Mary Seacole: Representation and Self-Portrayal of a Nineteenth-Century Mixed Race Icon

Shirley Doulière is a third-year PhD student at the University of Bordeaux, France. Her research focuses on the narratives of female Victorian explorers and their constant struggle to be allowed to reject the boundaries of an imposed model of femininity while refusing to be considered as anything less than conventional. Today’s blog focuses on the delicate question of identity through representation and self-portrayal.

Picture 1

Mary Seacole was a Jamaican Creole, the daughter of an innkeeper and a Scottish officer. She is the author of The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, published in 1857, an autobiography in which she recounts her experience as an innkeeper and nurse to the officers of the Crimean War.

In 2012 Michael Gove spurred a controversy by proposing to remove Seacole from the history curriculum, arguing that she did not deserve her place as a nurse in the Crimean War on the grounds that she had a tiny part in the war but above all, casting doubt on the veracity of her statements. The purpose of my research is not to decide whether Mary Seacole was a war heroine, as Lynn Mac Donald does in her latest book Mary Seacole: The Making Of The Myth [1]. What matters to me is to understand how and why Seacole’s persona was created, both by herself and in popular culture.

Indeed, her iconic status is fairly recent. The Jamaican-born author was briefly famous during the Crimean war and a decade after but was forgotten soon after her death in 1881. she resurfaced in 1981 for the 100th years anniversary of her death and has now become an icon of black culture. She was elected Greatest Black Briton in 2004 [2] and several nursing awards and buildings bear her name. Her narrative was re-published in 1984 which, to Michael Morris “reflect[s] the prevalent identity politics of the time.” [3] Over time her representation has evolved in history books for children and in popular culture: she is portrayed as a nurse, sometimes called the mother of the army, who risked her life to save soldiers and whose ground-breaking work changed the face of modern medicine.

However during her lifetime she was mostly known as a “sutler”, someone who sells supplies to the army, a term that is not devoid of a negative connotation akin to a war profiteer.  A closer reading of her autobiography reveals that the endearing “Mother Seacole” nickname is only found in indirect speech when direct speech only refers to her as “Mrs Seacole” or “colored woman”. We can imagine that she draws the attention on her identity as a “mother” to avoid being seen as black first and foremost. She needed to be represented as the mother of the army because she needed people’s gratitude and to enhance her “British credential”. Nevertheless, this technique proved flawed as a quote from war artist William Simpson shows how people viewed her: “Mrs Seacole, an elderly mulatto woman from Jamaica, was a well-known character in the Crimea, all the soldiers and sailors knew her. She had a taste for nursing and doctoring, but she added to this a business as a sutler. She told me that she had Scotch blood in her veins. I must say that she did not look like it, but the old lady spoke proudly of this point in her genealogy.” [4]

Punch Magazine described her as being “berry-brown face” which shows that, although she portrayed herself as white, or at least more related to whites than blacks, people saw her as black. There is a great gap between her portrayal by officers as a foreigner and her self-portrayal as a dark skinned Scottish lady.  In other words, an opposition between an external vision which defines her as the Other and an internal vision showing her as fused to the social group that effectively excludes her. She ultimately sought to be amalgamated whereas the others saw her as a foreigner. It is interesting to see that Mary Seacole is both an outsider and an insider as she portrays herself as Scottish and doesn’t relate to Jamaican slaves, despite being the granddaughter of former slaves. It seems that she had so fully integrated British imperialism that she regarded Jamaica as a part of the empire and felt no less British than someone born in London.

Very early in Wonderful Adventures, she sets herself apart from the Creole identity: “I have often heard the term ‘lazy Creole’ applied to my country people; but I am sure I do not know what it is to be indolent.”  She never used her dual identity to defend her black countrymen nor challenged stereotyped, and was eager to distance herself from the other creoles by embracing racism and showing that though she was on a different color spectrum she was nevertheless on the “right side” of the empire. Moreover, her rare criticism of colonization was about the mode of colonization and its impact not on the natives but on the colonizers themselves: “It was a terrible thing to see young people in the youth and bloom of life suddenly stricken down, not in battle with the enemy that threatened their country, but in vain contest with a climate that refused to adopt them. Indeed, the mother country pays a dear price for the possession of her colonies.” [5]

Picture 2 3 4

As for her professional credentials the opening lines of her autobiography leave no doubt: “I must solicit my readers’ attention to the position I held in the camp as doctress, nurse, and ‘mother’”[6] These three portraits show Mary Seacole as she wanted to be represented: her business card showing her as a doctress in front of a military tent, the cover picture of her book where she looks like a female Indiana Jones with panache, and finally a portrait of an old woman wearing proudly her military decorations. She was actually never awarded any medals and how she got them is still a mystery. However she wasn’t doing anything illegal as wearing a medal that hasn’t been awarded to you wasn’t illegal until 1955 and mostly, it just highlights again her need to be remembered as the mother of the army.

Adding to her claims as a nurse and mother of the army, Seacole narrated her entrance in Sevastopol which she prepared her entrance in Balaclava with the grandeur of an actress: “I do not think the surgeons noticed me at first, although, as this was my introduction to Balaclava, I had not neglected my personal appearance, and wore my favorite yellow dress, and blue bonnet, with the red ribbons”.  She insisted that she was the first woman to have entered the city after the end of the siege.  According to her biographer, Jane Robinson, if Mary was indeed the first British woman to enter Sevastopol, she does not specify that she was not the only one and that many women were present in Crimea, contrary to what her biography suggests, or leaves untold. Can it be seen as an oversight? A lack of honesty? Some sort of contempt to the other women? Or simply because posing as a pioneer and a heroine of the Crimean War is more marketable if one does not admit having been only a woman among so many others.

This is a somewhat ironic turn that today reverses the identity conflict that Mary Seacole experienced during her lifetime. She wanted to be recognized as fully British, downplaying her Jamaican roots and seeking to make people see beyond her skin color but is now celebrated as a black icon. Quite critical of this turn of events, Guy Walters states: “The story of Mary Seacole has been spun out of all proportion, her memory hijacked and her achievements embellished in order to provide a role model [….] It may be good politics, but it is poor history” [7] Less adamant, Michael Morris argues that “Seacole might be considered a ‘palimpsestuous’ lieu de mémoire, as she is made to stand for a variety of ‘core identities’: Jamaican woman, Caribbean nurse, black or mixed-race female, black-British, proto-feminist postcolonial mother, and now we might add, Jamaican-Scottish mulatta!” [8]

To me, Seacole was a complex character who was ahead of her time in the way she carried herself. She made history on her own terms and never let race or gender stop her in the path she had carved. Though her autobiography has often vague or non-concordant information leading one to regard it as an “autobiofiction” it also offers a fascinating study of the identity struggle of a Victorian “self-made” woman, in a literal meaning of the term.

Works Cited

[1] McDonald, Lynn. Mary Seacole: The Making Of The Myth. Iguana Books, 2014.

[2] <http://www.100greatblackbritons.com/&gt; [accessed 25/06/2012]

[3] Morris, Michael (2013) Atlantic Archipelagos: A Cultural History of Scotland, the Caribbean and the Atlantic World, c.1740-1833. P 181 PhD thesis.

[4] William Simpson, quoted in Ziggy Alexander and Audrey Dewjee in the introduction of Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in many lands. p 26

[5] Mary Seacole. Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands. p 108

[6] Mary Seacole. Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands . p55

[7] Guy Walters “the black Florence Nightingale and the making of a PC myth”

[8] Morris, Michael. Atlantic Archipelagos. P183

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