Mary Seacole left her native Jamaica to travel through the Caribbean, The Bahamas, Central America and to England. Keen to offer her services to English troops in the Crimea War, she was at first refused official support. Undaunted she went anyway and set up her famous hotel catering for British soldiers. Despite her invaluable contribution, she returned to England penniless and in ill health. Thankfully her astonishing achievements were acknowledged and she became the toast of London society.
This is an extraordinary – and extraordinarily racist – book. Look, the past is another country. You simply can’t apply your own ethical framework to another culture whether they’re separated by space or time.
The book is actually three books in one. The first is an academic account of Mary Seacole’s life by modern academic Sara Salih. It does a brilliant job of explaining her background and the environment she was operating in. The second book is Seacole’s autobiography. Rich with detail and a fascinating look at her life. The third book is the hundreds of footnotes the Salih has added. They explain things which would have been obvious to the contemporary authors and are very welcome when dealing with the myriad of interchangeable British officers Seacole references.
Seacole is often said to have been unfairly written out of British history. She brought food and medicine to the Crimean war where it was badly needed. She didn’t do this as part of Mary Nightingale’s organised mission (although she tried). Instead, she struck out as an entrepreneur.
It is amazing how nakedly capitalist Seacole is! She is in the Crimea to act as a “doctoress” and make a handsome profit. A good deal of the book is about her profit-and-loss and her wheeling-dealing. She undoubtedly saved lives and healed the sick. Her medicines were much sort after, and she provided comfort to the dying. She didn’t enact the same structural changes to healthcare that Nightingale did – but perhaps she had a bigger impact on the way pastoral care was provided?
On to contemporary morals. Should we judge her for the racial epithets she carelessly throws around? Or the stereotypes she liberally abuses? Or her plucking the buttons from dead soldiers? She seemed popular with her contemporaries of all classes. She makes an impassioned case against the racist slave-owning Americans she encounters and their refusal to acknowledge her as a person. And yet has no problem treating others in a similar way.
She’s a complex woman who did extraordinary things under the most challenging circumstances. As an autobiography, it suffers from the usual one-sided view of history. But given the way she has been ignored in modern society, I think that’s only fair.
It is a wonderful adventure and a startling look at a conflict from an unusual perspective.