Mary Seacole and her wretched detractors


Sometimes you have to question the motives behind individuals who seem hell-bent on repeatedly rubbishing celebrated Black historical figures and their supporters.

Two individuals in particular jump to mind. The writer and former editor of radio 4’s the Today programe Rod Liddle, and retired Professor of Sociology, Lynn McDonald, University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada.

The exploits of Mary Seacole have rightly earned her both a place within the English Education Curriculum, albeit in the notes, and in the hearts and minds of Black Britons today. And yet perhaps for different reasons, both Liddle and McDonald seem incandescent with rage about both aspects.

Top of their anger list is the fact that we dare to call Seacole Black. Liddle in one of his most poisonous moments writes in the Spectator:

It is tempting to say that if Mary Seacole had been white then the people at Operation Black Vote wouldn’t have given a monkey’s about her either way. But that ignores the final paradox: she was white. Three quarters white. In her own words, only a little brown."

Contnuing the same narrow theme, McDonald points out rather patronizingly:

She was a decent and kind woman, but a dubious "celebrated black historical figure" because she was three-quarters white, identified with her Scottish roots, not the "Creole," and never used the term "black" or "African" to refer to herself."

Two monstrous facts Liddle and McDonald convienently miss out: First, being non-white with African features not only negates you from being perceived as white, but very much ensures that the white world you live in, sees you as ‘the other’, often in the negative. Sadly if this notion still occurs today-see Liddle’s view of Black people below - how much more would it have occurred in the 1850’s ? The second and perhaps more mischievous point in its divide and rule narrative is McDonald’s suggestion that Seacole never saw herself as Black and looked down on fellow Black people

We invited retired Professor of Nursing Elizabeth Anionwu to address some of these claims. What would McDonald make of Professor Anionwu's quote from Seacole's 1857 autobiography:

I have a few shades of deeper brown upon my skin which shows me related – and I am proud of the relationship –to those mortals who you once enslaved , and whose bodies America still own. And having this bond and knowing what slavery is: having seen with my eyes and heard with my eyes proof positive enough of its horrors…."

Liddle and particularly McDonald try in vain to find other areas, which seek to discredit Seacole, including questioning her nursing credibility. Thankfully for us,  Professor Anionwu has written a comprehensive piece confronting their continued attacks on Seacole.

But why do these two writers continue to ignore the fact that Seacole was revered not just by the ‘great and the good’, but also by 80,000 ordinary citizens who attended a 4 day military gala in her honour in London in July 1857? It is at first glance puzzling. However, looking at Liddle’s record on race it becomes clear what he thinks about Black people. Back in 2009 he wrote:

"benefits of a multicultural Britain were gun crime, robbery and sexual violence committed by African-Caribbean men”

adding that in return, the UK got

“rap music and goat curry."

In 2010, the Daily Mail accused him of racism for writing on his blog:

There's thousands of organisations catering exclusively to black and asian minorities. **** 'em, close them down. Why do blacks need a forum of their own? As a power base and cash cow for ****s and in order to perpetuate the myth of widespread discrimination."

With Professor McDonald, her obsession with attacking Seacole seems to stem from her great admiration for Florence Nightingale. Somehow she feels that the attention towards this Black woman undermines Florence Nightingale. Quoted in the Daily Mail, she said of the proposed statue of Seacole:

"Honouring Mary Seacole at St Thomas would denigrate Florence Nightingale."

The piece then goes on to say Seacole was not a nurse and was not awarded any medals. Both have been refuted in Anionwu's article.

I’m not sure there’s any hope for Liddle. He did apologise to me once for over stepping the racial mark, but that must seem a long time ago now. With McDonald, it is a shame that two clearly great but very different Victorian women cannot both be celebrated for their nursing and for their courageousness in a man's world. They were also both highly acclaimed and revered for their compassion, particularly by the wounded men of the Crimea war.

Simon Woolley

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