Sounds rather odd, doesn’t it? But actually, there is one, and it’s rather interesting.
A couple of days ago I was at a women’s residence on the University of the West Indies’ Kingston campus, Mary Seacole Hall. I spoke to a group of students from the I’m Glad I’m a Girl Foundation, which mentors teenage girls. It was a quiet Ash Wednesday holiday; small groups of students relaxed in the courtyard in the pale sunlight. Rain hovered in the hills surrounding the campus, but none fell. Nadeen Spence (a member of the 51% Coalition), who established the group, was talking about “The Realities of Girls in Jamaica” when I arrived.
The residential hall was named after Mary Seacole in 1957. As a woman of mixed race, she also faced many tough realities, back in colonial Jamaica and in the UK where she lived for much of her life (and where she is buried). Ms. Seacole was born in Kingston in 1805, the daughter of a “free” Jamaican woman and a Scottish army officer. (I put “free” in quotation marks because many civil rights were still denied to Mary’s family). Her mother ran a home for invalid soldiers in Kingston and this started Mary’s interest in nursing. She was married for eight years, then widowed. Then she went off on her adventures – a few years after the “full free” of Emancipation (that was August 1, 1838). Over the next few years she worked as a nurse during a cholera epidemic in Panama and worked at Up Park Camp in Kingston during a yellow fever outbreak.
Why am I telling you so much about this extraordinary pioneering woman? Well, in 1853 war broke out in the Crimea – yes, the same Black Sea peninsula where there are currently uncomfortable standoffs between militia and soldiers waving flags and guns and singing patriotic songs. It remains to be seen whether the would-be-czar Vladimir Putin decides to annex the Crimea this time around, but during the Crimean War (1853-56) Russia eventually lost to an odd alliance of the British, French, the Ottoman Empire and Sardinia, after the siege of Sevastopol. It was a bitter and costly war (as they so often are) which devastated the Crimea. Since then, and throughout the last century, the Ukraine suffered terrible losses from famine and civil war – and at the hands of Stalin and Hitler. One hopes history does not repeat itself.
Well, Mary Seacole was determined to join Florence Nightingale in the Crimea and care for the British soldiers. She was a middle-aged woman now, and pretty much on her own except for the support of Mr. Thomas Day, a relative of her husband’s. In London, she tried to enroll as a nurse in the Crimea, but was rejected several times. In the end, she raised enough funds to get there anyway. She traveled alone with her supplies to the battlefield of Balaklava, where she set up the famous “British Hotel” for sick and wounded soldiers. When the war ended, she returned to London, completely broke. But her autobiography, “Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands,” was a best-seller. A gala was held in her honor in 1857 and funds were raised to support her. She became quite close to the Royal Family at the time, received several awards, and a Count carved a bust of her.
Mary Seacole died in 1881. Back in England, there is an appeal for a memorial statue of her to be erected at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London. You can find out more, and contribute here: http://www.maryseacoleappeal.org.uk And you can read much, much more at http://www.maryseacole.com.
Her fame lives on. In an effort to promote black history in Britain, the website and campaign “100 Great Black Britons” was launched in 2003. Mary Seacole was voted number one on the list. The BBC aired a documentary about her; a portrait of her was discovered and now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London; biographies have been written. A move by the Education Minister to have her (and Olaudah Equiano) removed from the National Curriculum sparked a huge protest in England and a petition, signed by over 35,000 people, ensured that the Ministry changed its mind. Yes, the British have claimed Mary Seacole as one of their own.
(Oh, is the story of Mary Seacole included in the Jamaican school curriculum? I hope so). Meanwhile, I am thankful to Ms. Barbara Gloudon, who wrote a column about her yesterday, for inspiring this blog post. Here is her piece: http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/columns/A-Jamaican-woman-was-there-before-Putin_16205851 And here is an article from the conservative UK Daily Mail, subtitled: “Claims of her achievements have been hugely oversold for political reasons, says leading historian” that made me feel uncomfortable:
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2255095/The-black-Florence-Nightingale-making-PC-myth-One-historian-explains-Mary-Seacoles-story-stood-up.html#ixzz2vQwA7iw5 Being a historic black figure is uncomfortable and complex, it seems…
Meanwhile, I hope you all had a wonderful International Women’s Day! (Incidentally, in the Ukraine – of which the Crimea is still a part – the day is celebrated almost like Valentine’s Day, with flowers and parties for women. How do I know this? Because a blog reader told me!)