Jamaican Woman Charts Path to English Glory

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Jamaican Woman Charts Path to English Glory

Mary Seacole: The Most Famous Black Woman of the Victorian Age

By Jane Robinson (Caroll & Graff, $25)

Even if you recognize Mary Seacole's name from history (and many Americans won't), deciding who to believe she was remains a quagmire, for she was among the more slippery characters of the Victorian age. To many, she was a beloved nurse and mother figure to British soldiers in need. To others, including her contemporary, the prudish Florence Nightingale, she was "a woman of bad character," a charlatan. Biographical information on her early life is thin. But by any account, for a Jamaican woman of her time, she was remarkable.

Jane Robinson's Mary Seacole: The Most Famous Black Woman of the Victorian Age should help introduce American readers to this colorful historical character. But Americans may have a problem comprehending the subtitle of Jane Robinson's new biography. Mary Seacole? How can her fame challenge that of Harriet Tubman? Or Sojourner Truth? The problem for Americans is that Mary Seacole's renown was won on the battle fields of the Crimean War of 1854-56 - a conflict of French, English and Russian imperialist ambitions in which the United States played no part.

Tennyson's elegiac poem "The Charge of the Light Brigade" commemorated the Crimean dead; Nightingale emerged from the Crimean War as the pioneer of modern nursing techniques. Another British subject, Mary Seacole, also achieved fame as a nurse - but she was a far more effusive, robust and occasionally ribald personality than the iconic Nightingale.

Born in 1805 in Kingston, Jamaica, Seacole was the child of a Black woman and a White army officer. Her mother was the local medicine woman; from her, Seacole inherited a grasp of indigenous roots, herbs and cures. Seacole established herself, in Kingston, as a doctress and hotel keeper, and at an early age traveled to the Bahamas, Haiti, Cuba and, perhaps most importantly, London. All her life Seacole was a British patriot, regarding herself as Jamaican second, English first. She was also well aware of her upper-caste identity as a half-White Caribbean.

Few could have imagined the heights to which Seacole's uncritical British patriotism would take her. When she wrote her 1857 autobiography, Mrs. Seacole's Wonderful Adventures in Many Lands, she scarcely mentions her early life, but it seems she was always flamboyant, and possibly snobbish. She achieved a kind of master stroke in terms of social status when at age 31 she married Edward Horatio Hamilton Seacole in Kingston.

Sexual relations and long-term liaisons between White men and Black women were fairly common in the Caribbean at the time, but marriage was practically unheard of. …