Mary Seacole statue

Mary Seacole and the Politics of Writing Black History in 1980s Britain

Mary Seacole, the nineteenth-century Jamaican-Scottish nurse known to many as the “Black Florence Nightingale,” has a complicated history in British public memory. After essentially disappearing for a century after her death, Seacole was “revived” with the republication of her 1857 autobiography by editors Ziggi Alexander and Audrey Dewjee at the feminist Falling Water press in 1984.[1] Since then, Seacole has achieved posthumous celebrity status as a symbol of national pride and multicultural inclusion in the United Kingdom.[2] Across children’s books, musical television specials, literary scholarship, and political movements, Seacole has been commemorated as an alternative figurehead in nursing, a demonstration of silenced Black British histories, and as an icon of “Black and minority ethnic” representation in the modern NHS.[3]

Seacole’s rediscovery in the early 1980s corresponded with the apex of Britain’s Black radical movement, which was fighting to assert the longevity and resilience of Black Britons throughout history.[4] As Seacole became a crucial touchstone for the writing of Black British history, the Black radical movement acted as a cultural and political crucible for Seacole’s evolution as a public figure.

Oil painting.
Mary Jane Seacole (née Grant) (Albert Charles Challen, oil on panel, 1869) / Wikimedia Commons)

From the 1960s to 1980s, the Black radical movement in Britain comprised an expansive network of activists and intellectuals rooted in anticolonial and civil rights traditions, as well as socialist and feminist thought. Inspired by the Black Panther Party in the US, the British Black Panthers (BBP), as explained by core member Neil Kenlock, aimed to educate and empower Black communities to speak out against injustice and discrimination. The BBP was especially focused on Black history as an empowering force for change.

British historian Paul Gilroy has theorized that racism persists and mutates over time because of its capacity to evacuate “historical dimension” from Black lives, stripping them of historical value and agency.[5] The peak of Black radical writing in the 1980s responded to a heightened sense that Black lives in Britain, both past and present, were under siege.[6] Tensions were high in discussions of race and immigration following the British Nationality Act of 1981, the first of many successively more restrictive immigration and nationality laws, and the New Cross Massacre of thirteen Black teenagers the same year.

Simultaneously, Black British histories were threatened by the “heritage boom” occurring in Britain during the 1980s, which centered white-dominated historical narratives and equated whiteness with “Britishness.”[7] Black radical historians and thinkers pushed back, reviving neglected Black histories in ways that reflected the still-fraught realities of Black British life – underscoring that “a properly Black Black history” was one of suffering and, crucially, of resistance.[8] Projects documenting and commemorating Black British history, including the founding of the Black Cultural Archives in 1981, emerged across Britain as a new form of heritage activism.[9]

Only known photograph of Mary Seacole, c. 1873. (Wikimedia Commons)

Mary Seacole became a crucial example of nonwhite experiences and contributions long silenced in British history when she was “rediscovered.” In the preface to their 1982 biography of Seacole, Alexander and Dewjee argued that in Britain’s “multi-racial society and in view of the critical contribution of Black medical staff in the modern Health Service,” it was high time Britain officially acknowledged Mary Seacole’s work.[10]

Writers interrogating white-dominated notions of Englishness and advocating for Black British heritage emphasized the injustice of Seacole’s century-long disappearance from memory, especially considering the challenges she faced as a Black woman making a name for herself in Victorian England. After being lost to history for a century, her renewed popularity in the public mind was imagined as an act of restorative justice owed to neglected Black histories.

In one such act of restoration, Peter Fryer’s Staying Power (1984) was one of the first attempts at a compiled Black British history and includes one of the first appearances of Seacole as a key figure in that narrative.[11] Fryer told the history of Black settlement in Britain using individual biographies. Sometimes only made up of a list of dates, these biographies were a testament to the existence and resilience of Black lives throughout British history, drawing on the contentious politics of race and heritage sweeping the nation in the 1980s.

