Passive Voice, Active Prejudice: Mary Seacole in Children’s Literature and Media

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Harewood’s ITV programme celebrates the new statue of Mary Seacole in London–but not everyone is pleased.

This week, Britain’s ITV showed a programme on Mary Seacole entitled “In the Shadow of Mary Seacole.” In some ways, the programme could have been titled, “Mary Seacole in the Shadow of British Racism.” Many people who initially celebrated the fact that ITV was telling the story of the woman labeled “The Greatest Black Briton” in 2004 were dismayed to find that the programme was put on the schedule at 10:40 pm. Others complained that the programme focused on the opinions of white historians. Indeed, it seemed that most, though not all, of Seacole’s defenders in the programme were non-historians: actors, comedians, nurses. Unfortunately, none of this is new when it comes to Mary Seacole—and children’s books about the Jamaican Crimean War nurse are no exception.

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You have two minutes for questions on . . . Mary Seacole: the biography with Mastermind presenter Magnus Magnusson listed as author.

 

I’ve written in various places about Mary Seacole before (see my article in Bookbird, for example, “My (Black) Britain”) so rather than rehash what I’ve previously written, I want to focus on a particular children’s biography that caught my eye. Its title is fairly unremarkable, Famous People: Mary Seacole 1805-1881, but what led me to order it last year was one of the listed authors. Christine Moorcroft—who I presume is the main author of the book—shares author credit with Magnus Magnusson. British readers of this blog will know Magnusson’s name as the original presenter of the long-running quiz show Mastermind; I was curious about his involvement in a book about Mary Seacole (as an Icelandic citizen all his life, I doubted Mary Seacole was his “specialist subject”). When the book came, I understood. Prominently on the front of the book, in between the authors’ names, is a multicoloured number “4”. The book was written as part of a Channel Four Schools project that combined short videos (still available here: https://shop.channel4learning.com/?page=shop&cid=8&pid=1603 although this is not an endorsement since I haven’t seen them yet—just in case you are interested) with books and related classroom materials. Other people profiled in the series include Cleopatra, Boudica and Gandhi, so the series clearly had a commitment to a broad range of historical figures from within and without Britain.

 

But although the series is committed to “historical evidence” “to show that the story is true” (both these quotations come from the promotional blurb on the website listed above), the book version of the biography is hampered by its use as an educational tool and its desire not to alienate a white British audience into some rather strange versions of historical accuracy. Factually, it often allows untruths for the sake of its audience; Mary Seacole’s mother “married a Scottish officer” (6), something for which there is no evidence and which overall historical patterns would suggest was unlikely. In children’s books, however, parents are still supposed to be legally married, and the complicated relations between Black and white people in the Caribbean were perhaps a bridge too far for this book. Later, when Seacole goes to London, “She was called names by other children because she was black. Nonetheless, she went back to London many times” (8). Racism can’t be that bad if she keeps going back—can it?

 

Children in London might call racist names, but the text exonerates specific British adults from any racism against Seacole. It mostly does this through the use of passive voice. Seacole goes to London to join Florence Nightingale’s nurses and is rejected—but not by anyone in particular, and not necessarily because she was Black: “Mary was told that no more nurses were needed” (11). When she eventually gets to the Crimea, and to Nightingale’s unit, “Mary went to see her and was given a bed for the night” (13). Nothing is said in the rest of the text that even hints of racism, and the book ends quite happily: “Mary was famous when she arrived in London. People had read about her in the newspapers. She was the guest of honour at a dinner with the army. The soldiers cheered her” (19). The book never calls out British officials or Florence Nightingale for racist attitudes, and lessens the impact of Seacole’s heroism by avoiding the real struggles she went through to be accepted.

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Right to be skeptical? A still from the deleted CBBC episode of Horrible Histories.

 

Moorcroft and Magnusson’s reluctance to talk about British racism is a justifiable attitude—if you look at what happened when other accounts of Seacole’s life tried to depict this racism. Terry Deary’s Horrible Histories book series generally avoids discussions of racism (there’s no Horrible Histories: Rude Racists, for example), but when the television sketch show based on his books did a segment on Nightingale and Seacole where both women were jostling each other over who would get the attention of a PR agent, the show received official complaints for appearing to criticize Florence Nightingale’s attitude toward Seacole. The complaint was upheld, and the segment is no longer available to watch (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2775315/BBC-criticised-implying-Florence-Nightingale-racist-children-s-Horrible-Histories.html). One of the people who complained was Professor Lynn McDonald, a member of the Florence Nightingale Society. McDonald, and the Florence Nightingale Society, regularly write letters and newspaper articles criticizing various forms of media for their portrayal of Seacole.

