Mary Seacole and Victorian attitudes to race
by Anna Anastassiou
In an essay for my ‘Victorian Values’ history module, I took it upon myself to explore what the life of Mary Seacole (1805–1881) reveals about Victorian attitudes to race. With an aim to understand the prejudices she faced as a Jamaican nurse – primarily known for helping British troops during the Crimean War (1853-56) – I could additionally analyse the roots, continuity and change of opinions of race held by the British at the time.
My interest in this topic began in studying Victorian Britain as a whole; as I undertook most of my education in Greece, my knowledge of other countries’ history was limited, which is why I am now so fascinated by different cultures. Simultaneously, I chose Mary Seacole as my influential figure because I was placed in the ‘Seacole House’ in secondary school and realised I knew very little about her. Racial views are crucial today, and I wanted to explore their roots in British society and their emergence into our culture, which is why the university certainly believed it to be an important topic within the module.
Although Seacole was a unique woman and is not representative of Victorian opinions towards all Jamaicans or Africans, I argue that there were three phases to people’s attitudes towards her.
- Before Seacole had established her reputation as a hero, Victorians were generally discriminatory towards her. For example, both the War Office and Florence Nightingale initially refused her request to join the nurses travelling to Crimea, leading her to travel alone and set up the British Hotel independently to support soldiers.
- Following this and her work at the battles at Redan, Chernaya and Sevastpol, she began to gain respect. Seacole was awarded medals internationally and even gained financial support from senior military officers. and royalty such as the Prince of Wales. In turn, civilians became increasingly tolerant of her following the publication of her autobiography in 1857.
- Surprisingly though, after Seacole’s death and the death of her supporters, she was largely forgotten and replaced in public memory with figures such as Florence Nightingale, who seemed a better candidate to represent British values in nurses, until the 20th century when Seacole again gained recognition.
Since I measured attitudes to race largely by individuals’ opinions, my evidence came not only from secondary sources, but also largely from primary ones. For example, in the essay I analysed the competing publications of contemporaries John Stuart Mill and Thomas Carlyle; where Carlyle prioritised the British economy over any moral implications for non-whites, Mill argued that Carlyle had done “the true work of the devil” in assuming black inferiority and in dehumanizing victims of imperial expansion. In this module I was also taught to navigate new archives (such as Victorian newspapers) which helped me identify public opinion at the time. As for secondary sources, from various modules I have learned to research, distinguish, and critically discuss articles, which I applied to my work as well.
Overall, the research that I undertook for this essay taught me the origins of racism (though this was not a term used at the time) and the gradual process of its evolution; over the Victorian period, racist attitudes became progressively fewer, but engrained prejudices continued to taint society. Seacole had to work much harder than any white person to gain respect, which I realise continues to apply to today’s society as well. Racial tensions are constantly debated and disputed, which is why figures such as Mary Seacole can still be used to raise awareness of injustice.
- Carlyle, Thomas, ‘Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question’, Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country (London, Vol. XL., February 1849).
- Kinser, B. E., ‘FEARFUL SYMMETRY: HYPOCRISY AND BIGOTRY IN THOMAS CARLYLE’S “OCCASIONAL DISCOURSE[S] ON THE NEGRO QUESTION”’, Studies in the Literary Imagination, 45(1), 2012, pp. 42, https://search.proquest.com/docview/1435825308?accountid=12152 (accessed 20/12/2019).
Bio: As a History student at Loughborough University, I have had the opportunity to grow into an independent and confident historian, whilst also being given the chance to expand my knowledge into other topics. From my accompanying modules in International Relations, Politics, Business and Sociology, I have strengthened my range of skills. I have enjoyed learning about new cultures and how external factors, such as politics, have influenced them over time. Throughout my journey, I have realised that my passion lies in many forms of research, its contribution to business and making a difference to today’s society.
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