Mary Seacole: My Inalienable Right To Self-Identify

Exactly 217 years on the birth day of the famous doctress, Ziggi Alexander, one of a select few who re-introduced Mary Seacole to the general public, through her writings, exhibitions and presentations of Seacole's biography from the centenary of her death in the early 1980s, re-examines Seacole's racial heritage, issues of colourism, the alleged biological daughter, and amongst other things, highlights other contemporary self-made women entrepreneurs who made a fortune in spite of the legal and social barriers they faced because of the shade of their skin.

Mary Seacole: My Inalienable Right To Self-Identify

By Ziggi Alexander

How does a woman with a recently unearthed family tree bearing three White
grandparents and one White parent remain a ‘Black’ cultural icon? Interestingly, this
recently revealed conundrum begins with the chance discovery of the only known
portrait of Mary Jane Seacole (née Grant), produced by the artist Albert Charles
Challen, which now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Who was Mary Jane Grant Seacole (1805-1881), whose book Wonderful
Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands
was first published in London in 1857?(1)

Her fame partially rests on the fact that Wonderful Adventures is the earliest book so
far identified as actually written by a Caribbean-born woman herself; a woman with
an Empire-wide reputation, who was not only a reliable political commentator, but
also had an insatiable appetite for adventure, a recognised dedication to public
service, and a good head for business, pharmacy and nursing. Married to an ailing
White man for nearly 8 years(2), Seacole was widowed and lost her mother not long
after chattel slavery was abolished (in name) in the British Atlantic colonies.

As a consequence, the world around her was changing dramatically and she more than
moved with the times; a frequent traveller in pursuit of trading opportunities
(including a pop-up shop in Panama City), she offered her specialist medical skills
wherever needed. She shared her opinions on a range of social issues, from cross-
dressing White women, including ‘the female companions of the successful gold-
diggers [who] appeared in no hurry to resume the dress or obligations of their sex’, to African American resilience on ‘the southern trail to freedom which, without the help
of northern White abolitionists, provided an alternative escape route for southern
American slaves’.

In addition, she noted the positive influence of these immigrants in central America, the skin colour conflicts with White ‘forty-niners’ and the aggressive
tactics of north American mercenaries that subsequently ‘proved Mary Seacole to be
an accurate observer of U.S. imperialist intentions in the Americas’(3). However, if she
is known best for anything, it is her contribution to nursing in the mid-century war in
the Crimea. Most biographers cover her actions in the war with great gusto, and
paint a rich picture of what appears to be, at least on the surface, an ambitious,
proud, able and fearless migrant woman operating successfully in an environment
dominated by derring-do military White men.

Whilst the Jamaican nurse is popularly associated with the Crimean War, any
antiracist assessment of this complex historical period in the British Empire, and the
multifaceted human being at the heart of this enquiry, requires study way beyond
scratching the surface of traditional folklore. Delving deeper, I found myself recalling
a passage in Achille Mbembe’s Critique of Black Reason that references Frantz
Fanon’s writings about the White gaze:

I am not Black, Fanon declares, any more than I am a Black Man. Black is neither my
last name nor my first name, even less my essence or my identity. I am a human
being, and that is all. The Other can dispute this quality, but they can never rob me of
it ontologically. The fact of being a slave or of being colonized—of being the object of
discrimination and bullying, privation and humiliation, because of the color of my
skin—changes absolutely nothing. I remain a complete human being no matter how
violent are the efforts aimed at making me think that I am not one… “Black” is
therefore a nickname, a tunic that someone else has dressed me in, seeking to trap
me within it(4).

This expression of Négritude is both powerful and relevant. To it, one can add
Saidiya Hartman’s observation that ‘[historical] fact is simply fiction endorsed with
state power… to maintain fidelity to a certain set of archival limit… Given the
violence and power that has engendered this limit, why should I be faithful to that
limit?’ (Alexis Okeowo, ‘How Saidiya Hartman Retells the History of Black Life’, The
New Yorker, 19 October 2020.) When Fanon and Hartman’s ideas are combined
with a personal response to Toni Morrison’s ‘emotional memory’, that is, finding truth
and meaning within one’s community or one’s own humanity, as opposed to
standard Euro-American historical records, then a useful framework emerges to
assess Seacole’s legacy in a twenty-first century, post-George Floyd context.

Once applied, these parameters mean that it is unacceptable to present naïve
assumptions about how, in previous centuries, most diasporan Black people
navigated White rule and the vast swathes of White supremacist spaces. Also, it is
imperative that any assessment of Seacole does not whitewash the complexity of
nineteenth century colourism, or generally treat the varied descendants of enslaved
Jamaicans as a homogenous group. Furthermore, one is reminded that in ‘her
struggles to become a Crimean heroine’ Mary Seacole spent less than 400 days of
her 75 years in active service during the war in the East(5).

So what follows tries to avoid placing war centre stage in imitation of the original memoir, a risky ploy in current times. Still, it raises the question why Protestant, imperialist Victorians
overlooked Seacole the Catholic ‘fallen woman’ (allegedly) to embrace Dear
Old Mother Seacole as a surrogate for their ‘boys’ who were simultaneously her
White ‘sons’, and accept as natural Mary’s unflinching loyalty to the British Empire as
an institution(6).