 

Which brings me back to presenter David Harewood and ITV’s programme, “In the Shadow of Mary Seacole”. One of the people interviewed by Harewood was Mark Bostridge, who wrote a biography of Nightingale—and who is also a member of the Florence Nightingale Society. He calls the “myth” of Mary Seacole “faking history at its worst” (“In the Shadow” 1.24). This claim is left alone, being countered with a response about the caring concern of Seacole. I’m not arguing that Seacole was not caring, but by not putting Bostridge’s claims next to one of the other people in the programme who talk about the kind of medicine that Seacole practiced, the show appears to accept that Seacole was, as Harewood says directly after Bostridge’s comments, “medically unqualified” (1.36). Imagine if Nightingale was portrayed as learning her nursing skills from a group of religious zealots in only four months (she did her training with Lutheran “deaconesses” and only spent a short time with them): would we still look at her as the heroine she has become? How we describe people matters, and it matters especially in books and media for children. We should never teach children to passively accept a power hierarchy—like Mary Seacole, we should constantly challenge it.

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7 thoughts on “Passive Voice, Active Prejudice: Mary Seacole in Children’s Literature and Media

  1. Danielle Dawson

    You should a look a bit more closely at Nightingale’s training and extensive experience of studying nursing methods.You might then look at Nightingale’s fifty year career post-Crimea to establish a modern health system before you try to invite the kind of comparisons you’re making here. I realise it’s hard work but it’;s worth doing if anything you write on this subject is to have any value at all. It’s fine to create heroines like Seacole but not at the expense of verifiable facts!

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  2. sandsk2014 Post author

    Actually, your comment proves my point–a lot of how we understand figures from history depends on how they are presented. I am thoroughly aware of Nightingale’s training, but Seacole had training as well–just training from a different tradition than we value now. Seacole learned to set bones from a surgeon, did autopsies, and produced remedies for yellow fever.

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  3. sandsk2014 Post author

    Good heavens, if we discounted all medical professionals who used drugs with what we now know are poisonous, we wouldn’t celebrate any doctors or nurses before 1980 at least–arsenic, laudanum, codeine, belladonna, not to mention dyes and cleaning materials that were common in the 19th century are all regulated or banned now.

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  4. Danielle Dawson

    Consider this:
    Seacole, Profession Nurse, but she was a boarding house keeper, restaurant and bar owner, caterer; it is the current propaganda that she was a nurse, but where and when did she nurse? She never claimed to have in her memoir, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, 1857.

    Category: Medicine. Mrs Seacole called herself “doctress, nurse and mother” (p 124). However, the only remedy for which she gave the ingredients show that she used toxic substances (lead and mercury) and dehydrated bowel patients (p 31), when they need rehydration. No doctor in the Crimean War ever let her into any army hospital. Her memoir includes a letter from a late medical officer of the West Granada, Gold mining Company (p 77). Doctors’ memoirs from the Crimea refer to her in positive terms, for her store and restaurant — some were her customers — but not as a medical colleague or nurse.

    2. Pioneer Nurse and heroine? What did she pioneer? Heroine? Again, this is an exaggeration of her 3 excursions onto the battlefield, all post-battle (she missed the first 3, major, battles of the war as she was busy with her gold mining stocks in London when it started).

    3. More details. Medical Experiences? What? Daughter of a Scottish army officer? Her memoir only says that her father was a soldier (p 1). Her husband claimed to have been a godson of Lord Nelson, but was he? Any evidence? Biographer Jane Robinson tried to document this, unsuccessfully (Mary Seacole, Charismatic Black Nurse, pp 30-31).

    4. The Crimea. Seacole did not leave for England from the Caribbean “on hearing of the outbreak of the Crimea War.” She was in Panama, with a business for men going to the California Gold Rush. She left for London months later to attend to her (failing) gold stocks, and spent 2 months there on this, as she explained in her memoir. Nightingale and her team left on October 20 1854, the second team on December 2. Mrs Seacole missed both departures.

    5. Reports of “her tending the wounded while under fire” are again exaggerations. She was seen by the Times correspondent, W.H. Russell, meaning that he, too, was on the battlefield getting stories, also post-battle.

    6. Seacole’s “outstanding stocks” was the result of a bad business decision, on her part and that of her business partner’s, neither claimed otherwise. They were doing well after the last battle, on 8 September 1855, so that officers had plenty of time for dining out and excursions, which she catered.

    7. That Seacole ”mixed increasingly with royalty” is entirely unfounded. She may or may not have been a masseuse to the Princess of Wales — there is no evidence that she was. She was sculpted by Count Gleichen, and the Queen contributed to the fund to support her, but there no evidence of socializing with any members of the royal family, unless you found some?

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  5. sandsk2014 Post author

    Um, confused. I didn’t say any of these things–one way or the other. But just to correct one of your points–not that you will take what Seacole herself says as truth, unless it happens to suit your view–“My father was a soldier, of an old Scotch family” (Wonderful Adventures 11; I use the edition from Penguin with an introduction from Sara Salih).

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