Monday, January 07, 2013

Mary Seacole vs. Admiral Lord Nelson

When I was at school, we didn't hear about Mary Seacole.  In fairness, we missed her period, but British history, despite being a history of migration, immigration and colonisation involving, at peak, around a fifth of the world's population, was the history of white straight men.  When we came across a woman, any woman at all, I paid attention. For example, Rosa Luxemburg is a footnote to the story of post First World War Germany, where various extremist factions are squabbling over a devastated young country. But she's a woman and a Jew with one leg shorter than the other. She tried to make the world a better place, died for her trouble and had a really cool name.

Michael Gove is a strange fish, who's latest brainwave is to replace various characters in school history syllabubs with the traditional British heroes that he learnt about when he was at school in the 1900s. It's really tricky to find what he actually said at source and you'd hope that history is never taught as a series of biographies in any case, but the idea of wiping Mary Seacole from school curricula has invited particular comment. In one paper, it said they were going to swap William Wilberforce, Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole for traditional British heroes such as Lord Nelson, Oliver Cromwell and Winston Churchill.

I could say a lot about all those figures, but I wanted to focus on Nelson and Seacole.  They are both interesting characters - I'd invite either round for dinner - they both lived through and played a role in events that were much bigger than themselves and they were both true celebrities who captured the public imagination of the day.

It seems to me, we study history for five reasons:
  1. To understand the evolution of ideas in technology, science, religion, social justice, politics, fashion design etc..
  2. To understand what people can do for each other if they are good, strong and brave.
  3. To understand what people can do to each other if they are bad, weak and cowardly.
  4. To understand the nature of history itself, how is it is recorded, revised and understood (as well as hidden, twisted and misunderstood). 
  5. To understand the series of events which lead to the state of the world in the present day.
Arguably, both Seacole and Nelson's stories touch on all these things.

Of course, different areas of history appeal to different people.  Personally, I like pretty much all of it.  I haven't yet given in to my Mum's recommendation that I visit the local Drainage Museum, but I do know that if I went there and learnt about the history of drainage, I wouldn't be bored.  Not the first time I went, anyway. 

But history is about asking questions.  Questions such as, how come a huge swathe of unfarmable, barely habitable marshland in East Anglia was drained to make up part of the bread basket of England; who did it, how did they do it and why?  I trust all these questions and more can be answered at the Drainage Museum.  And, through what little knowledge I have of the Fens, I do know that this stuff touches on important and current issues, such as immigration (it was mostly Dutch labourers - experts in drainage - who did this work for us), the environment and environmental technology. 

I didn't study Nelson at school, but I know an awful lot about him through cultural osmosis.  He's the bloke at the top of the big tall column in the most famous thoroughfare in our capital city.  How could I not know about Nelson?

Nelson became a hero in his lifetime because he was very good at his job and he was involved in crucial military campaigns - events which held back the spread of French imperialism and have influenced British political life and culture to this day. Anti-French humour still refers to the Napoleonic wars. These wars are the inescapable backdrop to all of Jane Austen's novels, as well as being used as a setting for popular literature - both adventurous and romantic - to this day (notably the Sharpe, Hornblower and Master and Commander novel series). When Harrogate were first allowed to elect a mayor, they voted in a man in a monkey suit to commemorate the poor innocent monkey that was once hanged there as a French spy. 

But Nelson's life story is not all that remarkable.  He did not rise from humble or disadvantaged origins. He was on the right side only sometimes (Trafalgar was about fending off an invasion, but that wasn't the only thing the British Navy got up to at this time).  He was good at his job at a crucial point in history, was a massive celebrity in his lifetime and died a hero's death, defending his country.  

