential exploration of what he identifies as the Blood Sugar topos, Morton explains how British subjects wrote, read, and parodied an association between the sugar in their tea and the blood of the slaves forced to harvest it, linking notions of guilt and shame to the consumption of sugar obtained from the West Indies. Building upon the ways that Morton catalogues the various cash crops produced by British holdings in the Caribbean, I would add to this list the interim period when Turks Island functioned as a source of salt, not a luxury good but a survival commodity. By providing a necessary substance and sacrificing their lives in the salt ponds, these enslaved subjects preserved the colonies by preserving the colonists’ food.

6.        Tellingly, salt does not meet the criterion of superfluousness that foments a sentiment of shameful consumption back in England and drives Romantic authors to decry slavery in droves. Morton’s project reminds us of the type of self-righteous remarks Coleridge integrates into his lectures against slavery, which are as follows:

Surely if the inspired Philanthropist of Galilee were to revisit earth and be among the feasters as at Cana he would not change Water into Wine but haply convert the produce into the things producing, the occasioned into the things occasioning! Then with our fleshly eye should we behold what even now truth-painting Imagination should exhibit to us – instead of sweetmeats Tears and Blood, and Anguish – and instead of Music groaning and the loud Peals of the Lash. (13-4)
Coleridge’s critique depends upon not just Christian notions of transubstantiation. It also turns upon the ironic fluctuations coursing between his depiction of the horrifying affect generated by the suggestion of the slave body “groaning” under the “loud Peals of the Lash” and the celebratory sensations registered by the “feasters” of opulent and inessential “sweetmeats.” But the slave-based economy was more diverse than this, as the salt trade demonstrates. The Blood Sugar discourse never broadly acknowledges colonial profiteering reaped by the salt trade and includes only the most easily expendable of slave commodities; however, keeping this in mind, it is also important to consider how it would be difficult, if not unjust on various levels, to shame someone for consuming an item essential to life. In addition, the boycott of any luxury good engendered great economic consequences within the whole of the slave trade, bringing in larger tax revenues per item than common goods like salt.

7.        Further complicating the history of this discourse, Prince repeatedly refers to the “sweetness” of freedom in her text, but the fact that she works in the salt flats instead of sugarcane fields problematizes the textual figuration of the “image of sugar-as-revolution, of rebellion-as-sweet, which holds these two meanings so delicately in (dis)solution” (Morton 102). [6]  Pertaining to the sugar trade, the association between sweetness and freedom hybridizes the qualities of the sugar trade and of sugar the commodity: sugar signifies the pain and harm slavery incurs, while standing as a celebrated consumable with a taste so palatable that it can represent slavery’s opposite, freedom. In contrast, sweetness for Prince is only ever the antithesis of salt; salt is not her preservation. Her slave status denies her even the dietary benefits salt yields for those classed high enough to consume salt-preserved meat. For her corn-fed and meat-deprived existence, salt only and exclusively helps others such as the American revolutionaries, whose support of economic and political independence figures conversely to her imprisonment. As she concludes her history, Prince repeats one of her main claims: “All slaves want to be free—to be free is very sweet” (85, 93). Although Prince was born in Brackish Pond, Bermuda, a site named after the intersection between salt water and fresh water, her text displays not one kind word devoted to the world of the savory; there is no such salient, silver-lined nostalgia or ironic wordplay attributed to salt. She goes on record as contrasting, insisting, repeating that “to be free is very sweet.” Unlike the Blood Sugar topos, which allowed literary giants to dabble in its ironic aesthetic, Prince’s daily encounters and direct material relationship with the savory commodity that is salt drive the ironic inflections embedded in her allusions to human liberty rendered “sweet.”