In the twentieth century, it was often the case that accounts of the eighteenth
and nineteenth century history of Jamaica minimised the lived experience of the
majority population who endured a plantation, followed by an oppressive colonial,
society that was one of the precursors to the South African apartheid system. As an
illustration of that racialised regime, in A Treatise on Tropical Diseases; and on The
Climate of the West-Indies, Benjamin Moseley, while surgeon-general of Jamaica,
amputated the limbs of enslaved people to confirm that ‘what would cause
insufferable pain to a white man, a Negro would almost disregard’ (1787, pp472-
473). By the middle of the nineteenth-century, Seacole’s British contemporaries were
more familiar with the popular articles and books penned by the White polygenist
surgeon, Josiah Clark Nott who experimented on free and enslaved darker-skinned
people in Alabama.

Seacole’s backstory is often interpreted by presenting that history using,
among other means, the lens of the Carlyle-endorsed White supremacist, Anthony
Trollope, he who had an eye for ‘mulatto’ girls. Trollope divulged to his readers that
although not a negrophobe, Seacole’s sister, Louisa Grant, refused to cater for
distinguished Afro-Caribbean guests at her lodging house. The ‘quadroon’ famously
told him, ‘I won’t keep a house’ for no ‘black nigger’, no ‘black beast’ and no ‘black
women – Bah!’(7).

The actual nigger in question was no less than the abolitionist
revolutionary, former emperor of Haiti, Faustin-Élie Soulouque. To those for whom it
matters down to their DNA, Haiti was the first African, and second republic in the
Americas. However, the Buckra or Grand White Master conceived and exploited
racialised structures across the whole circum-Caribbean, always delineating lower
class with darker skin tones; the obvious exception being revolutionary Haiti. The
British state sponsored colourism was first officially acknowledged in 1823, when Governor Manchester warned the Colonial Office about the hostile atmosphere
created in Jamaica because ‘the dark coloured and blacks’ were ‘indignant at the
superiority which those of a fairer complexion claim over them’(8).

It is hardly surprising that skin tone became an important form of social
currency, not least in Seacole’s immediate family. Recently, a Seacole biographer
scored a major coup by pinning down the details of the maternal line(9). She hired a
local Jamaican researcher who uncovered the birth and other records for Seacole’s
mother, Rebecca, a free ‘mulatto’, and not a woman of African descent as surmised
in earlier studies. Rebecca had several children with White men, thereby providing
each with more social cachet than she had. It remains inexplicable then, why
Seacole accepted the painter Challen’s likeness of her, for she clearly asserted that
‘I am only a little brown – a few shades duskier than the brunettes whom you all
admire so much’(10).

Perhaps she sat for the portrait after returning from a sojourn in
the torrid zone where she acquired the deepest of tans. The earliest likeness of her that has survived, created at some point in the 1850s, was William Simpson’s pen-and-ink drawing. Her carte de visite photograph
appears to have been taken over a decade later. Both images show the features of a
woman who is ‘a little brown’. In further vindication of her self-identification, her
recollections show that even the most racist of Seacole’s north American patients
regretted that she was ‘not wholly white’, but rejoiced that she was ‘so many shades
removed from being entirely black’ – specifically, ‘the best yaller woman’ ‘God ever
made’ (Wonderful Adventures, p97). As north American ‘yaller’ meant light-skinned,
usually indicating a ‘quadroon’ or ‘octoroon’, untold numbers of people stamped with
those labels undermined the entrenched racism of their open prison by living
clandestinely, or sometimes boldly, as White citizens(11).

As explained later, a poignant case of the opposite of this trend was the nineteenth century writer David F. Dorr (c1827-c1872). The Cleveland Plain Dealer (20 September 1858, 3) commented that
‘the author [of A Colored Man Round the World] is a Quadroon but would readily
pass any where as a white (and an excellent white man too)’. Unlike Dorr, Seacole
would have expected to reap the societal benefits of her majority European blood(12).
On the other hand, there is no accounting for what the racist eye can see. An
explicit example appeared in The Woman’s Signal (30 December 1897, 6), which
referred to ‘Mother Seacole, a Jamaican negress of the darkest hue’. Furthermore, a
column syndicated to newspapers across Britain from the London Correspondent
that appeared in the Belfast News-Letter (25 January 1867, 3) suggested that ‘Mrs
Seacoal [sic] is a native of Jamaica, and her white teeth and ebony visage were well
known throughout the British lines’. Fast forward over a century and a half, the 2022
Seacole biography claims that Mary frequently underplayed ‘the darkness of her
skin’ (In Search of Mary Seacole: the making of a cultural icon, London, 2022, p53).

Furthermore, in ‘white social settings Mary was clearly highly sensitive to her colour
and racial difference and anxious to ingratiate herself and cross that exclusive
boundary into acceptance by the colonial establishment. It is perhaps this aspiration
that many of her admirers today find an unsettling negative in Mary’s personality,
and it has, over the years, been cause for criticism’ (In Search of Mary Seacole,
p261). Incidentally, the endnote attached to this passage references Tracy
Robinson’s book, Fifty Years at Panama: 1861-1911 (New York, 1907), in which that
author recalls a party in Panama City attended by Seacole – a “queer, quaint, jolly,
vain, self-important, old brown woman, long since gone ‘where the good darkeys go’.
Said she, one day, to a lady: ‘If you could see me madam, under my dress, you
would be surprised how white I am. It is exposure to the air that makes my face and hands so brown.’ She had forgotten her curly locks and Dark Continent features.”
(Fifty Years at Panama, p122: emphasis added.)

