Whitewashing black historical figures demeans us all

Illustration by Jonty Clark

When the Jamaican-born nurse Mary Seacole returned to London at the end of the Crimean War, she cut a sadly reduced figure. Pursued by creditors, she was declared bankrupt in November 1856. What happened next, however, should make us rethink our lazy clichés of Victorian racism. Once her plight reached the ears of the national press, money poured in.

The following July, 11 military bands and some 40,000 people attended a Seacole Fund Grand Military Festival at the Royal Surrey Gardens, among them some of the most prominent officers in Britain. By the 1870s she was a national hero, her bust exhibited in the Royal Academy. When she died in 1881, she was granted an obituary in The Times.

Seacole’s disappearance from our public memory is often blamed on British racism: in his novel The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie evokes “Mary Seacole, who did as much in the Crimea as another magic-lamping lady, but, being dark, could scarce be seen for the flame of Florence’s candle”. Actually, I wonder whether racism was really the key factor. Very few historical characters linger in the public consciousness after their deaths. And since Florence Nightingale, whose School for Nurses unarguably left a more lasting legacy, already has such a hold on our imagination, perhaps it is hardly surprising that there was not much room for Mary Seacole.

The picture these days, however, is very different. Mary Seacole is not just well-known; she is well on her way to becoming a cliché. The NHS has a Seacole prize and the Home Office has a Seacole building. There are Seacole university buildings at Brunel, Salford, Birmingham City, Thames Valley and De Montfort; her story is taught in the National Curriculum, and there will soon be a statue in the centre of London. I imagine that other black women may well have had noteworthy achievements of their own. But we never hear about them, because Mary Seacole utterly dominates the market.

One of the many ironies of Seacole’s canonisation is that she was not, in her own view, black. The daughter of a white Scottish officer and a Jamaican Creole woman, she explained in her autobiography: “I am a Creol[e], and have good Scots blood coursing through my veins. My father was a soldier of an old Scottish family.” She described her own complexion as ‘yellow’, and ‘only a little brown’. And while modern television producers like to cast her as a heroine to Florence Nightingale’s repressed Victorian dominatrix, the reality was rather more complicated. When Seacole faced bankruptcy, Nightingale sent money anonymously. And Seacole certainly held her in high regard, writing of “that Englishwoman whose name shall never die, but sound like music on the lips of British men until the hour of doom”.

Given the clear symptoms – the university buildings, the academic enthusiasm, the uncritical adoration – it does not take a Crimean War nurse to diagnose a bad case of Mandela Syndrome. Mary Seacole, to put it bluntly, has been turned into a saint, taking her place beside the former South African president in the pantheon of black heroes.

Of course Nelson Mandela’s case is even worse; as if being locked up on Robben Island was not bad enough, he has been turned into a prop for endless photo opportunities with celebrities, and even had to endure the indignity of being commended on Match of the Day by Alans Shearer and Hansen. Apartheid, Hansen told World Cup viewers, was a “fundamentally flawed” system, not unlike West Bromwich Albion’s defence.

It is possible, I suppose, that the west’s lamentable history of slavery, segregation and racial prejudice makes it inevitable that black heroes are now treated in such a cloying and patronising way. Hoisted onto pedestals, they are turned into saintly figures, stripped of the flaws and complications that make us human. To my mind, awareness of Mandela’s faults – his indulgence of corruption, his closeness to the diamond industry, his tolerance of the grotesque Robert Mugabe, to name but three – is no obstacle to appreciating his enormous accomplishments. But then I also have a soft spot for Florence Nightingale, so what do I know?

  • Article Type: | Blog |
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