8.        Salt is the linguistic linchpin of Prince’s narrative just as it was the all-consuming force behind her existence on Turks Island. Thus, salt offers a poetic as well as material significance to Caribbean history. According to figures compiled by the National Museum on Turks Island, salt production began in the Bermudas by default. At the close of the seventeenth century, the greater expanses of the North American mainland dwarfed Bermuda’s tobacco output, so Bermuda needed “another export, and they found it in salt production on Grand Turk Island” (3). [7]  Beginning in 1660, and continuing for 300 years, the salt trade was the foundation of the island’s economy (2). By the time of the American Revolution, the colonies on the North American mainland had greatly increased the demand for salt. At this point maritime law decreed that any “American vessel carrying salt was automatically subject to seizure,” but Bermuda “was at the same time dependent on the mainland for survival and so continued an illegal trade with the colonies” (10). During the period when European North America stretched from the Atlantic coast to the Appalachians, mainland salt sources were scarce. Merchants had to turn to Europe and the West Indies for salt, and Grand Turk and Salt Cay in fact provided roughly one-sixth of the salt British North Americans consumed before the American Revolution (15). Museum sources trumpet the point that “salt imports [were] vital to the success of the American Revolution and [that] the United States was dependent upon the salt imports . . . until almost the end of the nineteenth century” (16).

9.        Unlike most historical surveys produced today that focus almost exclusively on the Bermudan sugar trade, various historical texts from the colonial period evidence the Bermudan salt works, and the impact of its respective slave economy. A chronicle entitled "Salt" from John Holroyd, the Earl of Sheffield’s 1783 Observations on the Commerce of the American States with Europe and the West Indies, confirms the Turks and Caicos National Museum’s claims in the following remarks:

A great part of the salt consumed in the American States especially for butter and pork, was imported from the salt islands in the West Indies; but the planters had no concern with it; it was no production of their labor, but of the heat of the sun, was collected by the Bermudans, and sold at a low price to the ships from the continent. (25)
The Earl of Sheffield not only documents the large amount of salt North American colonists demanded, but further displays the commodity as a source of easy profit for entrepreneurial British colonials. This passage also reveals the labor stratification involved in salt production, which relied on “Bermudan” labor, or, in other words, slave labor that would in time evolve into wage-slave labor. Adding greater detail, in the 1796 publication, An Historical, Geographical, Commercial, and Philosophical View of the United States of America, and of the European Settlements in America and the West-Indies, William Winterbotham records Bermudan migratory labor practices, marking a seasonal influx of three to four hundred men who would leave Bermuda proper to rake salt on Turks Island. Winterbotham relates how the salt garnered from such projects was later “carried to America for provisions” (290). Additional evidence of an early North American dependence upon West Indian salt exists in the vast annals of George Washington’s letters. In various epistles Washington discusses Bermudan imports essential to pre- and post-revolutionary America, and in a letter drafted in 1779 he directly refers to the exchange of American-made flour for salt procured from the Bermudan Isles (436).

10.        These historical documents evidence the foundational trade relationship that bound the North American colonists to West Indian salt colonies; however, the scant amount of extant scholarship that touches upon this economic relationship presents almost no information covering the excruciating day-to-day realities involved in the processes of salt production. Even though the Turks and Caicos Islands’ Museum offers a nod to the salt industry and its legacy as a slave economy, it nevertheless replicates the popular focus on the sugar trade, providing just one brief paragraph detailing salt raking as “brutal labor,” and a few asides addressing how no colonists or planters would trouble themselves with the harsh business of harvesting salt from the ponds of Turks Island or Salt Cay. The Museum’s literature does, however, explain how standing in “brine all day or walking barefoot over chunks of salt crystal made the work drudgery. Cuts failed to heal and boils developed on skin constantly exposed to brine. The bright sun reflecting off salt water, white sand, and salt crystals contributed to the onset of blindness” (12). More nuanced and complete renderings of such labor-induced deformations do not exist in the archival depositories or in the holdings of the Turks and Caicos National Museum, but they frequently emerge in Prince’s narrative.

11.        Prince allows us to bridge a gap in our understanding of the history of salt production even though, as Moira Ferguson rightly notes, the Bermudan salt industry was in decline by the time Prince became involved in it (8). Prince’s experience in the salt ponds provides her the means to display the material horrors of this specific mode of slave labor, and also enables her to create a personal metaphor or trope for the moral corruption that slavery was spreading well beyond the salt works of Turks Island. On a material level, American revolutionaries either had no access to or had to turn their backs on British imports, making them dependent upon the salt harvested in the brackish Bermuda. This made salt mining on Turks Island as lucrative as it was inhumane, and in various passages Prince strives to unveil the atrocities salt imposes on the bodies forced to rake it. Ultimately, Prince molds her many references to the salt industry of Turks Island into a compelling trope, grafting her figurations of a body and mind transformed by labor onto narratives of a British body politic and its ideological claims that purport to be working for freedom. Further, Prince’s testimony acknowledges how even though the enslaved salt rakers had to dedicate the majority of any twenty-four hour day to laboring in the salt flats, these were not the only moments in which slaves on Turks Island were dosed with deadly amounts of salt.