Some Other Facts I Know About Admiral Lord Nelson.
  1. About five miles up the road from where I sit, there is a sign that announces "Welcome to Norfolk: Nelson's County". Before Stephen Fry, Nelson was the only famous person ever to come from Norfolk.  Actually, no, I'd forgotten about Delia Smith! 
  2. Nelson had a famous extra-marital affair with Emma Hamilton who, in terms of truly remarkable life stories which tell us much about the age they lived in, trumps Nelson's any day. The story of their love affair and its notoriety, which at one point had them living very publicly as lovers in the same house as Hamilton's husband, is remarkable and comes at a turning point in British social history. Had they lived in England at any time in the following hundred and fifty years, their romantic lives would have been a dirty little secret at best, and potentially, the end to Nelson's career. 
  3. Nelson is a very famous disabled hero, with only one eye and one arm. He is quoted as saying various stoical things on the loss of his arm and almost undoubtedly returned to work within half an hour. It was, of course, extremely commonplace for sailors to be disabled at this time, whilst still being able (and expected) to continue sailing and fighting. This is an age where disability is conceived in a completely different way to the 21st century and in some respects (not all, but some) the position of disabled people was better then it would be for most of the next two centuries. But I don't think Michael Gove imagines a focus on Nelson from this point of view.
  4. Similarly, the fact that his final words were a request for a kiss from his male friend.  The fact that people still argue whether he said, "Kiss me, Hardy" or "Kismet, Hardy" is both an amusing and important point about our cultural investment in history. Nelson was dying, he probably wanted comfort or else to say goodbye to his friend, at a time when there were very different social rules about physical affection between men.  According to my very brief and inadequate research, the first use of the word kismet written down in English comes forty-four years after Nelson's death.  I'd be more inclined to think his last words were, "Ouch, urgh, bugger."  
  5. Nelson had a godson who married a woman of colour. Her name was Mary Seacole. 
Now, I know all this through bits and pieces I've picked up in books, TV and radio programmes, none of which were specifically about Nelson.  And some of these points raise questions about our past and present.  But when it comes to Seacole, pretty much all I have is questions.

Some Questions I Have (and Have Heard Asked) About Mary Seacole

I know much less about Seacole than Nelson.  I'm not that interested in her time and place, so I haven't read up on her, but I have heard some questions asked about her, and have others of my own. 
  1.  Was Mary Seacole black?  What does that even mean?  These days, you and I would regard her as black because blackness is a political status, but the exact pigment of her skin seems to have been and remains a cause for a great deal of analysis and speculation.  Even she wrote about herself as "only a little brown."  Why would anyone care so much?  It's very like the way we talk about sexuality and disability today, struggling all the time with the non-binary nature of identity.
  2. What was it about Mary Seacole's life which made it possible for her, as a fat single middle-aged woman of colour, to do all kinds of things that were unthinkable for the vast majority of women within British and Jamaican culture at that time? She traveled, she ran her own businesses and whilst not coming from quite the bottom rung of society, she rose to fame and respect which had her massaging the Prince of Wales' gammy leg. Was this something in Seacole's character? Did her marginalised identities mean that she had nobody in her life trying to control her?  
  3. What on Earth is a woman from Jamaica doing risking her life to nurse wounded British soldiers in the Crimean War?  What was the Crimean War even about?  (It may be just me, but I've never grasped what any of us were doing there, apart from being killed and horribly wounded.) 
  4. How could someone be so famous in their lifetime and then disappear from the history books, when the activities and events they were involved in (the nursing revolution that took place in the Crimean War) continued to be read and studied?  What is it about Florence Nightingale - a figure not without her own controversies - that means that every one of us knew who she was before we left primary school and I only heard of Mary Seacole about ten years ago?
  5. Is some of Seacole's history completely made up? Apparently, she wrote an autobiography - the very first by a black woman in the UK - which some consider to be something of a fiction.  Florence Nightingale said she had an illegitimate daughter and was running a brothel on the front-line of the Crimea War.  Is Seacole overrated because we are desperate for a heroic black woman in this part of our history? Is she a politically correct construct, as the Daily Mail would have you think? 
You can never look at two characters in history and say that one is more important.  As I said, history shouldn't be all about biography anyway.  Oliver Cromwell is a terrifically important figure - probably the closest we have had to a Stalin or Hitler - but you couldn't possibly study him outside the full context of everything that was going on at the time (pretty much the most important period of our political history - everything we are comes from what happened during and directly after his lifetime). 

