I love Black History Month. Every year I learn something I didn’t know, some achievement that’s been lost in the whitewashing of history – or even in the whitewashing of current affairs.
|A more enlightened age...?
To which I’m inclined to say a very rude word. Manda Scott’s fabulous post about early Christian acceptance of same-sex marriages has already pointed out that in some ways we were more enlightened in the past than we are now. We tend to assume that the march of civilisation has always been one of progress, but is that really always true? In women’s rights, for instance, is Iran in 2012 better than the Persia of 1960? In human rights, is 21st century America better than the 18th century Europe that consigned judicial torture to the dustbin of history? Sometimes, I’m afraid, we regress.
As a white-privileged writer from a country with an appallingly imperial past, I never thought this would apply to any aspect of racism – until I started my second Crimean novel and came across the life of Mary Seacole.
In 2004 Mary Seacole was voted the Greatest Black Briton of all time. There’s no room here for a proper study, but in simple terms she was a mixed-race Jamaican woman who learned herbal and folk medicine from her mother, and used it to transform the lives of the sick. When she was turned down for Florence Nightingale’s nursing mission, she funded her own expedition to the Crimea with a business partner and set up her famous ‘British Hotel’ at Spring Hill near Balaklava.
What she did there is heartbreakingly wonderful. She was supposed to make her living by selling home comforts to the soldiers – but if they hadn’t the money she often gave it to them anyway. Like her Russian counterpart, ‘Dasha of Sevastopol’, she would take medicines and dressings out onto the battlefield to treat the men as they lay – but Mary Seacole tended Russian and British alike. Her heart was open to any sick man, and the French chef Alexis Soyer described her greeting newly-arrived patients with open arms and a bellow of ‘Who is my new son?’ The soldiers in turn called her ‘Mother Seacole’, or often just ‘Mother’ or ‘Mama’. They loved her, and it’s not for nothing that the 2005 Channel 4 documentary about her was entitled ‘The Real Angel of the Crimea’.
|Contemporary engraving in Punch
Yet it’s only in the last ten years that I’d even heard of her. White upper class Florence Nightingale, yes – but Mary Seacole who? It looks like a classic case of historical whitewashing, and the popular narrative concerning her now is of a woman who fought and triumphed over racial oppression all her life. That certainly was what I expected, and I turned to my research with the patronising zeal of a white writer determined not to repeat racist mistakes of the past.
And I was wrong. Mary Jane Seacole was an astoundingly strong woman who doesn’t need my patronage or anyone else’s, and would have been appalled to hear herself described as a victim. That, of course, needn’t mean she wasn’t one, and when I read her autobiography, ‘The Wonderful Adventures of Mary Seacole in Many Lands’, I naturally pounced on the evidence of racism in the rejection of her offers to go and help in the Crimea. The War Office turned her down, so did Florence Nightingale’s companions, and even the Crimean Relief Fund gave her a polite refusal. Mary describes crying in the street after this last, wondering if it is in fact her colour that has caused her to be rejected.
So far so predictable – until we look more closely. Her book may have been ghost-written and was certainly heavily edited, but the sentiments are presumably her own, and this is what she actually wrote: ‘Doubts rose in my mind for the first and last time, thank Heaven. Was it possible that American prejudices against colour had some root here? Did these ladies shrink from accepting my aid because my blood flowed beneath a somewhat duskier skin than theirs?’ At this time she’d have been nearly fifty – yet this was the first time she’d even questioned the possibility of racism in Britain. Is that likely to be the case with a black woman today?
Mary’s autobiography consistently presents a Britain in which racism was not a significant problem – although she feared it might become so in the future. It’s true it was never in her interest to criticize the country on which her welfare depended, but the claim is still, I think, worth investigating. Was the Britain of 1854 genuinely less racist than it was later to become?
|The Rosa Parks of 1852?
I’m not experienced in race matters, but I’m inclined to agree with Dr Kathleen Chater that our perception of British racial history is muddied by conflating it with America’s. Mary certainly made no bones about the difference – especially when in 1852 she took an American ship back to Jamaica instead of waiting for an English one.
The American ladies refused to have her in the saloon, their children spat in her servant’s face, and when an Englishman remonstrated and advised Mary to sit wherever she liked, the stewardess said, ‘If the Britishers is so took up with coloured people, that’s their business; but it won’t do here.’
|Spot the middle trumpeter on the right...