12.        Prince describes a typical day of salt raking as one beginning at 4 a.m. with labor continuing until dark, interrupted solely by rushed breaks—the only point at which she could eat (71). She explains that she stood “up to (her) knees in the water” and because they “worked through the heat of the day ... salt blisters [formed] in those parts [of the body] which were not completely covered” (71-2). Speaking for herself and other members of this enslaved population, she recounts how “[o]ur feet and legs, from standing in salt water for so many hours, soon became full of dreadful boils, which eat down in some cases to the very bone” (72). Thus pickled, they would return to the salt ponds every day except for Sunday. “On Sundays,” she narrates, “we went into the bush and cut the long soft grass, of which we made trusses for our legs and feet to rest upon, for they were so full of salt boils that we could get no rest lying upon the bare boards” (72). Even her supposed day of rest is spent in reaction to the salt she would otherwise be laboring to produce. It cannot be overemphasized that upon Prince’s arrival at Turks Island, nearly every moment of her waking life centered on salt. Compounding the extent to which salt eats away at the majority of Prince’s wakeful hours spent on Turks Island, the bodily wounds she incurs from salt mining prohibited even the prospect of healing sleep.

13.        Alongside Prince’s gruesome catalogue, spawned out of an almost ubiquitous physical presence of and proximity to salt, are the seemingly unconscious references to a salt-based existence that penetrates much more than her flesh. Sodium chloride invades her being and narrative like a virus. On a level far beyond the possible morphology or contortion of being perpetrated by any number of inhumane slave labor practices embedded within Caribbean or North American mainland sugar production processes, salt laborers are consumed by the commodity they labor to produce; as the salt wounds fester, deepen, and increasingly mutate the body, these laborers become hypersalinated humans, undergoing a cruel sea change, mentally as well as physically. Not only does salt become the crux of Prince’s existence on Turks Island—she is literally a slave to salt and rarely allowed to pursue anything outside fostering its production—but, additionally, she frames her existence through the lens of salt.

14.        Discussions of various moments throughout her life often disclose how this decade as a salt laborer marks her psychically. As she laments being separated from her family, a rupture that took place long before she worked salt but which she narrates after slaving on Turks Island, she discloses how the “trials” of her life as a slave “make the salt water come into my eyes when I think of the days in which I was afflicted—the times that are gone; when I mourned and grieved with a young heart for those whom I loved” (64; emphasis added). The same commodity that corrodes this enslaved body of labor also assumes a descriptive placeholder for Prince’s tears and consumes her emotionally. After she leaves Turks Island and serves as a domestic slave on the island of Bermuda, Prince describes how she finds her “master beating his daughter,” and how she attempts to intercede until he “began to lick (her) [with a lash]. Then (she) said, ‘Sir, this is not Turk’s Island’” (77). Revisiting Prince’s narrative with special attention to the salt trade, the term “lick” bears an especially disturbing resonance because of the traditional place of a salt lick, being what hunters set out to lure game. However, this particular moment also marks how Prince associates the place name of Turks Island with a space of exceptional and irregular wrongs—an alternate moral universe where travesties of justice become admissible. Likewise, in a poignant but brief consideration of salt in Charlotte Sussman’s book on commodities of consumption, she notes how Prince’s diction links the “sentimental recollections [that] ‘make salt water’” spring from the eyes to the “physical labor involved in producing salt, and the physical pain of being made to drink saltwater.” Sussman acknowledges that this phenomenon implies a close tie between “sentimental affect and the material conditions of Caribbean slave women,” a tie, further, that surpasses that of other abolitionist texts (153-4).

