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:
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.
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.
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.