They are wonderful indeed, and surprising in their content. I knew Mary Seacole only vaguely as a Black nurse — as brave as Florence Nightingale in service of the soldiers in the Crimea, but too-much forgotten by history because of her race. I found her plaque in Soho Square ages ago, which is when she went onto my reading list, moved up by encounters at the Black Cultural Archives and thinking about Empire. I read this seeking London and Black experience here as much as anything else, and didn’t find it at all but I was not sad about that.
London seems most tame, a stopping place between New Granada and the Crimea, which is a novel place for this city, and not a bad one at all.
In her life she did everything possible to burst the constraints placed on her by gender and race, while also clearly enjoying her own femininity — I love that she redefines an understanding of ‘feminine’ to include long and dangerous travels, courage under fire, intense compassion for all human beings, immense curiosity about the world, and a love of beautiful dresses and home comforts.
I cannot forget her temper, either. It carries her through swashbuckling-wise.
In this she subverts other long-held feminine conventions in her love of war and its pageantry, which she sees as adventure even after experiencing it — had she been born a man in this period she would have been a soldier as her Scottish father was I am sure. That was one boundary she was not prepared to cross as a handful of other women did by giving up their identity as women all together. So instead she learned how to heal, and sought out adventures — the Crimean War being only one of them — where her talents would do the most good.
Restless and wishing to see the world (while also fleeing tragedy in the death of her mother and husband), she follows her brother from Jamaica (her place of birth) to New Granada — a centralist republic that has since been divided into pieces of modern-day Colombia, Panama, and Ecuador (I knew this old history of South America once, but it was a jolt to recover it again, I had forgotten these older divisions, a good reminder of how shifting nations and boundaries really are).
Her story reminded me so much of the works by B. Traven — but without that discomfort I sometimes get, that feeling of just another European slumming (though he was better than most, I know). There, in Cruces then Gorgona, Panama, she opened up a hotel and restaurant, while also battling outbreaks of cholera.
The early ties between this country and the US are fascinating — many Estadounidenses travelled from the East Coast to California by sea, making the hard trek across Panama to travel by sea once more. This included both US troops and the goldrushers seeking California.
I knew some of this, vaguely, but before reading this I had no sense of what that might entail. I am newly fascinated by the slaves who fled South to freedom — we never learned about that road in school. Seacole writes:
I may have before said that the citizens of New Granada Republic had a strong prejudice against all Americans. It is not difficult to assign a cause for this. In the first place, many of the negroes, fugitive from the Southern States, had sought refuge in this and other States of Central America, where every profession was open to them; and as they were generally superior men–evinced perhaps by their hatred of their old condition and their successful flight–they soon rose to positions of eminence in New Granada. In the priesthood, in the army, in all municipal offices, the self-liberated negroes were invariably found in the foremost rank; and the people, for some reason–perhaps because they recognised in them superior talents for administration–always respected them more than, and preferred them to, their native rulers. So that, influenced naturally by these freed slaves, who bore themselves before their old masters bravely and like men, the New Granada people were strongly prejudiced against the Americans. And in the second and third places, they feared their quarrelsome, bullying habits — be it remembered that the crowds to California were of the lowest sorts, many of whom have since fertilised Cuban and Nicaraguan soil–and dreaded their schemes for annexation (51).
She gives a particular example of a toast from a Southern man — and it gives a sense of her spirit and character. The toast:
So, I say, God bless the best yaller woman He ever made…I calculate, gentlemen, you’re all as vexed as I am that she’s not wholly white —, but I du reckon on your rejoicing with me that she’s so many shades removed from being entirely black —; and I guess, if we could bleach her by any means we would —, and thus make her as acceptable in any company as she deserves to be… (47)
…I don’t altogether appreciate your friend’s kind wishes with respect to my complexion. If it had been as dark as any nigger’s I should have been just as happy and as useful, and as much respected by those whose respect I value; and as to his offer of bleaching me, I should, even if it were practicable, decline it without any thanks. As to the society which the process might gain me admission into, all I can say is, that, judging from the specimens I have met with here and elsewhere, I don’t think that I shall lose much by being excluded from it. So, gentlemen, I drink to you and the general reformation of American manners. (48)
The round goes to Mother Seacole.
In Gorgona she ran a hotel for women only. She returned to Jamaica, came back, still restless. On Navy Bay she writes:
my friend Mr. H—- … carefully piloted me through the wretched streets, giving me especial warning not to stumble over what looked like three long boxes, loosely covered with the débris of a fallen house. They had such a peculiar look about them that I stopped to ask what they were, receiving an answer which revived all my former memories of Darien life, “Oh, they’re only three Irishmen killed in a row a week ago, whom its nobody’s business to bury.” (63-64)
That hurt my heart. Her descriptions are wonderfully evocative of place — her restlessness drives her to a tiny town called Escribanos, 70 miles from Navy Bay, and here follows the most surprising adventure, at least to me:
As I was at this place for some months altogether, and as it was the only portion of my life devoted to gold-seeking, I shall make no apologies for endeavouring to describe the out-of-the-way-village-life of New Granada. (65)
And I once did come upon some heavy yellow material, that brought my heart into my mouth with that strange thrilling delight which all who have hunted for the precious metal understand so well (67).
She became a prospector! I and my family know that delight, and this resonated curiously with the two African American women who were prominent prospectors in Arizona’s Superstitions. This was only ever a brief sideline however, her central occupations as always being running a comfortable(ish) place offering room and board, and healing all those who came to her. Charging those who could pay, but never failing to attend those who could not. A good thing too, as she had found what must have been pyrite.
Her descriptions of life there are wonderful, and here is a glimpse, too, of the lives of those who escaped slavery — Carlos Alexander, the alcalde:
He was a black man; was fond of talking of his early life in slavery, and how he had escaped; and possessed no ordinary intellect. He possessed, also, a house, which in England a well-bred hound would not have accepted as a kennel; a white wife, and a pretty daughter, with a whitey-brown complexion and a pleasant name — Juliana. (66)
Hers is a curious matter-of-factness, especially around race, and is not untainted by the racism of the times. She has a servant she calls Jew Johnny, there are numbers of uncomfortable descriptions of Greeks and Turks and her own black servants (she saw herself as creole). There is no way to know, now, if this was just part of an easy and joking familiarity, if there was a sense of shared oppression, or if her relations were as regulated by the strict hierarchy of skin colour and nationality as any others.
We won’t know in part because this book is not just a description of her life, as she says, but a defense of it — and a defense of her own capacity both as a nurse and a woman (and it still needs defending from the likes of the Daily Mail). I cannot help but feel she believed she was defending the capacity, courage and intelligence of all women of colour, along with traditional medicine and the knowledge that comes with experience rather than Oxbridge.
We are still fighting all of these things.
She had her own battles every step of her journey, especially to get to the Crimea where she felt called. She marshals a number of short and formal notes of recommendation from important men as credentials in her support. She highlights this near the end:
Please look back to Chapter VIII, and see how hard the right woman had to struggle to convey herself to the right place. (134)
But my favourite letter is from a common soldier, it is warm and personal and gives you a true sense of her courage and compassion and what she meant to those fighting. Makes me wish she had not been under those constraints of bankruptcy along with general disrespect and disbelief both for her gender, and for her race.
A last photo of her:
And a final note that Mary Seacole recommended butter in coffee over a century before the hipsters did.