15.        Within a critical tradition that refuses to imbue Prince’s narrative with the truth-value granted to self-penned slave narratives, critics like Gillian Whitlock have nevertheless uncovered how this text carries the historical heft that it has long enjoyed. Whitlock underscores how those passages dedicated to figurations of the body and bodily harm have fared better historically, and have been readily taken as true or truthfully representative of Prince’s lived experience. Whitlock notes the following: “[u]ltimately, the inscriptions of flogging on the body of the Caribbean woman, a body made grotesque and painful by abuse, are what speak authentically to the good people of England” (Intimate 23). I would like to suggest that the audience might not read the bodily images incorporated into this narrative as exclusively as Whitlock implies, or with a truth value different to that which they grant to other elements of Prince’s text. But regardless, Whitlock’s observations prove valuable to my project because they reveal how Prince’s record of bodily horrors did and may still ring true for many readers, which in turn, could then add substance and authority to those metaphors and associations she links to salt-induced transfigurations of the body.

16.        Adding to the various examples that demonstrate how Prince’s time as a salt laborer becomes a metaphoric or associative touchstone, emotional disclosures are in fact continually linked to detrimental bodily encounters with salt. As Prince launches into her final account of the ten years she slaves in the salt marshes she completes her chronicle of Turks Island with a portrayal of a brutally mistreated old slave named Sarah, who was “beaten severely,” and “flung … among the prickly-pear bushes, which [were] all covered over with sharp venomous prickles. By this,” Prince continues, “her naked flesh was so grievously wounded, that her body swelled and festered all over, and she died a few days after” (75). This specific scene of a slave woman’s death, brought on by wounded flesh paired with a swollen and festering body, does not complete Prince’s dictation of the life of a salt laborer by accident. Rather, this narrative arrangement displays a subtle link functioning in Prince’s mind and propelling her narrative, a train of thought that fuses images of paramount and painful bodily transformations and punishments with the space and labor of the Turks Island salt ponds. Much in the same way, and not more than a sentence later, she remarks,

I think it was about ten years I had worked … at Turk’s Island, when my master left off business, and retired to a house in Bermuda, leaving his son to succeed him in the island. He took me with him to wait upon his daughters; and I was joyful, for I was sick, sick of Turk’s Island, and my heart yearned to see my native place again, my mother, and my kindred. (75-6)

17.        The fact that Prince so enthusiastically embraces a different mode of slave labor underscores the especially compromising conditions she endures raking salt. Additionally, the confession that she is “sick, sick of Turk’s Island” can signify not only on the level of the figurative, but also in the literal sense, especially when paired with the following information regarding the type of medical treatment Prince and other slaves were granted there. In a sadly ironic turn, Prince discloses how her overseer at Turks Island attempts to treat illness with a supposed salt-cure. Prince explains, “when we were ill, […] the only medicine given to us was a great bowl of hot salt water, with salt mixed with it, which made us very sick” (73). In stating that their only “medicine” is salt, Prince successfully portrays a complete merger of labor, land, and body.

18.        Shortly after these reflections, Prince remembers a moment taken from “the time [that she] was a slave on Turk’s Island” when she finally gets to see her mother (76). A ship arrives in port loaded with more slaves imported to work the salt flats, and her mother happens to be aboard the vessel. Prince divulges that she “could scarcely believe” this news, “but when [she] saw [her] poor mammy [her] joy was turned to sorrow, for she had gone from her senses.” She then narrates how her mother “began to talk foolishly, and said that she had been under the vessel’s bottom” (76). Salt water quite obviously not only stands in ponds for raking salt, but encompasses the oceans that all slaves were forced to travel when they were brought to work in the colonies. Although Prince’s enslaved mother does not work in the salt ponds, she too reaches her compromised state from within a damaging cocoon of oceanic salt water. This fluid series of connections is paralleled literally by the porous nature of the skin and psyche which for Prince have both been soaked in salt—a process that opens physical and psychic wounds as it exposes both her exterior and interior body to the potentially threatening substance.