Both writers would have us believe that Seacole had a personality disorder centred on the denial of ‘Blackness’. Should that be the case, then Mary Seacole may have suffered from a serious mental health
condition – skin-tone trauma – competently described by U.S. academics Antoinette
M Landor (University of Missouri, Center for Body Image Research and Policy) and
Shardé McNeil Smith (University of Illinois)(13).

Whether off-white, ebony, dark brown, high yellow, red, sable, almond or
brown sugar, and putting all the racialised speculation to one side, it is unlikely that
members of Mary’s close family would have accepted a ‘Black’ branding. In fact,
these particular Jamaicans might not have identified with their twentieth-century
compatriot, Bob Marley who revealed ‘my father was a white and my mother black…
Them call me half-caste, or whatever. Well, me don’t dip on nobody’s side. Me don’t
dip on the black man’s side nor the white man’s side. Me dip on God’s side, the one
who create me and cause me to come from black and white’(14).

Over the years a great deal has been written from the angle of Marley and
Seacole’s (differing percentage) mixed heritage exceptionalism. Nevertheless, most
modern readers seek out and relate to alternative, sophisticated world histories that
embrace difference as a crucial element of human inclusivity. There is increasing
interest in stories about ordinary people from a range of backgrounds, in both the
islands of Great Britain and across the circum-Caribbean, who created fulfilling lives
despite the imposed restrictions concocted by a global minority of European origin.
Starting with the extensive travel for which Seacole is admired, look no further than
David F. Dorr. In his book, A Colored Man Round the World: By a Quadroon (1858),
Dorr provides a fascinating, but flawed, account of his three years’ tour of the Middle East, Asia and Europe in the 1850s, including the English capital, where the year after publication ‘the coloured inhabitants of London’ protested that Jamaican government agents were trying to ‘induce people of colour to emigrate to the West

Dorr’s travelogue is particularly interesting because by self-publishing, the
New Orleanian avoided the tight strictures White abolitionists (rarely equality
advocates) generally imposed on African American and Caribbean writers who were
shoehorned into the formulaic slave narrative. He dedicated his book with a tear-
jerker inscription ‘To My Slave Mother’.

David Dorr fled from his owner to claim his freedom(16) or he suffered from
drapetomania, to use the official medical term! Bridget Mason (1803-1877) had a
very different journey to selfhood. She is one of hundreds of contemporary women
who could stand tall with Seacole. Mason was an illiterate, enslaved Southerner who
took control of her destiny to become a California Gold Rush entrepreneur and
philanthropist. Thanks to her indomitable spirit, she survived the journey following
her owners’ ‘wagons on foot down the long dusty trail from Salt Lake City to southern
California, herding the cattle, and still looking after her three [biological] children’.
She not only successfully petitioned for her extended 14-member family’s freedom in
1856, but also, ‘relying on skills she had honed all her life – herbal medicine,
midwifery, and nursing… found employment with Dr John S Griffin as both a nurse
and a midwife’.

She also applied her clinical skills at the county jail and local hospital.
Mason entered the history books as one of the first female landowners in Los
Angeles, co-founding the area’s inaugural church for African American worshippers,
and an elementary school for the community’s children(17).

Also linked in Atlantic space, time and liberty were two other businesswomen.
Elizabeth A. Gloucester (1817-1883), described as a ‘mulatto’, managed a string of boarding houses in New York City and, at the time of her death, was worth over seven million dollars in today’s money. She was a supporter of the Underground Railroad and backed the abolitionist John Brown, as did another woman who owned a successful property empire, including boarding houses on the California end of the Gold Rush hospitality industry. Mary Ellen Pleasant (1815-1904), who later drew race pride recognition from W. E. B. Du Bois, was a former Georgia field slave turned Abolitionist and insurrectionist. She became a millionaire, ‘having one of the shrewdest business minds of the State [of California]’, and like the West Indian hotelier, Seacole, Pleasant was always flamboyantly dressed(18). The details of her early years were both sparse and contested, just as Seacole’s were, and she, too,
temporarily became one of history’s forgotten heroes.

Some authors have overplayed the Seacole ‘forgotten’ history card that
peaked over thirty years ago. Contemporaneously, there is no doubt Seacole sought
celebrity and conversely, she attracted huge publicity at numerous points in later life.
Understandably, her death in 1881 was covered by provincial, national, and colonial
outlets. Even her bankruptcy created quite a stir, with the Norwich Mercury among
the newspapers that joined the restitution rallying cry: ‘while the benevolent deeds of
Florence Nightingale are being handed down to posterity with blessings and
imperishable renown, are the humbler actions of Mrs Seacole to be entirely

In more recent times a host of articles show how that rhetorical
question was answered and charts the Caribbean Mary’s story as it passed into UK
popular culture from fêted to has-been and fêted again. In the 2019 play Marys
Seacole – ‘the immigrant story on steroids'(20) – the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright
Jackie Sibblies Drury creates a modern paean to the Jamaican’s A-lister status, which contrasts well with a nineteenth century Gleichen bust of her selling for £101,000 in 2020.

