Windham Life and Times – February 11, 2022

The Story of Nancy Gardner Prince 1799-1859 Part II

-MARRIED– In Boston, by the Rev. Thomas Paul at the African Church, Mr. Nero Prince, Chief Butler to the Emperor of all the Russia, to Miss Nancy Gardner, of Salem. Both persons of colour and dressed in Russian costume. As you read this, please remember this is an African-American couple travelling in 1824 through Europe.

     Nancy Gardner’s early life was consumed with taking care of both her mother and her siblings. “…after seven years of anxiety and toil I made up my mind to leave my country. September 1, 1823, Mr. Prince arrived from Russia February 15th, 1824, we were married, April 14th.” We embarked on board the Romulus, captain Epes Sargent commander, bound for Russia. May 24th, arrived at Elsinore (Denmark), left the same day for Copenhagen, where we remained twelve days. We visited the king’s palace, and several other extensive and beautiful buildings. We attended a number of entertainments, among the Danes and English, who were religious; observed their manners and customs were similar; they are attentive to strangers; the Sabbath is strictly observed; the principle religion is Lutheran and Calvinistic, but all persuasions are tolerated.  The languages are Dutch, French, and English. The Danes are very modest and kind, but like other nations, they know how to take advantage.”

     “We left Copenhagen the 7th of June, and arrived at Cronstadt on the 19th; left there the 21st for St. Petersburg, and in a few hours, we were happy to find ourselves at our place of destination, through the blessing of God, in good health, and soon made welcome from all quarters. We took lodgings with Mrs. Robinson, a native of our country, who was Patience Mott, of Providence, who left here in the year 1813, in the family of Alexander Gabriel, the man who was taken for Mr. Prince. There I spent six weeks very pleasantly, visiting and receiving friends, in the manner of the country.

     While there I attended two of their parties; there were various amusements in which I did not partake, which caused them much disappointment. I told them my religion did not allow for dancing or dice playing, which formed part of the amusements. As they were very strict in their religion, they indulged me in the same privilege. By the help of God I was ever enabled to preserve my stand.”

    “Mr. Prince was born in Marlborough, and lived in families in this city. In 1810, he went to Gloucester, and sailed with captain Theodore Stanwood, for Russia. He returned with him, and remained in his family, and at this time visited at my mother’s. He sailed with Captain Stanwood in 1812, for the last time. The Captain took with him his son Theodore, in order to place him in School in St. Petersburg. When the Captain sailed home, Mr. Prince went to serve the Princess Purtossof, one of the noble ladies of the Court. The palace where the royal family reside is called the court, or seat of government. This magnificent building is adorned with all the ornaments that possibly can be explained; there are hundred of people that inhabit it, besides the soldiers that guard it. There are several of these splendid edifices in the city and vicinity. The one I was presented in, was three miles from the city. After leaving the carriage, we entered the first ward; where the usual salutation by the guards was performed. As we passed through the beautiful hall, a door was opened by two colored men in official dress. The Emperor Alexander, stood on his throne, in his royal apparel. The throne is circular, elevated two steps from the floor, and covered with scarlet velvet, tasseled with gold; as I entered, the Emperor stepped forward with great politeness condescension, and welcomed me, and asked several questions; he then accompanied us to the Empress Elizabeth; she stood in dignity, and received me in the same manner the Emperor had. They presented me with a watch and other gifts. It was customary in those days, when anyone married, belonging to the court, to present them with gifts, according to their standard; there was no prejudice against color; there were there all castes, and the people of all nations, each in their place.”

    The number of colored men that filled this station were twenty (royal guards). When one dies, the number is immediately made up. Mr. Prince filled the place of one that had died. They serve in turns, four at a time, except on some great occasions, when all are employed. Provision is made for the families within or without the palace. Those without go to court at 8 o’clock in the morning; after breakfasting, they take their station in the halls, for the purpose of opening the doors, at signal given, when the Emperor and Empress pass.”

     “The earliest we hear of Americans of African descent in Russia occurs in the late 1700s when unnamed black sailors, common on American ships sailing abroad then, were mentioned as members of the crews whose vessels docked at Russian ports. In 1809, a manservant known simply as “Nelson” accompanied the family of future U.S. President John Quincy Adams when he traveled to St. Petersburg as U. S. Ambassador. A year later, Adams permitted Nelson to be employed in the service of Czar Nicholas I along with Alexander Gabriel, an AWOL ship’s cook whom the czar impulsively plucked out of a crowd in the Baltic port city of Kronstadt.” “In the Russian Empire, blacks were neither enslaved nor suffered discrimination. Furthermore, the costume of the Moors of the Imperial Court was the most sumptuous of all the court uniforms under the tsars. Russia didn’t have black slaves, or slaves of any kind, for that matter. (I have to object; serfs were little more than slaves.) All the labor needs of the ruling class were met through a system known as serfdom (unlike slaves, serfs owned property and were subjects under law). So, the first black people in Russia performed a different function – they were seen as an object of wonder, a curiosity and something exotic from overseas. The black imperial servants were known as “Araps” based on “Arab” or Moor.

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