Alex Massie

Yes, Mary Seacole was Black. So what?

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I confess that until recently I had never heard of Mary Seacole. But, like Boris Johnson, who found himself in this position a few years ago, that reflects poorly on me, not on the redoubtable Seacole.

Brother Liddle says that her inclusion upon new lists of eminent Victorians can only be explained "solely and utterly because she was black". That she was and doubtless that does indeed have something to do with her renewed prominence. But what of it? (I say renewed prominence, incidentally, because it is quite clear that her contemporaries regarded her as a figure of some stature.)

And if she is only remembered today "because she was black" then, who knows, perhaps her disappearance from history for a century or more also had something to do with the colour of her skin. Perhaps not. I don't know. Nor do I much care.

Only a fathead could imagine that there's some kind of competition between Seacole and Florence Nightingale, but only a fathead would assume that it's only legitimate to learn about one of them. Clearly, I think, Nightingale's work in the Crimea was more important than Seacole's. But that doesn't mean the latter's efforts were inconsequential. Besides, her story is interesting for other reasons beyond the ups and downs of what was, by any estimate, a pretty remarkable life.

If Seacole receives more prominence today than might strictly be thought her due then that doesn't seem so very terrible after a century of neglect. Besides, history isn't immutable and, just as novelists drift in and out of fashion, so do historical figures.

Actually, Seacole's story seems worth rescuing from history's bin of discarded celebrities. That's because I don't think it takes too much imagination to appreciate that, taught well, her life has a useful bearing on this moment in British history. (And that's another thing about history: our perception and understanding of it is inevitably informed by present circumstances and concerns.)

Now I'm not, as you may have gathered, black. But it doesn't take much empathy to understand that the story of a half-Scots, half-Creole woman, who became something of a heroine and a celebrity in Britain 150 years ago might be a useful way of helping black (and for that matter asian) kids in inner-city comprehensives appreciate that this island's story is much more multi-coloured and textured than is sometimes appreciated.

Mary Seacole may have been born in Jamaica, but she certainly considered herself British. Her life story - in the Caribbean, Central America and the Crimea - is a useful introduction to questions of Britishness and of Empire, reminding us that both were and are complicated, sometimes contradictory, things. But they were also, at least some of the time and in some ways, inclusive things. That's a useful lesson for our multi-ethnic society to appreciate too.

I daresay that a lot of the time Seacole's subsequent anonymity is explained as the result of prejudice. I'd trust - though I'm not an expert on her - that this isn't the only way the story is approached. Not least because she was honoured in her own time. Bu even if this is all her story is reduced to then one hopes it at least shows kids in inner-city London or Birmingham that a) you can be British and Jamaican or British and Pakistani and b) that race is not an insurmountable obstacle. This too seems a useful lesson. Now obviously there's much more to 19th century British history than Mary Seacole and it would be grotesque if her story was elevated above all others and removed from all context or subject to a too certain 21st century interpretation. But that doesn't mean it can't or shouldn't be a part of the mosaic.

Maybe this is, as Rod suggests, all just a "symbol" of "politically correct stupidity". But I'm not so sure. Here's one reason why. Earlier this week Radio One's Newsbeat interviewed a pair of young BNP supporters. Here's how it went:

Do you think it's OK for people who aren't white in this country to call themselves British?

Joey: Civic-ly British they are. You cannot say they are ethnically British. It's denying our heritage. It's taking that away from us.

At what point do they become ethnically British? How long do they have to be here?

Joey: Well I think it would be an awfully long time before someone would become ethnically British.

So when you see someone like Ashley Cole play for England, are you happy to watch him?

Joey: If he wants to come to this country and he wants to live by our laws, pay into society, that's fine.

But if he wanted to call himself British that would be a problem?

Joey: He cannot say that he's ethnically British.

Why is the idea of races mixing such a bad thing?

Joey: If everybody integrated it would take away everybody's identity.

Mark: I would be upset if there were no more giant pandas, I'd be upset if there were no more lions, if there were no more tigers, so equally I'd be upset if white people weren't here any more.

But we're the same species which makes it a bit different, doesn't it?

Mark: You could say that but if all of a sudden there weren't any sparrows and there were only crows, I'd still be sad there weren't any sparrows.

Can you understand that some people are happy to mix?

Mark: No, I think people have been brainwashed. I think the media, the government, have forced it down people's throats and they've indoctrinated people.

You don't think people are bright enough to decide themselves?

Mark: I think when people are bombarded 24 hours a day to force multiculturalism upon them, people are going to succumb to that. We shouldn't have to bend our ways to people who've been here five minutes.

New Statesman's


"so staggeringly soft, woefully weak and uncritically unchallenging that I feel sick to my stomach"

This is where Mary Seacole's story comes in to bat. Kids who learn about this nineteenth century black Briton and her splendid, even inspiring, story may be less inclined to give the BNP the benefit of the doubt. (Not, admittedly, that I think many of them would anyway.) Because Mary Seacole's story refutes the BNP's propaganda quite effectively. (It refutes the Monday Club too, of course.) The BNP would deny a heroine of the Crimean War her Britishness. Shame on them for doing so. Shame too on yahoos who think that Seacole's story has nothing useful to say today.

This is a complicated country and Britishness is a complicated construct. Seacole's story demonstrates that quite effectively, I think, and so, yes, it's daft to think that teaching her story is simply another example of - harrumph! - political correctness gone mad. (In any case, that's such a lazy formulation that it can do few people much credit.)

Then again, I'm only surprised that Brother Liddle's most recent post on this subject didn't also object to the ghastly prospect of yet another Scottish person's story being imposed upon the English without the English, poor lambs, being given an opportunity to stand athwart the curriculum and shout No.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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