Posted on December 17, 2009

Mary Seacole Update

Rod Liddle, Spectator (London), December 14, 2009

Shocking news–a big concert to raise money for the Mary Seacole Statue Appeal last week was cancelled at short notice, no reason given. I’ve tried to find out why from the Mary Seacole cheerleader-in-chief, Mrs Elizabeth Anionwu, but have not heard back from her yet. But still, on the positive side, a “miniature locomotive” in Reading was recently named after Ms Seacole, and an infants school in Hackney have performed a musical celebration of her life. There has been an official wreath laying at her grave, the opening of a new Mary Seacole extension to a school, Coutts Bank–the bank of choice for all African-Caribbean people–has held a display of pictures of Mary Seacole and a new photograph of Mary Seacole has been unveiled at a museum.

There’s also an extremely good piece about Mary Seacole by a chap called Tony Sewell in The Voice. Mr Sewell confesses that he is utterly mystified at the championing of this lady who helped out during the Crimean War. He says:

“I find our desperation to win the arm wrestle with Florence Nightingale a sad case of ‘black histrionics’. We want black heroes and heroines at any cost. We read what we want in Mary Seacole’s life and carefully miss some key facts.”

Among those key facts, according to Sewell, was that she did not have much time for “niggers”, took no notice of the issues of racial equality and was a sort of “Katie Price” of her age. It would be better, he says, to erect a statue to a bunch of black Peckham schoolkids who pass their GCSEs. Needless to say, Sewell is taking a bit of a battering for this on The Voice website, but he could not have summed up the case more eloquently–especially the last point. And I don’t suppose I am helping his case much by agreeing with him. But my argument is the same as Sewell’s–the championing of Mary Seacole is stupid, patronizing and knee-jerk political correctness which actually, in the end, devalues the contribution of black people to this nation’s history. Seacole has become British History’s token black; she is the modern equivalent of the situation comedy Love Thy Neighbour.

It is not her fault, of course, but Seacole’s position in the curriculum is misleading to schoolkids–who now view her as the key figure from the nineteenth century–and insulting to both whitey and darkie.

[Editor’s Note: Wikipedia’s biography of Mary Seacole can be read here.]

THERE IS much fanfare and noise about Mary Seacole, with a tribute concert to raise money for a memorial statue. But the reality is that Mary Seacole was the Katie Price of her day–an avid self-publicist who wanted fame but had little interest in racial politics.

I find our desperation to win the arm wrestle with Florence Nightingale a sad case of ‘black histrionics’. We want black heroes and heroines at any cost. We read what we want in Mary Seacole’s life and carefully miss some key facts.

In her biography on the Crimean War nurse, author Jane Robinson says of Mary Seacole’s autobiography Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands:

“What disturbs many modern readers most about the book is Mary’s refusal to identify more fully with her African heritage. . . she chose to ignore her black ancestry, even going so far on several occasions as to share in print British and American society’s pervasive prejudice towards ‘ni***rs’.”

So, there we have it, the most popular black hero in the UK would refer to her darker people as ‘ni***rs’. And she wasn’t doing it like some rap star hailing his bredrin. Here was a light-skinned woman who would never want to socialise with the black masses. An attitude that still continues in modern Jamaica.

The irony about Mary Seacole was that she managed to transcend race. In her autobiography, she writes: ‘I shall make no excuse to my readers for giving them a pretty full history of my struggles to become a Crimean heroine!’

Some will argue that she was a child of her time, who spoke in the context of Britain in a Victorian age. That said it is not Mary who should be blamed but her followers, who are determined to give her a black makeover.

How did the debate to make Seacole a black hero ever begin? I can imagine some black nationalist sitting down wanting to play a game of black and white chess. ‘So’, he says, ‘they’ve got Florence Nightingale, we will checkmate the Babylon conspirators with Mary Seacole’. The nurse who never thought to go to Africa and help take care of the Zulu warriors with their war against the British–instead Seacole went where she could get the highest profile.

No one can deny that Mary Seacole was a great adventurer and a woman who went against the grain of her time. But, I believe she would be alarmed at being remembered as a black icon. In her sub-conscious she was better than the real black masses. She would probably say ‘Put me on the front page of Hello magazine as the greatest nurse that ever lived, but don’t build me a statue that links me to being a black heroine.’

I live half of my life in Jamaica and I quickly realised that Mary Seacole comes from a particular Creole tradition that basically had more privileges than the black folks who cut the cane. There was no way that a black woman who looked like Michelle Obama would be able to go on adventures across the globe in the early nineteenth century.

In many ways this kind of privilege has influenced modern Jamaica, where race is not mentioned but the ideal of ‘brown girl in the ring’ remains. This is not to say that those who are Creole have not fought hard for the liberation of black people. However, there is no evidence that Mary Seacole had any sympathy for the plight of the black masses, who were suffering just as badly as any white soldier in the Crimean War.

Instead, let’s raise some money for a statue of a group of black boys from Peckham who have done well in their GCSE exams: now that would be a fitting memorial.