19.        Prince characterizes a tortured life lived in saline, but she also narrates salt-related mortification and death—a slow manifestation of dying also instigated by crystals of salt—and so figures a complete circle of salt-saturated life, a trajectory of being filtered almost entirely through the commodity she is forced to slave for. Prince writes:

Work—work—work—Oh that Turk’s Island was a horrible place! The people in England, I am sure, have never found out what is carried on there. Cruel, horrible place!
Mr. D— had a slave called old Daniel, whom he used to treat in the most cruel manner. Poor Daniel was lame in the hip, and could not keep up with the rest of the slaves; and our master would order him to be stripped and laid down on the ground, and have him beaten with a rod of rough briar till his skin was quite red and raw. He would then call for a bucket of salt, and fling [it] upon the raw flesh till the man writhed on the ground like a worm, and screamed aloud with agony. This poor man’s wounds were never healed, and I have often seen them full of maggots, which increased his torments to an intolerable degree. He was an object of pity and terror to the whole gang of slaves, and in his wretched case we saw, each of us, our own lot, if we should live to be as old. (73-4)
In Sucking Salt Meredith Gadsby identifies how ‘“seasoning,’ or the agony of a whipped slave whose bleeding wounds are rubbed with salt or washed with brine—and the simultaneous necessary dependence on salt for sufficient seasoning of foods speak to the notions of balance and excess” (10). Prince characterizes Daniel’s torture by salt-lash, which Gadsby reminds us is termed “seasoning” in the colonial Caribbean vernacular, as a feasible future for the “whole gang of slaves,” who go through excessive and brutal salt-induced reconfigurations of body and mind in order to provide the “sufficient seasoning of foods” that meets the needs of multiple national projects and kitchen tables. Moreover, Prince’s disturbing narrative of how “poor. . . Daniel’s . . . wounds were never healed” parallels the course of her own life both in the West Indies and later in England. When she reports her story to her amanuensis, and although she is nominally “free” in England, at least a decade after her salting days, she has not healed either bodily or psychologically. Like Daniel’s story, hers does not end in death or any substantive freedom, but in suffering, both of them possessing transformed bodies abandoned to a narratological limbo or an eternal hell, where their mutilated external forms perpetually display a tormented subject within.

20.        Prince, who narratologically expresses her knowledge of the mental and physical abuses her masters inflict upon her, also depicts what could amount to a type of bodily speech or protest during the latter years of her life, which take place in England. Notably, withstanding the fact that England held slavery to be illegal since the 1772 Mansfield decision in the Somerset case, and that Prince adopts the name of Molly Wood, accompanying her West Indian master (Mr. Wood) and mistress across the Atlantic with future freedom in mind, she was not granted any such liberty upon arrival (86). As Ferguson’s archival work avers, in 1829 and after Prince’s History was drafted, she unsuccessfully petitioned the House of Lords for her freedom (127). Now living in England and under the last master she introduces in her narrative, Prince details how she is now “quite cripple;” “I soon fell ill of the rheumatism, and grew so very lame that I was forced to walk with a stick . . . . I was ill a long long time; for several months I could not lift [a] limb” (79). Prince’s body revolts, refuses to continue to submit to the demands laid down by impossible labor expectations. The relation of Prince’s own bodily disfigurement suggests that she ought to have put down her toil no matter what sort of system of labor required it. The intense labor Prince performs wreaks havoc upon her flesh, propelling her to her “crippled” state. However, Prince’s History is rarely examined as a critique of damaging labor practices, although the inhumane salt raking processes presented in her narrative would outlast chattel slavery.

21.        The troubling encounters Prince recites heighten the specificity and novelty of salt labor simply because this commodity merges with the laboring body to such a great extent— perhaps comparable only to those arduous and intrusive tasks born by coal and lead miners who were likewise compromised by their work environments. Salt literally breaches the boundary between the commodity and the laboring body. After Prince works in the salt flats of Turks Island, she emerges from her labor greatly changed. She is cannibalized by salt; she exists as a human commodity, a slave, and harvests a commodity, salt, that devours her flesh. This economy of cannibalism and corporeal alteration entails an existential transformation. Tales of raw, grated flesh incurred from brutal labor or slavery practices are not new, but here we are introduced to a story that serves as a critique not simply of slave labor, but also of what would prove to be standard labor practices found in the Caribbean salt industry even after slavery was abolished. Prince’s narrative underscores the particularity of this unique historic and geographic context as the body loses a contest of differentiation with salt, its co-commodity.