Fryer introduces Mary Seacole as the first Black woman to make her mark on British public life.[12] As a Black person living in the public eye in Britain, Fryer writes that Seacole “challenged” the British empire with her determination to put her skills in nursing to use “in spite of being black.” Against the odds, Fryer argues, Seacole overcame racial prejudice to support herself; she also risked her life to serve at the Crimean war front.[13]

Published at the moment of Seacole’s rediscovery in the early 1980s, Fryer’s account of her life weaves together antiracist, anticolonialist, and anticapitalist threads. While Fryer perhaps glosses over the more nuanced aspects of Seacole’s relationship to Blackness and Britishness, like her commitment to the “British imperial vision,” his work reveals the elements of Seacole’s narrative best aligned with Black radical histories.[14] Seacole’s determination in facing racial prejudice, the injustice of her loss to history, and even the basic fact of her existence in nineteenth-century Britain provided a powerful historical corollary to the ongoing struggles of the movement.

Drawing from the aims of the Black radical movement, these elements have been reproduced in some of the diverse commemorations of Mary Seacole across the UK. In 2004, Seacole was famously named the “Greatest Black Briton” in a vote organized to challenge the complete absence of Black people in BBC’s “100 Greatest Britons” poll and to communicate the importance of Black lives to British history. Soon after, harnessing the press attention from the vote, the Mary Seacole Statue Appeal began a twelve-year fundraising effort to build what would become the first statue of a Black woman in Britain. In 2016, the statue was unveiled outside Guy’s and St. Thomas’ Hospital in London. It depicts a larger-than-life Seacole marching “defiantly forward” into an oncoming wind, representing her fortitude in the face of the obstacles she faced in her lifetime.

Dame Elizabeth Anionwu served as vice chair of the Mary Seacole Statue Appeal. At the unveiling, Anionwu spoke of Seacole’s particular importance to her as a Black British nurse:

I am a nurse of mixed heritage, and so was Mary Seacole, which is why this statue is important to me. There are not enough statues of women, let alone of Black women. St Thomas’ are proud to host the statue of Mary Seacole both in recognition of the work done by their Black healthcare staff, and also because of the diverse community they serve. Mary Seacole was a feisty woman, and I believe this statue is a fitting tribute to her.[15]

Anionwu’s quote speaks to the importance of commemorating historical individuals as an act of identity formation in disciplines and cultures. While the statue of Mary Seacole in London literally sets her in stone as an icon of British history, the political conditions producing her rise to fame illustrate the ways commemoration is never objective or static. To better understand the figures relied on to exemplify group ideals, like Mary Seacole in the contentious histories of race and nursing, we must consider the contexts that continually create and reimagine their cultural value. Doing so illuminates the courage and struggles of Seacole’s story and that of Black heritage activism, granting us a historical foothold as we continue to grapple with the racist silencing of Black voices.

Notes

    1. Karen Sands-O’Connor, Children’s Publishing and Black Britain, 1965–2015 (Palgrave Macmillan US, 2017).
    2. For background on Seacole, see Peter Sleeth’s Nursing Clio essay about her life and work in the Crimean War.
    3. Samantha Pinto, “‘The Right Woman in the Right Place’: Mary Seacole and Corrective Histories of Empire,” ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature 50, no. 2–3 (January 2019).
    4. Rob Waters, “Thinking Black: Peter Fryer’s Staying Power and the Politics of Writing Black British History in the 1980s,” History Workshop Journal 82, no. 1 (October 2016): 104–20.
    5. Paul Gilroy, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack (Routledge, 2013).
    6. Waters, “Thinking Black.”
    7. Ibid.
    8. Ibid., 110.
    9. Hannah J. M. Ishmael and Rob Waters, “Archive Review: The Black Cultural Archives, Brixton,” Twentieth Century British History 28, no. 3 (September 1, 2017): 465–73.The BCA has its home in Brixton, but you can look at much of their collection online.
    10. Ziggi Alexander and Audrey Dewjee, Mary Seacole: Jamaican National Heroine and “Doctress” in the Crimean War (Brent Library Service, 1982).
    11. Staying Power has remained a foundational example of Black radical writing. It was recently republished in 2010 with an introduction by Paul Gilroy, and in 2015, exhibitions at the Black Cultural Archives and the Victoria and Albert Museum were held under the same name.
    12. Peter Fryer, Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain (Pluto Press, 2010), 237.
    13. Fryer, Staying Power, 246.
    14. Lynn McDonald, “Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole: Which Is the Forgotten Hero of Health Care and Why?” Scottish Medical Journal 59, no.1 (February 1, 2014): 68
    15. Miller Hare, “Mary Seacole Statue Unveiled in London,” BBC News, June 30, 2016, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-london-36663206.

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