The Guardian have published an article I wrote about Mary Seacole being kicked off the schools curriculum by education secretary Michael Gove. You can read it here and below.
Crimean war nurse Mary Seacole overcame racial prejudice in the Victorian era to care for British soldiers, and returned to Britain a heroine, as 80,000 attended a four-day fundraising gala in her honour. Despite this, I knew nothing of the Jamaican-born “doctress” when I was growing up. A figure who was once famous for her service to Britain had been forgotten, and her grave, in Kensal Green, had fallen into disrepair.
The fact that today’s schoolchildren know all about Mary Seacole is largely due to the efforts of their parents’ generation to resurrect her story. She was one of many historical figures such as composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor whose achievements lay undiscovered until activists like Flip Fraser began to promote their stories in the 1980s.
Today, she is an inspiration for people of all backgrounds, and an important figure in nursing and military history. But it seems that she may be about to be forgotten again, because education secretary Michael Gove has let it be known that he intends to axe her from the school curriculum.
Rightwingers have long denigrated Seacole as a symbol of the “political correctness” and multiculturalism they loathe. And Florence Nightingale biographer Lynn McDonald has campaigned to downplay Seacole’s achievements. It’s like the town is only big enough for one Victorian nurse. This mentality rejects the wide public support for both nurses.
For the right, it seems the final straw came last autumn, when Lambeth council granted planning permission for a three-metre high statue of Seacole outside St Thomas’s hospital looking across the Thames to parliament. When built, this would also be the only statue of a black British female historical figure in London.
If Gove gets his way, other historical figures look set to be cut from the curriculum, including Oladuah Equiano, the slave-turned-abolitionist campaigner whose writings helped pave the way for emancipation. Nightingale herself and pilot Amy Johnson could also be erased in a dramatically slimmed-down curriculum that would focus on the likes of Oliver Cromwell and Winston Churchill.
The threat against Seacole has sparked a petition by Operation Black Vote to keep her on the curriculum, which has already attracted over 5,500 signatories.
Supporters include Zadie Smith, Kwame Kwei-Armah, Michael Rosen, and Jesse Jackson. But the issue is bigger than one person. It’s about the government’s attempt to eradicate “social” history and figures that symbolise change. Social reformers Robert Owen and Elizabeth Fry are also for the chop. Presumably Gove believes tackling Dickensian poverty and reforming prisons sets a bad example to young people.
The problem with this 1950s back-to-basics view is that it misses out on the rich and diverse tapestry of Britain’s history. It was the values of 1950s puritanism that, consciously or unconsciously, excluded the likes of Seacole and Equiano from a history viewed through the eyes of the white male conservative. And it is to these values that Gove appears to want to return.
The 2012 Olympics were surely evidence that he cannot turn back the clock to a bygone age. Jessica Ennis, Mo Farah and Louis Smith encapsulated multicultural Britain at its best, and the latest population census shows what a diverse nation Britain is becoming.
In the 1850s the famed Times reporter WH Russell said of Mary Seacole: “Let England not forget one who nursed her sick, who sought out her wounded to aid and succour them, and who performed the last offices for some of her illustrious dead.”
Let us not forget Seacole for a second time – nor Nightingale and the social reformers who did so much to help the most disadvantaged and had such an impact on British history.
By Lester Holloway @brolezholloway