Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education, recently announced an overhaul of the history curriculum (of England, Wales and Northern Ireland) to concentrate on traditional historical figures such as Oliver Cromwell and Winston Churchill and to remove figures deemed to be less important, such as the Crimean War nurse, Mary Seacole.
A motley collection of historians have weighed into the debate in support of Gove, denigrating Seacole and plans to erect a statue in her memory. The Daily Mail talks about ‘The Making of a PC Myth’. On the other side of the argument a group of MPs have just tabled a motion to retain her in the curriculum, and publications like the Guardian and The Voice have been articulate in her defense.
One depressing element of the debate is that it often sets up an argument of Nightingale versus Seacole. as if there were only room in the historical pantheon for one nurse, or only enough bronze for one statue, and it sets me wondering about who history is for, and the complex and subjective mechanics by which some get remembered and many forgotten.
For those of you unfamiliar with her name, Mary Seacole was woman of Jamaican/Scottish origin who, after tending the sick in Panama, paid her own way to the Crimea, where she set up a ‘British Hotel’ with food and drink and a clinic for soldiers. She also tended the wounded on the battlefields, sometimes under fire. So popular was she among the military, that when she returned to Britain bankrupt, a three day fundraising concert was set up in her honour which 80,000 people attended and Queen Victoria supported. The press of the time lauded her, and she wore a Crimea Medal given to her by the military. By the time Mary Seacole died in the late 19th century, her celebrity had faded to obscurity. It is only the last few decades that her story has been rediscovered and circulated. She is the only black figure on the school curriculum not associated with slavery or the Civil Rights movement.
Not only is it harder for women and minorities to make an impact in a world they do not rule, but even those who have made an impact find it hard to stay in the public eye, their reputations subject to a constant whittling and belittling. Seacole is not truly ‘important’, say Gove’s supporters.
Important to who? She was important enough to the soldiers she cared for that they wanted to commemorate her. Vitally, she shows the historical diversity of Britain, a diversity that some make out happened only in the last few decades. She also stands for the revelation that a black women in the nineteenth century could be wealthy and autonomous enough to dispense charity and care.
If we don’t see ourselves reflected in our history, we absorb the subliminal message that people like us achieve little.
When Gove picks out Oliver Cromwell and Churchill as examples of who is important, he is a male parliamentarian singling out other male parliamentarians, he is mirroring himself to some degree. Not to belittle anything Churchill or Cromwell may have achieved (and Cromwell achieved much bloody slaughter alongside his honours), but I have a problem with this notion of ‘importance’, as if it is something we can measure objectively.
A man born into wealth and privilege who enters politics and enacts legislation which effects the lives of millions may be doing something important, but he not doing anything exceptional. And as for the kings and queens who Gove is so keen for children to learn the names of, they may have exercised immense power, but that power came to them through the accident of birth or arranged marriage.
I am more interested in people from more modest backgrounds who confounded expectations and had an impact on their times through the exercise of their innate values and talents. Florence Nightingale was one such woman. Mary Seacole another. We need both in full view.
If you feel that Mary Seacole deserves to keep her place on the National Curriculum, you can sign an online petition here