Mary Seacole Must Stay!
Sir W. H Russell, Crimean War correspondent for The Times, said of Seacole: "Let England not forget one who nursed her sick, who sought out her wounded to aid and succour them, and who performed the last offices for some of her illustrious dead."
IT sometimes seems as though I'm asked to sign new online petitions every day, on subjects of varying importance, sometimes relying on one's general goodwill to say things which don't necessary follow, or offering background information that's either insufficient or suspect. Life is too short to bother with them all.
When I first read that "The Government is proposing to remove Mary Seacole from the National Curriculum", I was half inclined to doubt it, though with that Michael Gove in charge of Education, and this government taking away other things we might have thought sacrosanct...Anyway, I signed as a matter of principle, to say "We are opposed to this and wish to see Mary Seacole retained so that current and future generations can appreciate this important historical person".
It seemed only yesterday that I was asked to sign something, not online but in person, calling for Mary Seacole's recognition, and I have the badge to prove it. But now there is a vicious campaign against this woman, and something worse behind it.
Mary Seacole, a Jamaican woman, who became a heroine for nursing troops in the Crimean War, was used to facing prejudice in her time. Though some now say that on account of her Scottish and Creole ancestry, she "wasn't really Black", as though racists carry a colour chart, she was dark enough to have been refused passage on an American ship, and to be rebuffed by the War Office when she turned up with letters of recommendation from doctors in Jamaica and Panama.
Hundreds of soldiers were dying in the Crimea from diseases like cholera, more than from enemy action. They were ill-clothed and poorly fed. The hospitals were insanitary and understaffed. Though Florence Nightinngale was sent out with volunteers to improve things,Mary Seacole had to raise her own resources to go out and set up her "British Hotel" to treat sick and wounded, and cater for convalescents.
The Special Correspondent of The Times newspaper wrote approvingly of her work: "...Mrs. Seacole...doctors and cures all manner of men with extraordinary success. She is always in attendance near the battle-field to aid the wounded, and has earned many a poor fellow’s blessings."
On her return to Britain in Mary was recognised as a heroine by the army and the public, and thousands of people attended a fundraising benefit in her honour in 1857. It seems to have only been in later years that her name faded, while that of Florence Nightingale was elevated to the national pantheon, As imperialism reached its hight racial assumptions became the norm, and in the history we were taught there was no place for black people.
Not until modern times, when women and black people began challenging assumptions and reopening the books, revealing the inadequacy or downright bias of what we were taught, did things start to change. Immigration produced a new generation of black schoolkids and students to wonder where they and families came into the story. People watching the fight for civil rights and equality in the United States began to realise we in Britain had no right to feel smugly superior. Teachers and educationalists felt emboldened to rebel against passing on prejudice.
In 2005, Boris Johnson (now Mayor of London, then editor of The Spectator) wrote of learning about Seacole from his daughter's school pageant and speculated: "I find myself facing the grim possibility that it was my own education that was blinkered."
Key Stage 2 National Curriculum, as an example of a significant Victorian historical figure. There is no requirement that teachers include Seacole in their lessons.
But even this limited recognition is too much for today's reactionaries. It was reported at the end of last year that Mary Seacole was to be removed from the National Curriculum. We might note incidentally that the more Tories like Gove talk of "free schools" and local initiaves, the more they want to dictate what is taught, and how it is taught, and as in this case, what our children should be kept ignorant about.
As the petitioners for this black heroine say: "Her proposed removal can only be attributed to a recent backlash against Mary Seacole as a symbol of 'political correctness' by Right-wing media and commentators". And that is putting it mildly.
In the forefront of the campaign against Mary Seacole, perhaps appropriately for a newspaper whose own history wasn't of supporting blacks but of supporting Blackshirts, is the Daily Mail columnist Peter Hitchens. If you believe him, the Crimean war nurse was only conjured up by "multiculture fanatics" out to do down the reputation of white Florence Nightingale and the British Empire. We are responsible it seems not only for poor history education but declining nursing standards. And in case you are in doubt, Hitchens slips in a reference to "our rulers", implying that Con Dem government or not, rightwingers like him are bravely resisting the dictatorship of lefties and liberals who are running our schools, and brainwashing kids, by rewriting history.
It is a familiar trick from Goebbels through to other far Rightists, and America's "Tea Party" and Gun Lobby. And Hitchens' hate screed is good enough reason to sign this petition and take this issue seriously.
As the petitioners say, "to remove Mary Seacole from the National Curriculum is tantamount to rewriting history to fit a worldview hostile to Britain's historical diversity". They argue that "the teaching of Black historical figures is widely recognised to be beneficial to the success of Black pupils and in closing the GCSE achievement gap. Indeed it is to advantage of pupils from all backgrounds in our increasingly diverse schools and society".
And to the advantage of the public, who might otherwise have to depend on bigoted newspapers.