There are not too many Jamaican women who can attract such a strong
following, in the twenty-first century, or any other period. Yet here was an
experienced practitioner, rightly proud of her achievements, especially managing the
deleterious effects of tropical climates and diseases, and treating the wounds of
warfare or lawlessness, having to accept people, according to her, with a slightly
paler skin, routinely dismissing her as inferior. To add insult to injury, for the privilege
of taking care of them, she had to be desexualised. Both the Jamaican herself, and
her customers and patients, used every conceivable negative, age-specific term to
describe her. One could argue that this socially constructed image of a stout ‘matron’
was essential to allow Seacole to operate a business at the Front, and later, to be
presented as an acceptable hero to the Victorian public. Kay Heath maintains that
during Victoria’s reign, White middle age mutated from prime of life to signal the
beginning of physical deterioration, so after the menopause White women were side-
lined as old(21).

More complex still, were the racial overtones of the plantation and
colonial role of the non-familial ‘Aunty’ or ‘Mammy’. Always represented as fat,
Mammies provided unquestioning loyalty and superior care of their White charges
compared to how they treated their own children. In Seacole’s case, by lauding her
treatment of her White ‘sons’, while ignoring the questionable quality of life of an
unproven illegitimate daughter, some Seacole fans create white noise and
reputational damage to the Jamaican’s legacy.

The idea of a biological daughter has been tantalising Seacole supporters for
decades. Simply put, an unconfirmed lover and a groundless Nightingale inspired
rumour of a bastard child rely on manipulated gossip from secondary sources to support this unsubstantiated hypothesis. In the end, whether fact or fiction, the truth
may well be unravelled by someone who sources and interrogates new veins of
subaltern histories, or who manipulates traditional ‘evidence’ in novel ways so that
the prevailing gendered and racial hierarchies can be decommissioned for good.
Furthermore, by way of background, it is important to understand that in the
Caribbean, especially at the time, it was common for a poor girl to become a live-in
maid in a well-to-do family for the cost of her food, lodging and, if lucky, schooling
also. (In various other parts of the circum-Caribbean, until the end of the nineteenth-
century, money often changed hands for the servant/enslaved child.) So, ‘Mother’
Seacole did not reprise the role of the old lady who had invited the young Mary Grant
into her home and brought her up ‘among her own grandchildren’ (Wonderful
, p56). Instead of repeating the formal education and working holidays in
London she had enjoyed as a result of the generosity of her ‘patroness’, Seacole, by
her own admission, took both her child workers to extreme locations characterised
by vermin, danger, drunkenness and disease. Mary Seacole was, first and foremost,
an entrepreneur, not a foster parent, and may well have been an adrenaline junkie to

It has been posited that, in Panama, at the makeshift British Hotel Mark 1,
Seacole was accompanied by a Jamaican cook, as well as a biological daughter.
Unfortunately, the latter had the role of a child skivvy(22). In Wonderful Adventures
(p90), Seacole vividly describes one of ‘daughter’-cum-maid Mary’s jobs, which was
to crawl under the massive dining table among the feet of violent White men,
marking on a chalkboard the number of discarded eggshells that each diner had
thrown down to avoid payment. Furthermore, a ‘yellow’ complexioned child was
particularly vulnerable in a White slave-catcher area, despite thousands of Afro-Jamaican migrants working in the immediate vicinity. Even the middle-aged Caribbean doctress was teased with the offer of bleaching her skin white by a grateful White, male patient, not to mention her experience of Jim Crow segregation,
imposed by the White north American harridans on a Kingston-bound steamer. The steamer episode is one of the most compelling in Seacole’s narrative, describing as it does what modern audiences would recognise as child abuse.

By writing extensively about the racist attack on herself, Seacole briefly shares that
‘some children had taken my little servant Mary in hand, and were practising on her
the politenesses which their parents were favouring me with – only as is the wont of
children, they were crueller. I cannot help it if I shock my readers, but the truth is,
that one positively spat in poor little Mary’s frightened yellow face’(23). The indignant
British subject continued the almost unrelenting fight for her own rights. The
passages after the big spit do not mention any action to wipe off the offensive saliva,
nor report any adult comforting the assaulted little girl. Without apology, Seacole
recorded her reaction as a privileged, disinterested employer.

Despite the presence of her Jamaican cooks and, this time a teenage girl –
described as an Egyptian beauty called Sarah (aka Sally) – the Crimean venture
itself turned out to be the most perilous escapade of all. However, despite recent
speculation, no-one has established that Seacole’s travelling companion –
Sarah/Sally – was, in fact, Seacole’s biological daughter. At a brief stop in Gibraltar,
an old army acquaintance warned Seacole that the warfront was ‘not the place even
for you [Mother Seacole], who know what hardship is’(24). He did not get the
opportunity to speak to Sarah (Sally). So, Sarah (Sally) was part of the entourage,
including ‘Jew Johnny’, that reached their scheduled destination – iron and wooden
buildings with accommodation, or British Hotel Mark 2 25 , located near British lines, a
little distance from the alcohol dens and whoring cesspool called Kadikoi. This time,
Seacole’s characteristic flirtation with danger resulted in bankruptcy and damage to
her health.

