The trouble with Mrs Seacole


According to various reports (here’s one), Education Secretary Michael Gove wants to remove Mary Seacole from the National Curriculum.

So far, so predictable. Like most other Tories, Gove believes that school history lessons should be about Kings and Queens and the British Empire and probably the speeches of Winston Churchill and other great men (and not many women).

Actually, kids should spend more time learning about kings and queens as it’s the easiest way for them to get a sense of chronology, which is the single most important thing kids need to get from school history. They should also learn about the British empire; the empire helps explain to kids why their classmates’ ethnic origins are from all over the world.

This probably isn’t how a bumptious Tory minister would see it, though.

History teaching hasn’t been very well served by the left/liberals either. School history’s obsession with Nazis is particularly cowardly; we can all agree that Nazis were, like, evil, and we mustn’t let it happen again, right? Well yeah, but most of history isn’t nearly so clear-cut and simple. Teaching Hitler again and again is a disgraceful cop-out. Way easier than, say, the empire, or the British civil wars.

Mary Seacole is a different problem. A few years ago one of my children came home from primary school and announced that the teacher has said Mrs Seacole was a far more historically important figure than Florence Nightingale.

Oh dear.

Mrs Seacole is not a figure of any historical significance in the conventional sense. She didn’t start or lead any movement, wasn’t involved in politics, never had any power over anything, didn’t invent or innovate anything.

Florence Nightingale, on the other hand, was a pioneering feminist and social reformer who was hugely influential throughout her life. The effectiveness of her nursing in the Crimea is disputed, but she did more than anyone else to establish nursing as a secular profession. She also deserves more recognition for her ground-breaking use of statistics. She succeeded of course because she was a white woman from a wealthy background with personal access to the great and good. Sorry, but that’s how it was.

In summary: Mary Seacole, nee Grant (1805-1881) was born in Kingston, Jamaica, the daughter of a white British army officer and a creole mother. She had a huge appetite for adventure and travelled extensively. During the Crimean War (1854-56) she travelled to the war zone and opened a restaurant and eating house, catering for the troops, with extensive stocks of posh grub and booze for the officers. Following various battles she tended to wounded men and after she ended up penniless at the war’s end, they clubbed together to raise money for her back at home.

Seacole has been bigged up in some circles as a pioneering nurse. On the right wing of the argument, she’s a person of no importance who wasn’t, ahem, even properly black.

Actually read her memoir for the racial prejudice she encountered from Americans for being even slightly black. This was a woman who knew all about racism.

What’s curious is that both the pro- and anti-Seacole factions both display a massive lack of understanding of what she actually was, and the context in which she lived. This is also clear from her memoirs. (Get them from Project Gutenberg).

Any military historian can set you right on this, too.

Mary Seacole was one of those female camp-followers who were known at various times as sutlers or victuallers. A person who follows the army and makes a living supplying soldiers with food, drink, tobacco and other small luxuries. During the very unusual periods when there were large numbers of casualties, they often mucked in and helped to nurse injured men.

In the French army they were known as vivandières or cantinières and by the time of the Crimean war they even had their own uniforms. Time and again, captions to Roger Fenton’s photos of these French women describe them as nurses. They were not. They were one-woman convenience stores.

Mary Seacole was the same, only on a larger scale. But she did also nurse the wounded, and did have some knowledge of traditional and herbal remedies which she had learned from her mother. Thanks to her nursing and her restaurant, the soldiers thought she was wonderful and she became a minor celebrity back in Britain after the war’s end.

You can see how she’s emerged from obscurity in recent years. If you’re of African-Caribbean heritage it’s great to have an actual Jamaican heroine who’s not in some way connected with slavery. You don’t want your entire history defined by slavery, do you?

If you want to remove her from the National Curriculum, preumably you believe – as most Tories undoubtedly do – that the proper study of history is of kings and queens and past glories and great men and women.

There is another way of coming at it, though, and that’s to say that the study of history should equally be about individuals of all ranks, colours and classes in the context of their own times. In that sense, Seacole’s remarkable adventures, her undoubted courage and her larger-than-life personality make her a good hook to hang all manner of social, sexual, racial and political history on. This was a strong woman of great character who made her way in a man’s world.

You can’t teach kids a lot of history in schools. The best you can hope to do is to give them a sense of chronology and to fire up their enthusiasm with some good stories, and Seacole’s story is a good one. Keep her on the curriculum if you want, but please don’t tell my kids (or anyone else’s) that she had a greater influence on history than Florence Nightingale. It is her very ordinariness that makes her remarkable and interesting.


History Today ran an authoritative attack on the modern Seacole industry a few months ago here.

Operation Black Vote have a very sensible piece about the controversy here.

Aaaannd there’s an online petition to keep her on the curriculum here.


5 Responses to “The trouble with Mrs Seacole”

  1. The trouble with history is not so much the people studied as the people who want to use the people studied to illustrate their own particular agenda.

  2. Very interesting post. Yes, this is in part about Great Man v Social Forces theories, which is in itself very good subject matter for history lessons, a bit of reflexivity is always useful. Why oh why do the nice-thinking left always go overboard and get pulled into setting up the opposite extreme to the lack-brains on the right? They just make their own position look stupid.

    One reason schools keep teaching Hitler over is because of targets. They figure that if they teach the same thing twice that pupils (or are they clients these days?) then can’t fail to hit the targets set by govt. Expectations of young people are so dismally low now. My feeling is that youngsters could learn exponentially more if things were done in a completely different way. More enjoyable for a start. But then maybe schools wouldn’t turn out the “work-ready units” that are what modern fashion demands.

  3. HI Eugene, Entertaining, as usual. They say history is the questions that the present asks about the past and Mary Seacole’s story came to prominence at a time when teachers were looking for female exemplars and, as you said, she hit all the buttons. If she hadn’t left an ‘autobiography’ for us to read, she would never have been heard of again but her writings are sufficiently lively and her point of view sufficiently interesting to hit the button marked ‘source material’. As you and others mention, this is how history is taught to young people: via unfortunate individuals who tend to be stripped of their complexity and reduced to a basket of ‘questions’ about race, gender, class, power, politics etc. If today’s academics/teachers were discovering Seacole for the first time, maybe the paradigm would be different. Much would be made of her extremely Conservative and Imperialist values, for example. Anyway, social and feminist history tends to be about questions of power rather than lives of the power-ful, doesn’t it?

  4. 4 thebristolblogger

    Michael Gove has had the best education money can buy. He learned about kings and empire and he’s now extremely influential and powerful.

    My children will get a comprehensive education and will be encouraged to “celebrate diversity” by a load of liberal lefties who had a comprehensive education themselves and are not in the slightest bit influential or powerful outside of the local (poorly attended) NUT branch.

    I think I know what’s best for my kids.

  5. Mary Seacole Memorial Statue Appeal [ ] – click on this link if you are interested in supporting the campaign to have a statue of Mary Seacole in central London by donating online to the appeal, which is a registered charity. Thank you for your support!

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