That was the world as Mary Seacole knew it. The product of a mixed marriage herself, she married a white man rumoured to be the illegitimate son of Nelson and Lady Hamilton, and never seems to have encountered the slightest difficulty about it. Prejudice may well have played a part in her rejection by Florence Nightingale’s mission, but as Gretchen Gerzina points out in ‘Black England: Life Before Emancipation’, prejudice in those times was more likely to be down to class than colour. Sternly well-bred Miss Nightingale wanted a very particular kind of woman for her nurses, and Mary was far from the only one rejected. Even the third heroic British Crimean nurse, Welshwoman Betsi Cadwaladr, was accepted against Florence Nightingale’s will. There may well have been a bar, but it wasn’t necessarily one of colour.
We still shouldn’t whitewash, and there were (and are) many ways in which racism can be practised within the law. Mary may have escaped the brunt of it because of her mixed race, but a darker friend was subjected to insult on the streets of London itself. There’s also an insidiously poisonous tone of assumed superiority, and even Soyer who admired Mary so much describes her gratingly as ‘several shades duskier than the lily’. No-one can or should pretend there was anything like racial equality in 19th century Britain.
|Mary Seacole's meeting with Alexis Soyer
But neither is there now, and to some extent British racism in the 20th century was worse than in the 19th. Many of us have heard of white elderly patients in hospital frightened to be tended by a black nurse or doctor, but that problem simply didn’t exist in the Crimea. Mary Seacole was a woman. Sick soldiers confused her with their wife or mother, and the difference in colour meant nothing at all.
Nor was theirs merely a love born of necessity, and when Mary returned bankrupt from the Crimea it was her white ‘sons’ who rallied round to save her. A special Seacole Benefit Fund was set up, and her growing list of patrons and supporters expanded to include senior military commanders from the Crimea as well as the Dukes of Wellington, Newcastle, Edinburgh and Cambridge – and the Prince of Wales. On her death in 1881 her estate was valued at over £2,500.
|Bust by Henry Weekes
This doesn’t quite fit the official story of racial oppression and neglect. In her lifetime she was celebrated alongside Florence Nightingale herself – poems were written about her, portraits painted, and in 1859 this bust of her was sculpted by Henry Weekes. It’s only after her death that we see her memory fade, and the star of Florence Nightingale eclipse Mary’s in the history books. If this is down to racism, then it’s a racism of the 20th century, not the 19th.
But there may be other reasons for the imbalance too. Mary Seacole brought sunshine into the lives of everyone who met her, but the sterile light of Florence Nightingale’s lamp illuminated generations not yet born. Her notions of hygiene and discipline changed the nursing profession for ever, and (as the spread of superbugs in modern hospitals can testify) we dismiss those ideas at our peril. In the strict march of medical progress, Nightingale’s legacy is ultimately greater than Seacole’s, and it would be a shame if praise of one of these two great women were automatically seen as denigration of the other.
That’s not to say that Mary Seacole wasn’t a scientist. She explored new cures for cholera and yellow fever, she even performed a post-mortem on a baby who died of cholera, and to dismiss her as a kind of cosy Mammy figure would be as inaccurate as it is offensive. But I hope it’s fair to say that the history of social change encompasses humanity as well as science, and Mary was a pioneer in more than herbal and tropical medicine.
She really was. There’s little to praise in her white acquaintances ‘not being racist’ – but the astonishing fact is that Mary wasn’t either. She admits to prejudice against Americans, especially ladies of those States that still practised slavery, but ‘if any of them came to me sick and suffering… I forgot everything, except that she was my sister and it was my duty to help her.’ It’s easy for me to type those words, but when I think what level of forgiveness would be required for Mary to think them then it takes my breath away.
She wasn’t a saint, and she took a definite pride in the lightness of her own complexion, but she told the Americans she’d have been happy to have skin ‘dark as any nigger’s’, and I believe her. She was not above making slighting remarks about Indians she met in Panama, and she called her servant by the cringeworthy name of ‘Jew Johnny’ – but had they ever fallen ill then both Jew and Indians would have been her sons. Mary’s world was one best described in the words of another great black historical figure – Dr Martin Luther King Jr:
'I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.'
Mary Seacole never expressed that dream. She lived her life as if it were already reality, and for those whose lives she touched, it came true. If her life and example can inspire others to follow it to the rainbow’s end, then she won’t just be the ‘Greatest Black Briton’, she’ll be one of the greatest human beings of all time.
A L Berridge's website is here.
She'd love to link you to her second Crimean novel, but unfortunately she's still finishing it.