So far, attempts have failed to show that the 9-year-old ‘little black maid’
named Mary who worked under the dining table in Panama (Wonderful Adventures,
p90), and elsewhere introduced by Seacole with a ‘yellow face’ (Wonderful
, p106), was the same person, now called Sarah or Sally, that the French
chef Alexis Soyer described in the Crimea, as having an ‘exotic bronze complexion’
and ‘blue eyes’. The latter girl was either 14 years or 16 years old depending on the
witness or, possibly, the Crimean year in which she was seen(26). In furtherance of this
merging of two, ‘they all look alike’, human beings, but not in the antiracist manner of
Saidiya Hartman’s ‘critical fabulation’(27) a mother-daughter bonding scene en route to
the Crimea has been manufactured by one author, claiming Seacole and the girl with
different descriptions and names once enjoyed a physically challenging tour of

As intimated earlier, there is a well-known cultural basis for girls working for a
prosperous family, friend or a distant relative. The north American dramatist Jackie
Sibblies Drury is familiar with the local tradition, and is fascinated that Seacole ‘just
mentions tangentially this patroness and this mother and I was really interested in
digging into that. It was a common thing in the Caribbean, if you were a middle class
person or an upper-middle class person, to have a young girl come and stay with
you, who you pay for schooling, and she is your maid. A lot of children were raised
that way, and that it is this intergenerational unbonding of mothers and daughters.
And that it even happened in Mary Seacole’s life, I thought was interesting’
(emphasis added)(29).

That the case has not been made for a possible daughter will be obvious to
anyone with a basic knowledge of Seacole’s full story. For example, the book
published in 2022 abandons that line of enquiry when stating that ‘[Seacole] had no
immediate family to carry on her legacy (we have no idea what happened to Sally)’
(In Search of Mary Seacole, p302, emphasis added). So, the vexing question
remains for the rest of us who seek to map Sarah’s journey after peace was
negotiated in March 1856. Apparently, Sarah ‘disappeared’ from all records,
strangely failing to reappear even in Seacole’s 1881 will, which acknowledged
various well-to-do friends, as well as her husband’s extended family (that included
owners of human beings). About the same time, another Seacole contemporary,
Scots-Jamaican, Frances Batty Shand (c1815-1885) also left an important will. Batty
Shand was public-spirited in a different way to Seacole. She bequeathed £5,000 to
the Cardiff Infirmary and £1,000 to the Cardiff Institute for the Blind that she had
established (Cardiff Times, 28 February 1885, 3). Frances Batty Shand and her
brother were raised in Scotland, but Sarah’s sketchy existence fitted the more
common profile of attractive poor girls from the Islands. “Although lighter shades
commanded much higher economic, cultural and social status”, Jennifer DeVere
Brody insinuates, rather tongue in cheek, “even the ‘darker-skinned’ mulattaroon was
permitted to become a ‘proper’ (and perhaps propertied) lady provided that
providence procured for her proximity to a white gentleman”(30).

The transaction is not always sexual. In the twentieth century, ‘white gentlemen’ – here the predators take the form of doctors and scientists – stole the body of cancer patient Henrietta Lacks, generating untold wealth and fame from the theft of her cells(31). In death, Mary Jane Grant Seacole has been (figuratively) sliced
and diced to fit the politics, ambitions and fantasies of the followers who stake a claim to her. So, while Seacole may have been technically free in real time and able to dispose of her own toe nail clippings because they belonged to her, her inalienable right to self-identify is denied to her, proving how close to a metaphorical slave auction anyone with the slightest drop of African blood could be. And that is the tragedy of Seacole’s afterlife. She is owned, down to the shade of her skin and the speculative contents of her uterus.

Certainly these days, hot button issues such as profiling exploitative
whiteness and outing the continued use of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of
colour) ‘Otherness’ to mask supremacist activities, are prevalent on social media.
The entrenched lack of diversity in the Western publishing industry, especially
academic output, means the exploitation continuum – authors hiding in full view
behind esoteric language, subjects often priced out of their own legacies, or the
White (mis)representation and (mis)interpretation of the lived experiences of varied
communities and individuals of colour – marches on, but not inexorably. An extreme
example of the wider controversy occurred in April 2022. Wipf and Stock publishers
issued a public apology regarding the publication of Bad and Boujee: Toward a Trap
Feminist Theology
, written by Jennifer M. Buck, with the face of a soul sister on the
front cover. Wipf and Stock ‘pulled the book from circulation’, due to the
‘inappropriateness of a White theologian writing about the experience of Black
women’ (@wipfand stock, 15 April 2022). That debate was costly and humiliating for
one side and uncompromising and triumphant on the other. The market-place is
destined to become more fractured. In simple terms, the wider the knowledge-wealth
gap between the subjects whose identities are stolen and the privileged minority who
cannibalize their histories, the starker will be the distrust created by false, antiracist

Setting aside the modern infantile tug-of-war between the Seacole and the
Nightingale camps regarding whose professional legacy is greatest (emphatically not
the former’s), I suspect Mrs Seacole will continue to attract posthumous accolades in
the future, whether or not the imposed ‘Black’ racial origin classification persists. It is
a post-George Floyd irony that it is still the case that money or kudos motivates
White-led corporations and individuals to exploit trendy ‘Black’ themes. Worse still, is
that extra layer of exploitation in the form of the pernicious White supremacist ‘1/32nd
negro blood’ rule, which begs the perennial question: if ‘White’ is human, then what
am I? The answer, in part, lies with Zora Neale Hurston, who spoke for more than a
few when she remarked, ‘I feel most coloured when I am thrown against a sharp
white background’(33).


