Nancy Gardner was born on September 15th, 1799 in Newburyport. She was the granddaughter of a captured African slave named Tobias Wornton, who also fought in the Revolutionary army. At the age of three months, her father Thomas Gardner, who also had African roots, died. When Nancy was young, she worked as a servant for white families or sold berries with her brother to support the family. She worked in Boston for several years, where she tried to stay afloat financially through hard work. On September 1st, 1823 she met the sailor Nero Prince, when he arrived in Boston. One year later, on February 14th, they both got married and moved to St. Petersburg. Her connection to god, in particular, also strengthened in Russia, as she also campaigned especially for religious and social reforms (Gunning 35). After she traveled back to the United States, a few months later her husband died, so she wondered what God’s plan was for her after this tragedy. As a result, Nancy Prince worked as a missionary, traveled twice to Jamaica and fought for women’s rights, especially for black slave women (Gunning 35). Nancy Prince also established a free labor school for black orphans, who should have equal rights in education. “Still, despite these efforts and the publication of her autobiography, Prince never seemed able to rise above poverty, and by the year 1857 she disappeared from public notice.” (Gunning 35).
Nancy Prince is her own subject and object of mobility. However, certain parameters of travel, especially religion and her ethnicity determined her journey in a way that made her envisionise a society with diasporic consciousness that lives without discrimination and equal chances in education.
Prince’s mobility was voluntary, however, her motives were drawn by labor and family or later on community. It is notable that in Prince’s lifetime, mobility was mainly asserted by the white population. In Cheryl Fish’s definition, ‘mobile subjectivity’ is described “as subjectivity that emerges in engagements with shifting landscapes, institutions, people and culture, performing serial and multiple identities – in both black and white women’s travel writing.”(Nayar 5). In the light of that definition Prince’s mobility was not only influenced by herself as a character but also by her surroundings. Although she felt that she moved voluntarily, her early travels were not marked by agency. Through her narrative oppression of black people is conveyed (Foster 330). Thus, it becomes her concern to unite Black diasporic people (diasporic meaning that African-descended people, irrespective of the place they currently live in, always identify themselves as African and feel misplaced. As a consequence, they strive to ‘return’ to a place where they feel at home) (Kalous 32 f.). Prince made it her mission to spread awareness towards diaspora and connect people to exchange experiences and fight oppression. To accomplish that task Prince used mobility and made herself the object of it by using agency and the subject of it by acting within her surroundings.
When Prince grew up and felt the urge (maybe the pressure was also set externally) to take financial care of her family, her mobility was constituted by poverty.
“I was a poor stranger, but fourteen years of age, imposed upon by these good people; but I must leave them.”Prince 12
The moment that Prince took matters into her own hands and decided to go somewhere she especially chose to go was the moment that she moved out of agency. She went from poverty and an unhappy childhood to choosing her occupation and living self-determined (Nayar 8f.).
Self-determination and agency are also shown when Prince decided to go after her sister to ‘safe’ her from her unhappy life working as a prostitute. It seems as if not only her sister, but her family, in general, were a great burden. In particular, the men she encountered, such as her step-father, the new husband of her mother, or her brother, for example, who disappointed her by being abusive, being financially demanding, or not caring enough. Prince´ s narrative generally is characterized by negative associations with men (Foster 335).
“[…]but mother chose to marry again; this was like death to us all. George returned home, but was so disappointed that he shipped again to return no more.”Prince 18
However, in her perception, the picture of a functioning family is conveyed when strong men take responsibility for it (Nayar 8 f.). Unlike her family which was not able in using mobility as a tool to become independent and successful, Prince decides to travel for her own sake and the sake of others. Nevertheless, she moves self-determined (Nayar 9 f.). She strives to be different than those men who disappointed her and draws strength from her identity as a woman to be mobile. Her experiences and being female enabled her to act divergent and be responsible. Prince gains full mobility of agency by deciding to travel without depending on her family (Foster 330).
Agency also is provided by the movement to Russia and being married to Nero Prince. In Russia she was free to labor in a field she choose, namely boarding children and making children’s clothes. Her engagement was not gender-stereotypical, nevertheless, it was accepted. To Nancy Prince´ S surprise, also her skin color did not matter in St. Petersburg, because
“there was no prejudice against color; there were there all casts, and the people of all nations, each in their place”Prince 23
During her time in Russia, Prince also came into contact with religious actions that she did not agree with and questioned certain gender- or class-based practices. Realizing that she was not able to change society, especially because of political and social disagreements, Prince decided to move back to the United States. Again, we can detect mobility of agency, because she does not rely on men (her husband for instance) anymore and travels solely for her motives. Back in her home country, Prince tried to implement her plan to help in creating a society with diasporic consciousness. She founded a community that was supposed to take care of African-American children. Unfortunately, the community did not last. Ultimately, she went to Jamaica and found racial and social injustices. This time she decides to do something about it and planned on establishing Free labor schools for girls. In Jamaica Prince also comes into contact with the so-called Maroons. From her perspective, their way of living displays a model of a utopian society whose members are black women and men (former slaves) who are independent and do not need white authorities (Foster 2013). For her, mobility plays a huge role in becoming independent. In Prince´s perception, the help of God also is required to achieve equality and independence.
“I am a wonder unto many, but the Lord is my strong refuge, and in him, I will trust. I shall fear no evil, for thou, O Lord, art ever near to shield and protect thy dependent children.”Prince 87
Throughout the book, Prince often critically questions the ways Christianity is practiced. Through traveling Nancy Prince saw that it is a sad certainty that black and white women do not have equal rights. Especially black women and slaves from Africa in general had to cope with tough situations while travelling across the so called “Middle Passage” which was a trade route for transporting captured Africans who were forced to attain the new World across the Atlantic Ocean. Moreover, also the path as a changer of social reforms can be described as very difficult and nerve wracking based on her narrative. Particularly, God and her faith in it were always by her side and gave her the support that she needed. Of course, obstacles such as discrimination did not make her life any easier, but she published her autobiography to show that she is not only able to work, but is also a traveler, woman, missionary or widow who advocates equal rights and education for everyone.
Andrews, Larry. “TWO BLACK WOMEN IN RUSSIA: TACIT RACIAL IDENTITY AND THE ENTREPRENEURIAL SPIRIT.” CLA Journal, vol. 52, no. 4, 2009, pp. 327–52. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/44325501. Accessed 29 May 2022.
Gunning, Sandra. “Nancy Prince and the Politics of Mobility, Home and Diasporic (Mis)Identification.” American Quarterly, vol. 53, no. 1, 2001, pp. 32–69. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/30041872. Accessed 29 May 2022.
Kalous, Isabel. Black Travel Writing: Contemporary Narratives of Travel to Africa by African American and Black British Authors, transcript Verlag, 2021. pp. 31-48.
Prince, Nancy. A Narrative of The Life And Travels of Mrs. Nancy Prince. WM. A. HALL, 1853.
Cover image: https://www.nps.gov/people/nancy-prince.htm