Race, Racism, and Slavery
Now celebrated as a “black Briton” and black heroine, Seacole never described herself as black: “I am a Creole, and have good Scotch blood coursing in my veins,” she states on page 1 of her memoir, further describing her father’s status as being “of an old Scotch family,” Her mother was Creole, or of mixed heritage (WA 1), but she was swift to explain that her “energy and activity” came from her “Scotch blood,” characteristics “not always found in the Creole race” (WA 1). The “lazy Creole” description “applied to my country people,” while she did not know what it was to be “indolent” (WA 2). Roughly one quarter African in heritage, Seacole described herself as being “only a little brown--a few shades duskier than the brunettes whom you all admire so much” (WA 4).
Seacole frequently referred to “blacks” in her memoir, always for other people, often her own servants--her maid, her cooks (WA 12, 21, 36, 37, 39, 45, 58, 113, 138, 180). There are references also to “good-for-nothing black cooks” (WA 141), a “grinning black” (WA 38) and “excited nigger cooks” (WA 20). When she described, the roasted monkey which was “natives’ fare” in Central America, Seacole found its “grilled head bore a strong resemblance to a negro baby’s,” while in “a stew made of monkey meat” was a piece that “closely resembled a brown baby’s limb” (WA 69).
National origins other than race appear also in the memoir, notably Jew Johnny (WA 92, 113, 104-5), and “craven,” “villainous-looking” Greeks (WA 106), also “cunning-eyed” (WA 86) and one an “idler” (WA 94). Turks were “the degenerate descendants of the fierce Arabs (WA 106) and “deliberate, slow and indolent” (WA 109).
Robinson noted Seacole’s “refusal to identify more fully with her African heritage,” indeed her tendency “to ignore her black ancestry.” She acknowledged also that Seacole shared in the ”pervasive prejudice towards ‘niggers’” and others, and “used prejudice as a weapon of self-defence” (Robinson 2005 172). Thus one wonders why she chose as her title: Mary Seacole: The Charismatic Black Nurse Who Became a Heroine of the Crimea: “charismatic” is certainly right, but the material Robinson reports hardly supports either the “black” or the “nurse” label.
Seacole, as Robinson explained elsewhere, “was always proud of a complexion tinted rather than tainted, considering herself more yellow than brown” (Jane Robinson, Mary Seacole: The Most Famous Black Woman of the Victorian Age, 7).
Commentators concerned about the evils of slavery often note Seacole’s avoidance of the subject. She was born free, but Jamaica still had slavery at the time. It was fully abolished in Jamaica in 1838, but this important fact is nowhere noted in her memoir (Andrews Introduction, WA xxvii and Salih xvi-xix). Seacole was conscious of slavery in the Southern United States and expressed great admiration for people who escaped from it and made new lives for themselves elsewhere. However her memoir did not help to advance the cause of antislavery (Andrews Introduction xxvii).
The major war after the Crimean War was the American Civil War, which ultimately ended slavery in the United States. Seacole showed no interest in that war, certainly not nursing in it, although large numbers of women nurses served.
Nightingale's grandfather, William Smith, MP, was a leading member of the anti-slavery campaign.