However, there are lives which raise more questions about our past and our lives today.  I suspect that Mary Seacole is more useful to study than Nelson - and kids will learn about Nelson anyway.  And yes, it does matter that she is a black woman.  Race and gender matter both in the context of her story and the way we tell it - or try to dismiss it - today. 


Matthew Smith said...

The right have been gunning for Mary Seacole since she first started getting talked about in the media and in school textbooks. I recall Rod Liddle writing a very dismissive column about her in the Spectator. Their attitude seemed to be that, as we had forgotten about her all that time, we must have had an ulterior motive for remembering her all of a sudden and that reason must be just because she was black, not because she really did anything of significance. So, it's hardly surprising that they should seek to get her out of the curriculum now that they are in power.

I was at secondary school in the early 90s, and we didn't just learn about kings and queens and Winston Churchill, but about the social reforms of the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution, the origins of Labour and the trade union movement, and so on. Our history teacher (Elizabeth "Stitch" Wallace) was Scottish and very old-fashioned as far as discipline was concerned, but had quite a progressive view of the world as far as equality and human rights (everywhere except our school) was concerned. However, I don't know what they did for GCSE at that time because we weren't offered it - Stitch left the school quietly at the end of my year 9, and wasn't replaced.

Anonymous said...

You claim that you learned about white, straight men. I'd like to say that actually you probably learned about a lot of white, gay men too but your teachers neglected to mention their sexual orientation. What about William II, Edward II, Richard I, James VI and I, Disraeli, Shakespeare (bi) (keen on writing about cross dressing), Oscar Wilde, EM Forster, Tennyson, Houseman, all sorts of Greeks and Romans?


misspiggy said...

Matthew, you weren't offered GCSE history?!! Good grief. And there was me feeling cheated that so much of my school history lessons focused on villeins and mottes and baileys.

I'd just like to say that I adore this blog, by the way.

The Goldfish said...

Matthew, my history education was also much better than the listing of notable political events that Gove seems to advocate. At secondary school, we learnt about the feudal system (with the villeins etc.) and the causes of its collapse, the Reformation through to the Restoration, the causes of both World Wars, how they effected folk, trench warfare, the Holocaust, Stalinist Russia and so forth.

We also had a super history teacher. In fact, I had two, because after I got sick, I had a home tutor to take me through History GCSE - it struck me as the most practical thing I could study on my own, without any equipment, the need for group discussion or oral or practical work (illness really took a hatchet to whatever part of my brain handled maths - otherwise I would have done that).

Like Miss Piggy, I'm very sorry History GCSE wasn't an option. Stephen had an odd high school education, mostly at hospital school, so there were several subjects he couldn't study because of the practicalities. But history? You mostly just set the kids off with a few starters and they find out all the information themselves!

Janet, this is a fair point and in fact, I originally included "non-disabled" before realising this wasn't true, but disability wasn't touched on - as it isn't much in the story of Nelson. It is also the case that a lot of the events we learnt about - like the English Civil War and the events of the World Wars - heavily involved women, and (particularly the World Wars) many people of colour. But they were largely ignored in the syllabus - I know a lot about women's involvement in the Civil War - women fought on both sides, (sometimes cross-dressing - something the Cavaliers' banned after a general was captured and turned out to be a woman), they were pamphleteers and of course, suffered dreadfully in the midst of it all, but I think pretty much all of that I've picked up through my own reading.)

Miss Piggy - Thank you! :-)

Matthew Smith said...

Misspiggy: the reason was that the teacher was leaving, and they could not find someone to replace her. It was a small special school (maximum 60 boys, I think) and was in deep financial trouble but also had a very bad reputation, so probably had trouble recruiting decent staff. The school knew she was leaving but we did not find out until the new year started and she was gone - they just told us we could not do her subjects "for reasons they could not disclose". I wonder if she had cancer or something, or if she had decided to quietly leave because the violent behaviour she displayed to pre-pubescent boys wouldn't be tolerated by bigger boys.

The Goldfish said...

Matthew - sorry for misreading what you meant by old-fashioned discipline, I forgot for a moment and thought you meant merely very strict...