1 Unless otherwise stated, all references to Mary Seacole’s memoir are Wonderful Adventures of Mrs
Seacole in Many Lands, Ziggi Alexander and Audrey Dewjee eds. Bristol, 1984.
2 A great deal has been written about the White representation of blackness, not least by Stuart Hall.
Decolonising history, as well as ‘unhousing the colonial archive’ initiatives are now common, e.g.
Steven Blevin’s Living Cargo: How Black Britain Performs Its Past (Minneapolis, 2016). But the
authors of contemporary books about nineteenth century Jamaica were predominantly White men
such as the novelist Anthony Trollope. He judged that ‘the life of coloured women in Jamaica some
years since was certainly too often immoral. They themselves were frequently illegitimate, and they
were not unwilling that their children should be so also. To such a one it was preferable to be a white
man’s mistress than the wife of such as herself’ (Anthony Trollope, The West Indies and The Spanish
Main, London, 1860, pp 86-87).
3 Wonderful Adventures, p72, and Ziggi Alexander, ‘Let It Lie Upon The Table: The Status of Black
Women’s Biography in the UK’ (Gender & History, vol. 2, no.1, Spring 1990, pp22-33). In the
twentieth-century, it was widely assumed that Mrs Seacole was bi-racial. “The Brent [Roots in Britain:
Black and Asian Citizens from Elizabeth 1 to Elizabeth 11] exhibition had a comments book for
visitors, who constantly asked for more information about her. “’Was it true that she had written a
book? I consulted the British Library catalogue,' says [Ziggi] Alexander, ‘and to my absolute shock it
was there!'” (Michael Davie, ‘The memoirs of a Black Florence Nightingale [sic]’, The Observer, 11
March 1984, p52).
4 Translated with an Introduction by Laurent Dubois (London, 2017, p46). It should be noted that
Mbembe has been boycotted for pro-Palestine associations.
5 ‘We will state that the story of the Crimean war is told quite from an original point of view – Mrs.
Seacole’s’ – ‘the self-proclaimed historian of Spring Hill’ (The Atlas, 11 July 1857, 12). For an
interesting analysis of Seacole’s patriotism, see Deidre H. McMahon, “’My Own Dear Sons’:
Discursive Maternity and Proper British Bodies in Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many
Lands” in Other Mothers Beyond the Maternal Ideal, eds. Ellen Bayuk Rosenman and Claudia C.
Klaver, Ohio, 2008. Seacole’s West Indian military connections were extensive and included the
Yorkes who owned large plantations. Although London born, the famous (1854) charge of the heavy
brigade hero, General Sir James Yorke Scarlett, who welcomed her at Aldershot in 1866, was
described by contemporary newspapers as being ‘of Jamaican descent’ (e.g. The Nottinghamshire
Guardian, 13 April 1954, 7). He, and his Jamaican Creole father, are both listed on the UCL slave
compensation database, as is Seacole’s brother-in-law Charles Witton Seacole.
6 Notoriously, she clamoured for a passage to India to be of service to her White ‘sons’ engaged in the
suppression of Indian freedom fighters (the First War of Independence,1857), a conflict that was
labelled by the Imperialists with the racialist misnomer – ‘the Indian Mutiny’. Perhaps she got the idea
from the bombardment of newspaper announcements, from Burnley to Dublin and Newry via London,
regarding British government plans to deploy anywhere from 30-60,000 African troops on the sub-
Continent. For example, ‘The Sunday Times says it is stated to be the intention of Government to
raise several regiments of Africans for service in India. The staff of the new regiments to be
composed of well conducted non-commissioned officers of the three West India regiments. It is
believed that a force of about 30,000 strong can be organised in about six months.’ (Newry Examiner
and Louth Advertiser, 12 December 1857, 3). The Huddersfield Chronicle cited 50,000, as did the
Hampshire Telegraph, Lancaster Guardian and Norfolk News among many others, but the Dublin
Freeman’s Journal claimed the figure to be ‘about 60,000’). It is worth noting that the British had
already established a tradition of conscripting thousands of enslaved people ‘rescued’ from the
Atlantic slave traders and training them for the West |India regiments.
7 Trollope, p117. Interestingly, Trollope took great pains to point out that “even among themselves
[Creole negroes], the word ‘nigger’ conveys their worst term of reproach”, of equal status to the term
‘Africa’ (ibid, pp 55-56). An alternative view had been presented to the Colonial Office by G. T. Gilbert
in 1823 – ‘It will be a lapse of ages before the negroes can even participate of the blessings of
freedom, the very name African must cease to exist in their memories before their customs are
obliterated’; so it seems the planters’ indoctrination had succeeded by the late 1850s when Trollope
visited the island. To be fair to Louisa Grant, Haiti had expelled vast numbers of ‘mulattoes’. The
name-baiting was ubiquitous in Britain also. In 1856, the Illustrated London News (2) reassured its
readers that the Beecher Stowe sponsored performer at Stafford House, London – Mrs E Webb – was
‘not a nigger’ because her father was European.
8 ‘Colourism’ is defined as discrimination against individuals with a darker hue, mainly by people from
the same or related ethnic group. Governor Manchester’s comment on colourism is quoted in Gad J.
Heuman, Between White and Black: Race, Politics, and the Free Coloreds in Jamaica, 1792-1865,
