Mary Seacole and the Mis-education of history


On Monday 29 December 2012, just as many in the nation were reflecting on the closing year and hoping that better would come in 2013, the Daily Mail published an article indicating that worse would continue and be compounded. In that article, Jonathan Petre commented on ‘leaked drafts of the new history curriculum to be published in the New Year’ under the headline:

Gove faces war with equality activists as he axes Labour's PC curriculum that dropped greatest figures from history lessons.

Highlights of the article included:

  • Historic figures, including Winston Churchill, Oliver Cromwell and Lord Nelson will again feature in history lessons
  • The 'back-to-basics' shakeup will see overhaul of social reformers like Jamaican-born nurse Mary Seacole
  • Fears that the reforms, spearheaded by Education Secretary Michael Gove, could anger equality rights activists

The Daily Mail was itself fuelling the ‘war with equality activists’ by singling out Mary Secole and Olaudah Equiano and making them and ‘politically correct’ teachers who teach about them in the history curriculum the thrust of its story.

The likes of Oliver Cromwell, Lord Nelson and Winston Churchill had been dropped from history lessons under the last Labour Government in a move critics said was driven by ‘political correctness. But under a new ‘back-to- basics’ shake-up, pupils will again have to study these traditional historic figures – and not social reformers such as Jamaican-born nurse Mary Seacole and former black slave Olaudah Equiano, who were introduced into the 2007 curriculum.

Directly beneath this statement, however, are the images of Mary Secole, William Wilberforce, Amy Johnson, Olaudah Equiano and Florence Nightingale.

Commentary I have seen and heard about these proposed changes to the curriculum have rather missed the seriousness of what Michael Gove is seeking to do, i.e., to write out of history the evidence that we do not all subscribe to the narrative of history involving Britain that this nation and its schooling and higher education system has been ramming down our throats for generations.

Before I go on, let me unpack the ‘we’ who do not subscribe and the ‘our’ whose throats have been rammed full of that toxic stuff. Who is this history curriculum for? To whom will it be taught in Britain’s schools in this the second decade of the second millennium, a Britain where in a growing number of towns and cities the so-called ethnic minorities have become the ethnic majority?

That history will be taught to British-born white children whose forbears have never been helped to understand the troubled legacy of empire in post-imperial Britain, including the way the exploits of Empire have been depicted in history and the view white Britons for generations have been encouraged to have of themselves, aristocrats and vagrants alike. A major component of that legacy is the racism that resides in the very sinews of the society, generation after generation, like a virus that is resistant to all forms of treatment.

This is the context in which enlightened educators know they are operating, a context in which the history of Empire is told from the viewpoint of the imperialists and colonialists to the exclusion of that of the displaced and colonized; a context in which Britain recounts interminably its experience of two devastating World Wars without acknowledging the part played by black people in the British armed forces that fought in those wars.

A failure to grasp that is a failure to understand why children are taught about Mary Secole and Florence Nightingale, Olaudah Equiano and William Wilberforce, Paul Bogle and William Gordon of the 1865 Morant Bay rebellion and the repressive Governor Edward Eyre of Jamaica in the 1860s. The former in each case had been written out of the historical narrative while the latter was made an icon and part of ‘the canon’ of British history. That is why in 2007, to mark the bi-centenary of the Abolition of Slavery Act, a good number of us in academia and in grassroots organizations took the opportunity to point out and correct the many traditional misrepresentations of the history of the struggles that led to the abolition of the trade in enslaved Africans, misrepresentations that had totally eclipsed the role of liberators such as Olaudah Equiano.

The dangers in what Michael Gove is doing are many. But, perhaps the greatest danger of all lies in his insistence, as many in government before him, including Labour’s David Blunkett, had done, on projecting a Britain that has acquired inhabitants other than white British by default and that does not need to include us in any definition of itself or understanding of its past and present.

The Daily Mail quotes Gove as saying:

I am genuinely worried that – despite the best efforts of brilliant history teachers, gifted academics and the television and publishing executives who’ve helped to popularise history – our curriculum and examinations system mean that children thirsting to know more about our past leave school woefully undernourished.’

Children thirsting to know more about our past’. Which children in today’s multi-ethnic Britain? Whose past and as narrated by whom? They are ‘undernourished’ alright, by imperialist lies and self-serving falsifications.

Conservative MP Philip Davies is quoted as saying:

The curriculum has to specify figures like Nelson and Wellington. Far too often we are apologising for things in our past, but actually we have so much in our history to be proud of. It is essential that children learn why they should be proud of their country.’

Again, ‘things in our past’, ‘our history’, ‘proud of their country’. Which children? Whose past? Whose history? Whose country? To whom does today’s Britain belong and how are they expected to understand and own the history Michael Gove wants to validate and superimpose as ‘must know’ for children in schools? Ah, but not for all children. The National Curriculum with all its government diktats is not applied in all schools. Academies and Gove’s ‘free’ schools are not constrained to follow it, whereas state maintained schools are required to apply it. Michael Gove presumably has no anxieties as to whether academies and free schools will leave the nation’s children ‘woefully undernourished’ for want of information about their past. The fact of the matter is that for generations, children have been undernourished of a history that tells the full story of Britain’s past, proud, inglorious, barbaric and genocidal.

No attempt on Gove’s part or that of any education secretary of whatever party to sanitize that history while celebrating the iconized and canonized, at the exclusion of the narrative of those who experienced and made that history very differently, will ever serve to prepare for life in Britain those in whose hands the future of this society lies.