22.        Prince seeks to escape this threatening saline world in an idealized Britain; according to her history, the sheer horror of her salt-drenched state drives Prince to evoke her definition of Anglo-Saxon values, which she juxtaposes against what qualify as distinctly un-English acts perpetrated by who those who crossed the Atlantic. When Prince invokes a singularly English ethical code and exclaims that the “people in England,” surely, “have never found out what is carried on” at Turks Island, she rehearses an abolitionist view, purporting these enslaved populations to be systemically dependent upon British subjects. Moreover, the rhetorical charge she lofts upon a particularly English ethos fantastically subordinates not only the slaveholders and abolitionists but also the enslaved populace in the colonies to an idealized public across the sea, as she reinvests powerful authority in a body of English people who, by this line of reasoning, could feasibly halt the brutalization that American abolitionists, or any enslaved individuals, seemingly cannot. Prince appeals to her English readership, announcing, “I am often much vexed, and feel great sorrow when I hear some people in [England] say, that the slaves do not need better usage, and do not want to be free. They believe the foreign people who deceive them, and say slaves are happy. I say, Not so” (93). Prince attempts to use her identity—not that of a British subject but that of a “freed” slave on British soil—to include her pleas within a national popular fantasy, one of an inherently freedom-centric “English people” (93, 94). Jenny Sharpe’s consideration of Prince’s History provides a particularly instructive discussion on the deployment of strategic tropes and omissions within various abolitionist-backed slave narratives. Prince’s text enacts this type of rhetorical move, especially where she paints the fate of any and all enslaved bodies of people in the British-held West Indies as being determined exclusively by citizens living in England. Sharpe compellingly argues that such narrative devices covered over and ignored the agency exhibited by slaves who ran away, revolted, or escaped slavery without nationalized or outside aid of any kind (124-127).

23.        In addition to Sharpe’s foundational work, a more recent article by Kremena Todorova also recognizes Prince’s nationalized rhetoric and how her narrative plays into British exceptionalism. Todorova writes, “[i]n the discourse originated by [Prince’s] History, the English character and identity are consistently shielded from implications of immorality. Even though plantocrats and abolitionists [were] divided over the question of slavery, both sides avow[ed] their endorsement of a glorious English national identity” (299). However, Prince’s story subtly interrogates just how well England measures up to this ideal by depicting the horrors that British men and women perpetrate on both sides of the Atlantic. Even as she relates how her mistress “stripped and flogged her,” which she follows with a report of her master “abusing [her] with every ill name he could think of,” she censors herself and does not repeat any of these damning expletives, deeming them to be “(too, too bad to speak in England)” (68). Through such reticence she pays homage to an idealized version of an upright English nation, and Prince suggests, by definition, that even unjust words, let alone acts, cannot be pronounced or performed upon its righteous soil. By extension, such passages beg the question of why these expletives are somehow permissible on British-held soil, and implore one to question the practices and qualities of the English men and women who operate in this way.

24.        Prince’s work as a salt laborer, status as a female slave, and affiliation with the British West Indies allow her to import startling eyewitness testimony to her now nearby English readers. She retrieves and salvages stories amassed from the very realms that contorted her subjectivity and human form, delivering them to English citizens who are complicit with the abuses exacted within Britain’s colonial holdings. She absorbs even the bodily impact of the oceanic voyage many English subjects never took, in addition to the tolls exacted in and out of the salt marshes. “This is slavery” she explains: “I tell it to let the English people know the truth” (94). In moments like these, Prince also helps to define what English morality is or should be. Strikingly similar to Hegel’s analysis of the "Lord and the Bondsman," this unchosen yet pivotal role tasks Prince in a way that transforms her physically and mentally under slavery. In addition, it confirms Prince’s position as a black female orator or narrator and occupant of what Paul Gilroy has established as the black diaspora’s inside/outside locality within Modernity, enabling her narrative to carry special weight. [8] 

