British Library Exhibition Features 18th-Century British Black Writers

The History of Mary Prince (1831) Wikimedia Commons

The History of Mary Prince (1831)
Wikimedia Commons

The British Library‘s exhibition West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song explores the literature and music of seventeen West African nations spanning from the Middle Ages to the twenty-first century. Dr. Marion Wallace, co-curator of the exhibition, gives an overview of the writers included in the exhibition in her article “Crossings: African Writers in the Era of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.” Over six million West Africans were captured, enslaved, and shipped along the Middle Passage between the fifteenth and the nineteenth centuries. Accordingly, the exhibition features eighteenth-century British Black writers’ works that responded to the transatlantic slave trade, such as Olaudah Equiano‘s (c. 1745-1797) The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789) and Mary Prince‘s (1788-1833) The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave Related by Herself (1831).

Prince’s History, dictated to Susanna Moodie (born Strickland) (1803-1885), is of particular interest because it was the first published slave narrative by a woman and remains the only known autobiographical account of a woman enslaved in the British West Indies. Prince details the brutalities she faced as an enslaved woman, both physical and emotional, confirming the treatment of enslaved African women about which Equiano writes in his autobiography. Like Equiano’s autobiography, Prince’s History tremendously impacted the campaign to end slavery. Women abolitionists cited Prince’s account to speak against the ways slavery destroyed the domestic lives of black women. Thomas Pringle (1789-1834), Secretary to the Anti-Slavery Society and Prince’s editor, also used Prince’s descriptions of suffering to pressure Parliament toward the abolition of slavery. Readers interested in this eighteenth-century woman writer and other writers who influenced the abolition of slavery can view their texts at the British Library’s West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song exhibition through February 16, 2016.

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