Oxford, 1981, p15. Compare Caroline Randall Williams ‘You Want a Confederate Monument? My
Body Is a Confederate Monument: The black people I come from were owned and raped by the white
people I come from. Who dares to tell me to celebrate them?’ (The New York Times, 26 June 2020).
9 Helen Rappaport, In Search of Mary Seacole: the making of a cultural icon (London, 2022).
10 Wonderful Adventures, p58.
11 One of the most intriguing cases in the twentieth-century was the U.S. civil rights leader Walter F.
White (1893-1955) of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He was a
light-skinned man who posed as White in order to investigate and expose racial violence in the
southern states of the U.S.A.
12 In many other British colonies, and had she not been female, her position might have equalled or
surpassed that of another ‘quadroon,’ Sir James Douglas KCB (1803-1877), the first Governor of the
Colony of British Columbia. Douglas had a Bajan mother, Martha Ann Telfer, who was also classified
as a ‘free coloured’, and his father was again Scottish; a planter and merchant in this case, while
Seacole’s was a soldier.
13 ‘Skin-Tone Trauma: Historical and Contemporary Influences on the Health and Interpersonal
Outcomes of African Americans’ (Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2019;14(5):797-815). It is
possible that a modern example of an undiagnosed skin-tone mental health condition is the case of
Martina Big, the White woman who deliberately took melanin injections to turn ‘Black’ (Metro, “Model
who took melanin injections to change race says white people ‘exploit’ Black people”, 24 June 2020).
14 Based on her published views, Mary Seacole would have strongly protested at being codified by her
minority ‘race’. Logically, she would have hoped to benefit indirectly from the process of ‘legal
whitening’ that conferred a variable scale of citizenship privileges on ‘coloured’ men with a higher
percentage of European blood, which was denied to Creoles who were not of noticeable European
descent. Furthermore, despite joining the Catholic Church in 1848, her contempt for other nationalities
and religious groups, including Catholics, is well documented and features in Aims McGuiness’, Paths
of Empire: Panama and the California Gold Rush (New York, 2008, p94). Bob Marley’s religious view
is quoted in Gregory Stephens, On Racial Frontiers: The New Culture of Frederick Douglas, Ralph
Ellison, and Bob Marley, Cambridge, 1999, p148. There is a great deal of case law that exposes the
human tragedy behind such declarations. In recent years, the most famous was Susie Phipps v
Louisiana (1982), where Phipps, with 97% European ancestry, lost her five-year, $20,000 lawsuit to
be reclassified ‘White’, i.e., the 1/32 nd rule was upheld (The Washington Post, 21 May 1983).
15 Originally published in Ohio in 1858, this edition: Malini Johar Schueller ed. Michigan, 1999. For
details of the 24 October 1859 meeting of ‘the coloured inhabitants of London’, see the syndicated
report in the Inverness Advertiser and Ross-shire Chronicle, 22 November 1859, 2.
16 Dorr’s individual bid for freedom was magnified one hundred times over in the news of a daring,
brave and multiple assault on White hegemony that would have sent shockwaves or dizzying
jubilation across the whole Caribbean region, and Seacole could not have escaped hearing about it.
In 1841, a group of transported Africans took control of the slave ship Creole that was headed for
Dorr’s hometown of New Orleans.The freedom fighters successfully reached the Bahamas and,
helped by hundreds of local boats surrounding the vessel, negotiated a deal with the British. The
majority of the one hundred and thirty-nine self-liberated people took up the offer to resettle in
Jamaica; the details are described in Anita Rupprecht’s “’All We Have Done, We Have Done for
Freedom’: The Creole Slave-Ship Revolt [1841] and the Revolutionary Atlantic” (IRSH 58, 2013, pp.
17 Tricia Martineau Wagner, African American Women of the Old West, Connecticut, 2007, pp1-8 and
William Loren Katz, The Black West, Doubleday, 1971, p130.
18 Steve Bell, “Overlooked No More: Elizabeth A. Gloucester, ‘Richest’ Black Woman and Ally of John
Brown”, The New York Times, 18 September 2019. Lynn M. Hudson, The Making of “Mammy
Pleasant”: A Black Entrepreneur in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco, Chicago, 2003 and W. E.
Burghardt Du Bois, The Gift of Black Folk: The Negroes in the Making of America, Introduction by
Edward F. McSweeney, Boston, 1924, p271-272. Other famous contemporary women include Sarah
Parker Remond (1826-1894), a British citizen, who took a different route; in her case, international
political activism (including, possibly the only person of part African descent in the 1500 female
signatories on the 1866 petition requesting women’s right to vote in the UK), and medical training in
Italy. (Sirpa Salenius, An Abolitionist Abroad: Sarah Parker Remond in Cosmopolitan Europe,
Massachusetts, 2016.)
19 26 November 1856, 4.
20 Victoria Myers, ‘Jackie Sibblies Drury on Mary Seacole and More’, The Interval, 19 February 2019.
In the UK a number of plays were written and / or produced before 2015, including Wonderful
Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands (adapted for the stage by Alan Barker, 1984); Living
Names: Mary Seacole (radio play, n.d.); Black Nightingale: The True Story of Mary Seacole (Michael