25.        Read in light of the historical documents compiled here, we can see how the fruit of Prince’s torturous labor filled the pockets of British colonial investors, and fed scores of American colonists during that nation’s quest for revolutionary freedoms. However, the realities of salt production under slavery corrode the liberatory claims of both nations. This, I have attempted to argue, is the type of implicit critique produced in the numerous occasions where Prince juxtaposes British idealism with harrowing tales of the everyday drudgery she experiences on Turks Island and back in Britain. Indeed, Prince contributes to absolutist visions of British exceptionalism, replete with discourses of British liberty, justice, and righteousness, but her version of this exceptionalism insists on recognizing that these laudable standards be necessarily counterpoised to those propagated in the salt works in which she slaved. In her narrative, Prince, like others forced into the salt industry, materially preserves two nations while the very salt she unwillingly rakes continually corrodes and eats at her flesh and soul. The various trials of unfreedom and the psychological and physical injury Prince endures not only produce a deformed body and a reformulated consciousness, but also spawn her multivalenced testimony. Such physical and mental legacies emerge from her intimate knowledge and experience, and like the material history of salt in this Caribbean slave economy and its crucial place in North American revolutionary life, they might be lost to us without her narrative.

Works Cited

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Lectures 1795 on Politics and Religion. The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor ColeridgeEd. L Patton and P Mann. Vol 1. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1971. Print.

Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa. Ed. Angelo Costanzo. Toronto: Broadview P, 2002. Print.

Ferguson, Moira. "Introduction to the Revised Edition." Prince, Mary. The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave, Related by Herself. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1997. Print.

Fox, William. "An Address to the People of Great Britain, on the Utility of Refraining from the Use of West India Sugar and Rum." Radical Food: The Culture and Politics of Eating and Drinking, 1790-1820. Ed. Timothy Morton. Vol 1. New York: Routledge, 2000. Print.

Gadsby, Meredith. Sucking Salt: Caribbean Women Writers, Migration and Survival. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 2006. Print.

Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993. Print.

Hegel, G.W.F. Phenomenology of Spirit. Trans. A.V Miller. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1977. Print.

Holroyd, John (Earl of Sheffield). Observations on the Commerce of the American States with Europe and the West Indies; Including the Several Articles of Import and Export. Also, An Essay on Canon and Feudal Law By John Adams, Esquire; Ambassador Plenipotentiary, From the United And Independent States of North America, to Their High Mightinesses the States General of the United Provinces of Holland To Which is Annexed, the Political Character of the Said John Adams, Esquire; By an American Price Half a Dollar. Philadelphia: Robert Bell, 1783. Print.

Mellor, Anne. "‘Am I not a Woman, and a Sister?’: Slavery, Romanticism, and Gender" Romanticism, Race, and Imperial Culture, 1780-1834. Ed. Alan Richardson. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1996. Print.

Morton, Timothy. "Blood Sugar." Romanticism and Colonialism: Writing and Empire, 1780-1830. Ed. Tim Fulford and Peter J Kitson. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998. Print.

---. "Introduction." Radical Food: The Culture and Politics of Eating and Drinking, 1790-1820. Ed. Timothy Morton. Vol 1. New York: Routledge, 2000. Print.

---. The Poetics of Spice: Romantic Consumerism and the Exotic. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006. Print.

Prince, Mary. The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave, Related by Herself. Ed. Moira Ferguson. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1997. Print.

---. "Mary Prince’s Petition Presented to Parliament on June 24, 1829 Records Office, House of Lords." Common Journal LXXXIV: 404. Ferguson, Moira, ed. The History of Mary Prince: A West Indian Slave Related by Herself. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1997. Print.

"Salt Industry." Turks and Caicos Islands National Museum. [n.p.]: [n.p.], 3 June 2007. Web.

Sharpe, Jenny. Ghosts of Slavery: A Literary Archaeology of Black Women's Lives. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2003. Print.

Sussman, Charlotte. Consuming Anxieties: Consumer Protest, Gender, and British Slavery 1713-1833. Palo Alto: Stanford UP, 2000. Print.

Todorova, Kremena. "‘I Will Say the Truth to the English People’: The History of Mary Prince and the Meaning of English History." Texas Studies in Literature and Language 433 (2001): 285-302. Print.

Washington, George. Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources 1745-1799. Ed. Fitzpatrick John C. Vol 14. Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1936. Print.

