A few interested souls have asked me why the slave-owners of Mary Prince called her Molly. Actually, she went by more names than these two.
The 24 June 1829 petition that abolitionist lawyer George Stephen presented to British Parliament on Prince’s behalf shows that she went by “Mary Prince, or James” (Ferguson 127), but was “commonly called Molly Wood” (127). The surname James is because of her marriage to Daniel James at Christmas 1826.
Spring Gardens Moravian Church, St. John’s, Antigua, Christmas 2011. The church is new, but this is the location where Prince married Daniel James 185 years previous, at Christmas 1826. The cistern in the foreground dates from the Moravian Mission when Prince was a member of the congregation.
As well, Thomas Pringle, the editor of her narrative, pointed out in a useful footnote that the copy of Mrs. Trimmer’s Charity School Spelling Book that she was given by Church of England Rev. Mr. Curtin, dated 30 August 1817, indicated her name to be “Mary, Princess of Wales” (T. Pringle in Prince 84). Pringle elucidates on this, pointing out that colonial slave-owners often gave slaves ridiculous names such as this, and that it underlines their contempt for them. What he didn’t mention (possibly to avoid ruffling the feathers of certain readers) is the contempt for the monarchy that this practice also indicates.
But back to the name Molly.
My reading is that because the first name of several of Prince’s female slave-owners was also Mary, she was given this moniker. First, the brutal wife of Captain I— (Captain John Ingham) was Mary Spencer Ingham (née Albouy). Secondly, the wife of Mr. D— (Robert Darrell) was Mary Darrell (née Ball), and there was a daughter who was also named Mary. Finally, a daughter of John Adams Wood Jr. and his wife Margaret Gilbert Wood (née Albouy) was Mary Caroline Wood. That’s four white female slave-owners—two wives and two daughters—with the name Mary.
Prince was given the moniker Molly to avoid the confusion of having two women with the name Mary living under the same roof. Because Prince was a slave-woman, it was she who took on the moniker. However, it may also have been because one (or more) of the slave-owning women did not want to share her name with a slave-woman.
The first time it is used in the slave narrative is in the Antiguan section when Prince was ill and living in a “little old out-house” (Prince 79). This was at the Wood residence. The Wood family’s cook brought food to Prince, shoving it through the door, and calling out “Molly, Molly, there’s your dinner” (79). Therefore, the Wood family may have pressed the moniker on Prince, or it may have been used before she arrived at Antigua.
I find Prince’s choice of the name Mary Prince compelling. The slave-owning brothers Francis and Daniel Trimingham owned her father Prince, Richard Darrell owned her mother (whom I believe was Dinah), and her last slave-owner was John Adams Wood Jr., yet she chose to take her father’s first name rather than a slave-owner’s surname. This shows agency on her part—by refusing a slave-owner’s name, she resists the institution of slavery.
It also shows, however, that she knows who her father is and that he is Prince. In the case of her own parentage, at least, her choice of Prince for her surname tells us that her mother had not been sexually exploited by a slave-owner, as had so many other slave-women.
Prince, Mary. “The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave, Related by Herself.” In Moira Ferguson (Ed). The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave, Related by Herself. Revised Edition. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1997. 57-94.