Victoria in Black: “Race” and Queen Victoria

Today is Victoria Day, a curiously antiquated holiday to celebrate, in Canada, a queen of England who has been dead for over a hundred years. (In Quebec, they tried to change the name to honor a Frenchman who died battling the Iroquois near what is now Montréal; now the holiday is called National Patriot’s Day in Quebec, to celebrate the struggle for freedom from British rule in the year that Victoria came to power, 1837.) The reason for this continuing praise of the deceased monarch is that Victoria is seen as the “Mother of Confederation” in Canada. The image of Victoria as mother, and Victoria’s own emphasis on family and motherhood, extended to the empire in places other than Canada. In fact, it was during the Victorian period that the British Empire became known as a family of nations rather than simply a collection of production sites for empire goods. Queen Victoria had a great deal to do with this herself, and not just in the “white” colonies such as Canada or Australia. She was godmother to several imperial subjects, providing education and economic support for her godchildren (and her godchildren’s children) from Africa and India. Some of these were royals of their own country, including Duleep Singh and Princess Gouramma of India, and Prince Alamayou of Abyssinia.

Myers' book leaves questions unanswered.

Myers’ book leaves questions unanswered.

One of the earliest of Victoria’s imperial godchildren may or may not have been a princess, but she certainly was of good (though massacred) family, as she was presented to the queen in 1850 as a gift from the notorious slave-trading King Gezo of Dahomey. The girl, Sarah (or Sally) Bonetta Forbes, had been named after the captain (Forbes) who represented the queen’s wish that the king cease his slaving activities, and the captain’s ship (the Bonetta)—like Paddington Bear, her birth name is lost to history, replaced by an English one at the whim of her rescuers. She was brought to Britain, but the British climate was seen as potentially fatal to Africans (much as the tropical climates were seen as potentially fatal to Europeans), so the young girl was sent back to Africa (to the Sierra Leone colony, where ironically the British had tried to send indigent Black Londoners in the 18th century—most of whom had died). She was sent there to be educated as part of Victoria’s Christianizing mission of Africa; it was felt that Forbes would be an excellent voice for Christianity in Africa, someone who would be listened to more readily than white missionaries. Forbes did not like Sierra Leone, and returned to England until her marriage to an African businessman. Following a short time living in Bristol, the couple returned to Sierra Leone, but Forbes visited the queen a number of times, and her own daughter—named Victoria after the queen—continued to do so after her mother’s death. Forbes’s story, which is highlighted in Walter Dean Myers’ biography At Her Majesty’s Service (1999), raises a number of unanswered questions about the peculiar “empire family” relationship between Queen Victoria and Sarah Forbes. Myers concludes the book with an afterword in which he asks several of them, including wondering about her birth name and her relationship with Africa. The questions remain unanswered, but Forbes’ story (and Myers’ account of it) keenly highlights the way that the British saw themselves as head of the imperial family, caretakers of the “childlike” races.

Books about Seacole were published after she was placed in Britain's National Curriculum--but now there is controversy about including her.

Books about Seacole were published after she was placed in Britain’s National Curriculum–but now there is controversy about including her.

Another Victorian troubled this image of the Great White Mother, even as she clearly longed to embrace her Mother Country. Mary Seacole, a Jamaican “doctress” (a common figure in the West Indies, who healed the sick through herbal remedies) came to Britain in 1854 to join Florence Nightingale’s nursing staff headed to the Crimean battlefields. Nightingale rejected her help, but Seacole went anyway, and by attending to soldiers on the battlefield (Nightingale and her nurses were positioned some distance away) and opening up The British Hotel, a hospital and recreational club (card games and alcohol—both disdained by Nightingale—were available for the soldiers), nearby, Seacole earned a nickname she coveted and promoted in her autobiography (The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, 1857): that of Mother Seacole. In an era when many women of African descent were not considered by British people as anything more than heathens to be converted or servants to be ordered about, Seacole earned the highest honor possible for any (especially childless) Victorian woman, white or black. She was allied through her name to Queen Victoria, the mother of the nation and the empire, through this nickname. But although this was a link that Nightingale herself never achieved, Seacole wanted to be recognized as a capable, useful, even heroic human being by the queen herself. Several reports offer connections between Seacole and the Royal Family, and though they are all unsubstantiated, it is of some significance that children’s versions of Seacole’s life continue to introduce this idea of Seacole on familiar terms with the queen. John Malam’s Tell me About Mary Seacole (2006) argues that “when the Prince of Wales, Queen Victoria’s eldest son, was ill, it was Mary who made him better” (20). And Paul Harrison’s Who was . . . Mary Seacole? (2007) said that “Mary would often meet with the Queen and Prince Albert” (18). True or not, it is the image that matters. A poor Jamaican nurse rejected by Florence Nightingale becomes accepted by two great symbols of imperial power: the British soldier who enforces empire, and the “ruling mother” of the Mother Country, Queen Victoria.

Curious that on the page where Mary Seacole dies, her death isn't mentioned.  From Paul Harrison's Who Was . . . Mary Seacole?

Curious that on the page where Mary Seacole dies, her death isn’t mentioned. From Paul Harrison’s Who Was . . . Mary Seacole?

Queen Victoria ruled over the largest empire ever to have existed, with dominion over people of many different nations. For a few of empire’s subjects, the queen herself played an intimate role as a mother figure to be honored or emulated. Both Sarah Bonetta Forbes and Mary Seacole were placed in the impossible position of having to reject their birth homes and pasts in order to be recognized as worthy of (white) Victorian England’s notice. Even then, Seacole and Forbes were often treated as curiosities or second-class citizens. In children’s books, the women are treated as heroes; but the underlying message of all of the books is that true power lay with a woman who, by virtue of her birth, could accept people as gifts and bring her version of civilization to a large portion of the world, whether they liked it or not. After all, Mother knows best!


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