Wheatley, Phyllis. Complete Writings. Ed. Vincent Carretta. New York: Penguin Group, 2001. Print.

Whitlock, Gillian. The Intimate Empire: Reading Women's Autobiography. London: Cassell, 2000. Print.

Whitlock, Gillian. "Volatile Subjects: The History of Mary Prince." Genius in Bondage: Literature of the Early Black Atlantic. Ed. Vincent Carretta and Philip Gould. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 2001. Print.

Winterbotham, William. An Historical, Geographical, Commercial, and Philosophical view of the United States of America, and of the European Settlements in America and the West-Indies. Vol 4. New York: Tiebout and O’Brien, 1796. Print.


[1] Without the sterling editorial guidance provided by my mentors, Jeffrey N. Cox and Jillian Heydt-Stevenson and the insightful and challenging questions tossed at me by way of my colleagues Scott Hagele and John C. Leffel, this essay would not have been possible. My gratitude goes out to each of them for helping me to think through the many nuances at play in this historical narrative. I would also like to thank Donald Pease for granting me the opportunity to workshop a draft of this article at the 2008 Futures of American Studies Institute, where I benefited from the advice of Gabriel Briggs, Michael Chaney, Michael Germana, Làzaro Lima, Alan Nadal, and Rachel Watson. BACK

[2] The British Abolition of Slave Trade Act of 1807 finally achieved this result. BACK

[3] Historically, slave narratives did not enjoy widespread or easy credibility, and debates over their veracity continue to find voice today. Prince’s contested narrative follows those such as Olaudah Equiano and Phyllis Wheatley among others, which were also produced with various paratextual materials so as to validate their authenticity, often coming with oaths and affirmations of truth from established white abolitionist subjects. In addition, unlike the work of Equiano or Wheatley, Prince’s narrative is not self-penned, which has only added to the controversy surrounding this particular document. BACK

[4] For both British and North American critical scholarship on the questions of authorship and agency in Prince’s narrative see Moira Ferguson, Introduction to the Revised Edition, The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave, Related by Herself, by Mary Prince (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1997) 1-51; Anne Mellor, "‘Am I not a Woman, and a Sister?’: Slavery, Romanticism, and Gender," Romanticism, Race, and Imperial Culture, 1780-1834, ed. Alan Richardson (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1996) 311-29; Jenny Sharpe, "A Very Troublesome Woman." Ghosts of Slavery: A Literary Archaeology of Black Women's Lives (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2003) 120-52; Gillian Whitlock, "Volatile Subjects: The History of Mary Prince," Genius in Bondage: Literature of the Early Black Atlantic, eds. Vincent Carretta and Philip Gould (Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 2001) 72-86; Gillian Whitlock, "Autobiography and Slavery: Believing the History of Mary Prince." The Intimate Empire: Reading Women's Autobiography (London: Cassell, 2000) 8-29. BACK

[5] Mary Prince, The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave, Related by Herself, ed. Moira Ferguson (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1997) 71-2. Hereafter cited parenthetically. BACK

[6] Morton, Timothy, "Blood Sugar," Romanticism and Colonialism: Writing and Empire, 1780-1830, eds. Tim Fulford and Peter J. Kitson (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998) 87-106. BACK

[7] "Salt Industry," Turks and Caicos Islands National Museum, 3 June 2007 par. 3. All parenthetical citations for information provided by the Turks and Caicos Island National Museum refer to the text posted electronically on their webpage, and the numbers provided as citations from this source reflect paragraph numbers in place of page numbers. BACK

[8] Paul Gilroy notes how England’s cultural imagination has been shaped traditionally by those populations that have been largely excluded or deemed to be outsiders. He writes, “The fact that some of the most potent conceptions of Englishness have been constructed by alien outsiders like Carlyle, Swift, Scott, or Eliot should augment the note of caution sounded here. The most heroic subaltern English nationalism and counter cultural patriotisms are perhaps better understood as having been generated in a complex pattern of antagonistic relationships with the supra-national and imperial world for which the ideas of ‘race,’ nationality and national culture provide primary (though not the only) indices.” Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge: Harvard UP 1993) 11. BACK