Bath, 1989); and Polite Assassins: The Untold Story of Mary Seacole (Roux Gilbear, Birmingham,
2011). Mary Seacole, the opera, was performed several times at the London Opera House in 2000
and 2002.
21 Kay Heath, Ageing by the Book: The Emergence of Midlife in Victorian Britain, New York, 2009,
22 The California bound traveller, Mary Jane Megquier understood this transactional world where the
servant child is commodified, and she was not unusual in claiming that at least one slave (or servant)
girl was an essential component of successful housekeeping. During her short, interrupted journey,
Megquier wrote to her daughter from the Isthmus that ‘I should like a girl about your size to help me’
(emphasis added). When Megquier spotted a little Panamanian girl, she lamented that ‘if I had been
on my return with as much money as those returning, I should have taken her, it is the only thing I
have seen in Panama that I wanted’ (emphasis added), Apron Full of Gold: The Letters of Mary Jane
Megquier From San Francisco, 1849-1856, ed. Robert Glass Cleland, San Marino, 1949, p9 and p17.
23 Wonderful Adventures, p106.
24 Ibid, p130.
25 See Dr Mike Hinton, “Thomas Day and the establishment of the British Hotel, aka ‘Mrs Seacole’s’: a
new source of information”, The UK Association for the History of Nursing Bulletin, vol. 7(1), 2019.
26 Alexis Soyer who saw Sarah often in the Crimea and was quite taken with ‘Sally’ as he called her,
judged her age to be 14 years (as did Florence Nightingale), while Staff Surgeon William Menzies
said she was 16 years old, and Richard Ramsay Armstrong referred to her as the Crimean nurse’s
‘pretty half caste niece’ (In Search of Mary Seacole, p179). There has also been speculation that in
1866, ‘attendant’ Sarah (strangely unrecognised by Seacole’s enthusiastic military admirers), was
present at the Grand Divisional Field Day that was reported in Sheldrake’s Aldershot and Sandhurst
Military Gazette, and which also noted that Seacole was accompanied by her nephew (William James
Kent), as well as the unnamed ‘attendant’ (29 September 1866, 2).
27 Saidiya Hartman uses ‘critical fabulation’ as a creative device to re-imagine and re-stock the
commonly unrecorded histories and experiences of people from BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and
people of colour) communities (my interpretation).
28 Nothing in Seacole’s book supports the Sarah/Sally and Seacole walk in Malta tale. (See Mary
Seacole, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, London 1857, p85 and Wonderful
Adventures, pp130-131). The Jamaican nurse stated that she wanted to surprise and delight any ‘old
friends’ she might encounter at the Hollander’s brief stopover in Malta, where she met ‘some medical
officers who had known me in Kingston; and one of them, Dr. F –, … gave me… a letter of
introduction to Miss Nightingale’. Seacole’s position is made clear at the previous port of call in
Gibraltar, where she stated that ‘I had an idea that I should do better alone, so I declined all offers of
companionship’ (Wonderful Adventures, pp129-130).
29 The Interval, 19 February 2019.
30 Impossible Purities: Blackness, Femininity, and Victorian Culture, Durham, 1998, p17. In Britain, the
age of consent for sexual intercourse was 12 years, exactly the same age for marriage with
permission from a parent or guardian. My search for Sarah/Sally was also unsuccessful. Scanning
British newspapers, I thought I found her: ‘A Coloured Woman Writes a Novel’ (South Wales Echo,
May 1892, 3). But this Sarah (E. Farro) was the African American writer of True Love: A Novel of
English Domestic Life (Chicago, 1891), who was 26 years old and ‘quite black of complexion. Let us
hope that her work may not be in the black books of her reviewers’ (Northern Guardian [Hartlepool], 7
May 1892, 4).
31 Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, London, 2011. The cells of Henrietta Lacks
(1920-1951) were mined without consent or payment. They were the first known human cells to
multiply outside the body. As a result, they were used in global research – IVF, polio, gene mapping,
and much, much more. Henrietta was honoured by the World Health Organisation in 2021.
32 A ‘Rethinking Whiteness in 21st-century American Studies’ webinar was organised by the American
Studies Network (18 February 2022). Also see Alexandra Alter and Elizabeth A. Harris, ‘A White
Author’s Book About Black Feminism Was Pulled After a Social Media Outcry’, The New York
Times,15 April 2022, and Anastasia Reesa Tomkin, ‘Unpacking the False Allyship of White Racial
Justice Leaders’ (Non-Profit Quarterly, 14 December 2020) for a glimpse of possible future
33 Zora Neale Hurston, ‘How It Feels to Be Colored Me’ (World Tomorrow, 11 May 1928, pp664-667).

© Ziggi Alexander October 2022

Ziggi Alexander CBE, MBA, MA, BA (Hons.) is a Dominican-British writer and community
researcher. She co-produced the Roots in Britain: Black and Asian Citizens from Elizabeth 1
to Elizabeth 11 exhibition (1980), co-edited the first modern edition of Wonderful
Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands (1984), co-organised the 1981 Mary Seacole
Centenary Graveside Celebration, and was the keynote speaker at the 2005 Mary Seacole
Bicentennial Celebration at Westminster Cathedral.
She is partially responsible for the 20th-century misinformation about Mrs Seacole’s African

Published on courtesy of Kwaku. Images courtesy of Ziggi Alexander