Jonathan Petre notes that ‘pupils will still have to learn about social changes such as the abolition of slavery and the suffragettes. In addition, references to cultural, ethnic and religious diversity have been cut, although they will still be taught about immigration’ So, Gove’s enlightened history curriculum for modern Britain will eschew considerations of cultural, ethnic and religious diversity, while teaching about ‘immigration’. Other parts of the history curriculum will deal with the transition from Empire to Commonwealth, the Cold War and the growth of democracy.

Presumably, by removing references to cultural, ethnic and religious diversity, the curriculum would not need to address the critical issue of the racialization of immigration, the denial of rights to British-born citizens and the manner in which Gove’s government and every other since 1960 have conflated immigration with race relations and sustained a moral panic in the nation about the number of African and Asian people in the population.

At the heart of this matter is the fact that Gove sees today’s Britain through white lens and rejects any notion that the history of Britain as narrated traditionally and imposed especially robustly in its former colonies should be told through the eyes and experiences of those who are considered to have no right to challenge the received and invariably distorted narrative. The position of the Secretary of State for Education in this regard echoes that of the English Defence League, the British National Party and all those who have traditionally embraced an agenda to keep the blacks in their place, keep Britain white, make no concessions to the presence of a growing British born population with African and Asian roots and compel them all to salute the Union flag and learn about 1066.

In this sense, the issue is about much more than whether or not all children get to learn about Mary Secole and her historical feat of travelling in the 19th century from Jamaica to the Crimea and keeping thousands alive there who otherwise might have died; or that Olaudah Equiano was a much more important actor in the movement to abolish the trade in enslaved Africans than William Wilberforce ever was.

It is about how the nation’s children, whites in particular, are structurally and systematically denied the opportunity to understand the past, understand what connects the descendants of white aristocrats, white slum dwellers, white child labourers, white factory and mine workers and African and Asian heritage children to that same past. It is about how they understand that Africa and Asia, the Indian sub-continent in particular, have a history that pre-dates colonialism and western capitalist expansion and that has contributed massively to the evolution of civilizations and to the development of knowledge.

This debacle calls for massive organized protest not just by African people, but by all those who have a concern about how the nation’s children are being prepared to manage multi-ethnic Britain and live peaceably with one another, without the ravages of bigotry, racism and discrimination. At the very least, it requires that all those African and Asian school managers and teachers who are facilitating children’s learning work collectively to ensure that they are not made to collude with Gove’s plan and teach a national curriculum to children that further compounds their marginalization and exclusion in the society.

Governments, ministers such as Gove, the police, employers or whoever, can continue doing things to us and behaving as if we do not matter only for as long as we are prepared to let them.

Every review of the National Curriculum has required us to campaign and lobby to make sure that our children (and all the nation’s children) are not exposed to a white, British nationalist curriculum. Those struggles have yielded incremental gains, especially in the English Literature and History curriculum. Gove’s intervention represents a sweeping away of many of those gains. This underscores yet again the need for a vibrant national organization of black educators, students and parents that could proactively work with communities, schools, academics and local authorities to ensure that compulsory schooling does not happen in spite of our children, or render them mere passive consumers of a fare that is determined as if we have no power or capacity to influence its nature and content.

The African population in Britain owes it to this generation and generations to come, however, to organize and mobilize itself to stand up in defence of children’s right to an education that is not based on bigotry and of any notion of white supremacy.

Gus John,  Institute of Education

Archived Comments

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Racism In Death.

Mary Seacole was a great woman. No one can ever take that away from her. Her achievements - despite the bigotry around in her time - completely dwarf the achievements of many in British Politics from her time in this world to present.

The outrage against her removal from the National Curriculum is very well justified. One problem I do have is why did New Labour axe the likes of Winston Churchill, Oliver Cromwell and Lord Nelson from history lessons? Were they trying to incite this sort of reaction from White working class voters? Michael Gove has definitely rose to the bait and his insensitive actions relating to this subject has sparked off a response from the Black community and all who know the future of the United Kingdom is multiracial.

Multiracial London hasn’t got a mayor that believes that, but, that subject is best reserved for another day.

Mary Seacole was a very determined woman. She came up against some of the worse bigotry ever known to the human race and still achieved a lot. Can anyone begin to imagine what she would have achieved if she hard the right support and worked in the right environment? Most of us today can relate to the obstacles she faced. What I hope we do is learn from her, be motivated by her drive, and try to emulate her feats.

Gus John’s article is spot on. The problem we have with some of the politicians today is that a number of them still believe that Enoch Powell was right with his extreme views back in the 1960’s. London’s Mayor was caught out using similar language and has excelled in politics to the extent that he is on the verge of challenging for the leadership of the Conservative Party. This was his view on Mary Seacole as far back as 2005: "I find myself facing the grim possibility that it was my own education that was blinkered.”

What has he done to support the cause of Mary Seacole’s inclusion in the National Curriculum? David Cameron twitted this about Mo Farah after his Olympic win: “Mo Farah is an Olympic legend and a true British hero. We can all be proud of his extraordinary achievement.”

Why hasn’t he said a word about Michael Gove’s action?

Mary Seacole was a great British Woman. Her achievements must not be allowed to go unrecognized and her immediate inclusion in the National Curriculum – alongside other great British people like Winston Churchill, Oliver Cromwell and Lord Nelson etc – is imperative.

Forgive all today’s politicians (New Labour’s lot included) for they still believe that Enoch Powell was right.